Reinventing Student Ministry

Recently I had the honor of participating in the ReInventing Youth Ministry Conference at Southern Seminary. I enjoyed catching up with old friends, including some phenomenal student pastors and Dr. Troy Temple, who teaches at SBTS. I finally met in the flesh Dr. Dave Adams, a legend in student ministry.

Wherever I go, whether I am speaking with a local church and its leaders or a gathering of student pastors, one thing is clear in all these discussions. And that one thing was the point of this weekend:
student ministry in the Western Church needs a revolution. Not a tweaking. Not an enhancing. A revolution. Okay, some believe it needs annihilation, but I am more prone to think we need a revolution.

On Friday night something remarkable happened. One of the founders of what is probably the largest, most influential student ministry organizations in my lifetime made a confession. Wayne Rice, who co-founded Youth Specialties, said this in part: “We got what we wanted. We turned youth ministry into the toy department of the church. Churches now hire professionals to lead youth ministry. We got relevance but we created a generation of teenagers who are a mile wide and are an inch deep.”

That, my friends, is a remarkable confession. Why do so many who grow up in church not maintain a healthy commitment to the local church when they are on their own? Because we created a youth ministry culture that taught them to do so. We have not equipped students to be adults, who understand the gospel and live as missionaries. We have not created a love for the body of Christ as much as a love for events and activities. We created a “cool” subculture where they could be treated like the center of the universe and given a bunch of stuff. And not enough Jesus, Scripture, or character.

I am tired of meeting young adults who tell me what they remember from their youth group experience is “invite a friend” and “don’t have sex.”

To his credit, Wayne Rice then argued for three changes:
1. Turn student ministry back over to the church. Youth pastors should be seeking to work themselves out of a job as they help youth become incorporated into the life of the church.
2. We can no longer ignore the role of the parents.
3. We can offer them nothing better than the gospel

I am really trying at this point not to inject a great deal of sarcasm. I will instead say how much I appreciate the fact that this leader has admitted the abject failure of so much of youth ministry over the past generation. I could add so much about cultural influences, about how leaders in youth ministry over a generation have been captive to the immediate culture and seemingly unable to step back and see that immediate, short term “success” must always be weighed against both the Word of God and the long term implications of a given emphasis or activity. But that will have to be considered another day.

I want to agree with Wayne Rice. We need a new paradigm. I want to offer my thoughts on what that paradigm should emphasize:

First, God. We need a new vision of God. his vastness, His involvement in everything, His power, His love and justice. If your students have a lot better grasp on who you are as the student pastor than who God is as the mighty creator of the universe who sustains the world by the word of his power, you have a problem. If your students understand the latest stats on sexuality in America more than they know the attributes of God and how He is King over all of life, you have a serious problem. We need student pastors, national and parachurch leaders who are better at theology than at new ideas. Wayne noted that the founders of Young Life said it is a sin to make Christianity boring. Agreed. And it is a greater sin to make Christianity silly, which is what has happened. We must exalt a great God and give focus to His Word. We need less Christian subculture and more Biblical worldview.

Second, the gospel. The next thing you should read beyond Scripture is not a book on youth ministry. Read Gospel by J.D. Greear. Study The Story by Spread Truth at We have taken the good news of the gospel and taken it off the headlines of our ministries where it should be always, and we have put it in the advice column part of our youth groups. We pull the gospel out to give advice rather than showing students how Jesus is the hero of all of Scripture, all of life, all the parts of their lives, and how the gospel makes sense of everything. Let me remind you that in newspapers, advice columns are next to the cartoons. And that is what we do with the gospel, putting it next to an ipod giveaway instead of showcasing it always as the main event, the one thing that is constantly newsworthy in your ministry. We need a radical, Christocentric transformation, understanding the gospel is for salvation AND sanctification, for saved and unsaved alike. Jesus is the answer to all of life-not the thin, superficial, subcultural Jesus, but the Jesus who cares for the broken and rebukes the self-righteous: the children-loving, disciple-calling, leper-healing, Pharisee-rebuking, humble child born and ultimately the reigning Lord Jesus.

The message of God is central to all of Scripture, all of creation, all of history, and if we rightly understand Christianity, all of life. Jesus and His work on the cross speaks to everything from attitude (see Philippians 2) to forgiveness (see Ephesians 4), from how we understand finances (see 2 Cor to how we deal with sexual temptation (1 Cor 6), or from how we deal with relationships of the same sex (see Paul and Timothy in 2 Tim 2:1-2) to how we understand marriage (Eph 5:25). Our encouragement in facing persecution for Christ is the gospel (Acts 4:23-31) and our instruction in how to live all of life (2 Cor 10:9-21) is founded in the gospel. So, if students get nothing else but Jesus in His glory and greatness, they have gotten enough. Give them the message of God so they can spend their lives living out the mission of God.

Third, the goal. The goal of student ministry is to develop disciples who see the world as missionaries and live as missionaries. The goal is not to have a great event and have a lot of buzz. Just because organizations like Youth Specialties gets a big crowd at their meetings does not make it significant for the Kingdom of God in eternity. My point is not to be critical of YS or any other youth cottage industry (I have never even been to a YS gathering, I just observe all around me in youth ministry the effects of what Wayne Rice said at the conference). This means we do less student ministry that is based on the lowest common denominator. This means we will intentionally involve parents at a much greater level in our ministries. It means we will magnify marriage more than dating and maturity more than activity. It means you score success in long-term disciples. It means to help students to grow and to develop their own plan for gospel impact now. If you help individual students to develop a plan for gospel advance in the context of your local church you, will in fact help them to hear from God and be confident in their planning and thus to be better prepared about college, career, etc. this means your role may be less to be the Pied Piper to students and more a developer of leaders who can help students develop uniquely.

