I spent the first three years of college in the business school at the University of Arkansas where the focus of my degree was transportation and logistics. Many of our discussions focused on Wal-Mart, which isn't surprising considering Wal-Mart headquarters is nearby, and the business school is named after its founder, Sam Walton.
The bulk of our study of Wal-Mart centered on their vast distribution network and technologically advanced distribution centers. It is an incredible thing to see this massive web of conveyer belts at work. At that time they could do things that no other company could do because of the efficiencies their distribution system allowed them to accomplish.
This distribution system was a main driver in their ability to expand into new areas quickly as well as keep their prices lower than most competitors because they were able to get products from manufacturers to the store shelves at an incredible speed. This is a great way to do business, but not a great way to do student ministry. Yet, there are many who approach student ministry with a similar mindset—a conveyer belt production mentality.
A common approach in student ministry is to say, "When my students graduate and leave for college, what do I want them to look like?" This question sounds great. I love the forward-thinking aspect of it. But the unintended consequence of this question is that our student ministries look more like a distribution system of conveyer belts made to form the character of a student rather than a living organism where Jesus freely works in the lives of students on an individual basis.
In order to create the desired college freshman, we back up and establish a list of what students need to do and what they need to avoid doing. From there, the belief is if sixth graders are placed on the ministry conveyer belt (and they stick with the process), by the time they graduate, they will know how to be good Christian boys and girls.
But creating good Christian boys and girls isn't the goal of a student ministry. "Good Christians" are produced by constantly feeding students information about what they should and shouldn't do. It's creating for them a list that they can complete and when they complete the list, they look good, and it makes the leader feel successful.
The unfortunate part of this is that they'll never be able to complete the list, only leading them to a life of spiritual failure and spiritual depression. Why? Because they are led to an impossible standard of living instead of being led to Christ. This model of student ministry teaches them to trust in themselves and what they can accomplish rather than trusting in what Jesus has accomplished for them.
I am not advocating the abandonment of the commands that God has clearly given that our students need to know. What I am advocating is that healthy student ministries make an intentional shift to apply these truths through the lens of the gospel. There are three ways you can do this.
First, help students develop an understanding of their sin. This is especially true for ones who placed their faith in Jesus at an early age. Sadly, many (among adults as well) forget what it was like to be rescued from their sin. A reality for students is that they will never understand the depth of their salvation if they don't understand the depth of their sin.
As I speak in student ministries across the country, I am constantly reminded that students don't know what they were saved from beyond a simple answer of "I was saved from my sin." While true, they don't understand and many have never even heard that, before Christ, they were enemies of God, separated from Him, hateful toward Him, and not seeking Him. They don't exist in a state of neutrality where they are trying to choose Jesus or not. They exist in a state of sin where they are enslaved and defined by it.
I remember being approached by a youth worker at a church after preaching on this very topic. Her statement to me was that they had to do a lot of "damage control" because the topic was so heavy. She told me that her students had "never heard anything like that before and it really affected them." I explained to her that is the exact reason why I chose to preach on that topic.
We rob students of the joy of their salvation when they don't know what they've been saved from, and the reconciling work of Christ means much more when a student understands the depth of brokenness in the relationship that needed repair. The result is students who begin to understand the depth of their salvation, begin to fall more in love with Jesus because they see "behind the scenes" of what God really did for them.
Second, bring behavioral and lifestyle issues back to Jesus, always. This may sound simple, but the easy thing to do as a student pastor is to grab a verse and tell them what to do. The difficult, and better, thing to do is to draw it back to Jesus and the gospel.
Let's take the issue of purity as an example. Here are some common ways that this issue is handled in student ministry: focus students to verses about how a believer's body is a temple, instruct them that sex should be saved until marriage, tell them the physiological dangers that exist for sexually active people, or guilt them into obedience by talking about how God isn't honored with their sexual immorality. In principle, I would agree with all of these things.
However, when an issue is handled in this way it places the focus on the student and the sin rather than Jesus and the righteousness He has already earned for your students. Here are some ways to handle this same issue while keeping Jesus at the center: Focus students toward their identity as a believer and that God has declared them pure through Christ, help them to see that Jesus' death on the cross not only forgives them of sexual immorality but also empowers them to live a life of purity, teach them that God's grace is sufficient for them when mistakes are made, Jesus' sacrifice takes away their sin and the guilt, help them to realize that the Christian life isn't about trying harder but about dying to self and Jesus living through them.
This is a process that can be used with any issue, but it is difficult because it takes more time in preparation and more time for these truths to sink deeply into the hearts of your students. You will have to frequently connect the dots for them. Until your students know that you are going to connect it with Jesus before you say it, you haven't done it enough. When they expect it, they will begin to piece it together on their own even when you're not there.
Third, help them to see their identity through the grace of God rather than their personal failures. Help them to see that God's power is with them and He has equipped them to live out what He has commanded them to do. Constantly point them to the truth that through Christ they have been declared holy before God. It is finished. Then, lead them to live in light of that declaration.
Student ministry isn't meant to be a conveyer belt that attempts to produce students who all look the same and act the same. Your students are all different and their path of discipleship will be different. Healthy student ministries are Character Transforming ministries whose goal is to help students stare at Jesus allowing Him to transform their hearts and inform their decisions. The result is a group of students who are reproducing disciples of Jesus that view their lives as tools for God's glory.
This blog is an excerpt from Ben Trueblood's book Student Ministry That Matters. He wrote the book to help student ministry leaders like you answer the question "Is my student ministry healthy?" You can find out more information about the book and begin your discovery of the 3 Elements of a Healthy Student Ministry here.
Ben Trueblood is the director of LifeWay Student Ministry.
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