Or, it could mean that your focus is not primarily to plan events or even to be a great speaker, but to help student see themselves as artists who were created by God to be remarkable in some way for the glory of God and the sake of the gospel.

Fourth, the gathering. Connect to the whole church, across generations. The generation of teens today is not only the largest, it is also the most fatherless. We must connect students to the larger church and not function as a parachurch ministry within a church building. Students need older believers in their lives. We need a Titus 2 revolution where older men teach younger guys and older women teach younger ladies.

I would love your thoughts. I try really hard not to simply criticize well-meaning people who have tried to help young people. Anybody can take a hammer and tear something down, but we need people to help build up laborers for the Kingdom. I have made more than my share of mistakes. But it is time for a revolution, with the gospel of Jesus Christ at her center.

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  1. Mike Landrum   •  

    AMEN & AMEN!
    Now what? Which groups of people need this message? What is the most effective way to communicate this message to needed groups? For some, “If it isn’t broke don’t fix it” applies here. The need for some is to see their shallowness. Yes, many are helping this to happen through research, articles, books, etc. When a pastor cannot find a youth pastor that sings any other song than this one maybe we will have the attention of pastors. Unfortunately some of the brethren will be/have been fired over this reformation. The national gate-keepers need to continue to spread the reformation news. Maybe it is time for a “Great Commission Youth Ministry Committee.”

  2. Joe Delph   •  

    As I read your thoughts I found myself agreeing many times. Being a YM veteran for almost ten years, I have gone through the same progression o thought. Fortunately in my current context of ministry, teens an their parents alike are catching the same vision. Students are craving Discipleship and parents want to know how to better parent Great Commission children. Focus is shifting slowly, and it is lasting. I think we jus might be on to the reformation of youth ministry into a whole new era of bring up strong believers in the faith. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Johnny Caruso   •  

    This is my 34th year in studnet ministry. It is about time someone comes out withthe truth. I relized the very thing you are saying about 20 years ago when my first daughter came through our student mnistry. Was I going to play games or make disciples. I find it interesting that even many years ago now when I attended seminary SWBTS we were taught the value of making parents apart of the student ministry. Good for you and all the faithful who have as I, were made to feel slow and not so cool as the other student ministry because we did not step in line. The real relevant thing is student ministry is God’s unchanging Word.

  4. Bruce McKechnie   •  

    This article was, like, totally awesome!

    “We turned youth ministry into the toy department of the church”. What a great sentence. Reid’s assertion that “youth ministry” has become youth centered instead of God centered is dead on. I wanted to stand up and cheer when I was at Sinclair Ferguson’s church when he gave a charge to young people going on a short term mission trip. He said (more eloquently than I)that when they returned, the church was not primarily interested in how the trip blessed THEM, but how the folks they ministered to where affected by the gospel. I’ve heard “ministry reports” to the church which sounded like the trips were for their personal therapy rather than actually doing something for the Kingdom.

    Reid’s piece should be required reading for all church leadership who wish to grow mature disciples.

  5. Alvin reid   •  

    Thanks all for the comments. Mike, let’s talk more about this. I am giving much time on my sabbatical to this issue. We need to keep raising the bar.

  6. Scott Reeder   •  

    When I was in Bible College the youth ministry department insisted that I serve my internship at an approved sight (church). All of the approved sights were only located at churches with highly funded youth ministries and staffs. Of course all of the approved sights had big budgets, activity/program based youth ministries, and an emphasis on a professionally trained youth ministry staff. I was told that I would not be able to serve my hours of youth internship in my small inner city SBC church.

    I served under a Godly SBC pastor who had been on staff 20 years with that church. I had a volunteer staff of parents and church leaders who ministered together with me to the students and their families. About eighty percent of our students were low income and lived in unchurched homes.

    Ministry for me was sometimes going to court with a young man, reporting for a young lady that her father molested her, fixing a box from the food pantry for a student to bring home, or trying to find a warm place to sleep for a student whose family just got evicted. I preached my first funeral for a mother who overdosed on drugs. We could not afford to send them on $1,500 a head mission trips, $300 a week youth camps, or throw Friday night pizza parties in our youth canteen outfitted with pool tables, soda fountains, and espresso machines.

    Week in week out I led volunteer ministry to these 40 – 50 students. When I could I would bring them to free youth events (like when Dr. Reid visited our city to come and speak). I couldn’t fund big programs and activities, I simply taught them that God loved them, that we loved them, and we did our best to faithfully teach them the word of God.

    Please don’t miss my point – I was told at a major SBC seminary (Bible College) that I could only do my YM intern hours at an “approved sight” that had an approved student ministry program in place. Another words I would need to leave this small inner city church to serve in a large middle/upper class youth ministry, in order to be a YM major at this college.

    The staff at this bible college is effectively pumping out Youth Ministry graduates who only have experience with the kind of ministries that there professors lead and have led – high budget – large program and activity based ministries. Ironically, many of them will end up serving in small churches with little or no budget beyond their part-time salaries, and will need to learn more than anything how to teach and train students with the Gospel.

    Being a minister and a professor Dr. Reid well knows that any revolution in youth ministry will start when the staff and leadership in our bible colleges rethink youth ministry. I finally changed majors and appealed to the dean to allow me to do my missions internship hours at my local church – he did. I have two children of college age who have interest in Christian ministry and I will not send them to this Bible College to learn this mega-church, numbers based ministry philosophy where these same professors are still teaching. Youth & Family Ministry certainly needs a revolution and much of it it starts with the ministry philosophies taught in our colleges.

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