I love to have fun! Most people do. There is nothing inherently wrong with having fun. Fun is a good thing. However, one of the things I hear most often from parents regarding why their students are not as plugged in to the student ministry of a church is that it is just not “fun.” Again, fun is good, but I think somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the fundamental (yes, I know that is a bad word in some circles) purposes of student ministry. Hold onto your hats: it is not the student ministry’s primary responsibility to entertain or provide fun for your students. (Gasp!) To further intensify your shock, allow me to drop another nugget of wisdom on your head too: it is also not your primary responsibility to provide fun or entertainment for your students. (Double Gasp!)
Before I get any of the myriads of dreaded responses that could (and normally do) follow statements like the above, allow me to explain. The Bible makes it clear that it is God who owns all (Psalm 50:10). He does, however, graciously allow us to steward some of His possessions for a season. Children are included in the possessions of which He allows us to be such stewards. While I realize that it is often difficult to think of our children in such terms, in order to gain a better understanding of the role of student ministry, such thinking is vital. When we view our children as God views our children, then (and only then) are we prepared to raise them as He would have us.
So, how would God have us raise the children with whom He has blessed us? A quick look a Deuteronomy 6 begins to answer that question for us. God’s design is that parents are the primary disciplers of their children. Make sure you get that. God’s design (Deuteronomy 6:7) is that parents are the PRIMARY disciplers of their children. For those of you wondering, this includes students as well. Where does God’s design fit in with today’s contemporary ideas that parents are to be primarily sources of entertainment? Where does Deuteronomy 6 fit within the culture today that essentially views parents as nothing more than financial providers for their students? Where does it fit within the line of thinking that sees parents’ primary role as that of friends to their teenagers? Where does it fit in the mindset that views parents’ primary role as being that of an athletic achievement facilitator? The answer: Deuteronomy 6 is counter-cultural to the role that many parents currently play in the lives of their students.
The primary role of parenting (outside of basic provisions which were taken as a given in Deuteronomy 6) is that of discipler. If spiritual formation is the primary role of parenting, then what is the primary role of student ministry? I’m glad you asked. The primary role of student ministry is to assist parents in the spiritual formation of their students. Yes, this means that student ministry should encompass all the work of Christian ministry (evangelism, discipleship, prayer, worship, fellowship, and ministry). Some of you read that and think, “Amen!” while others read that and wonder, “What does that mean for the student who does not come from a Christian home? Isn’t the role that you mentioned too limited to reach those students?” Both are great responses, and in a subsequent post, I will deal with the latter. For now, though, let us focus predominantly on parents as the primary spiritual disciplers of their students.
In order for student ministry to be successful at assisting parents in the spiritual formation of their students, a few things need to be clear. First, parents need to accept their role in the discipleship process. (I know, nothing like stating the obvious, but it is needed.) Think about this for a minute: if a student is actively engaged in a sport, that student practices that sport over and over. In fact, that student often practices that sport for several hours a day several days a week. Why? The answer is simple: the student practices so faithfully because he (or she) wants to improve in that sport. Great value is placed on the student improving in that sport. Why do we not commonly see parents place as much emphasis on the discipleship of their students as they do the improvement of their students in sports (or other activities)? The answer is less complex than we would like to admit, but more condemning than we would like to accept as well: parents do not place the value on their student’s discipleship because they do not value the spiritual formation of their students to the same degree that they value other aspects of their own (or their students’ lives). Accepting that is a hard pill to swallow, but truth that is hard to accept is still truth. Too often parents have abdicated their role of the primary spiritual influencers of their children to the church, and then wondered what happened when their students do not turn out as they would have liked. The only way for this trend to change is for parents to once again realize and accept the responsibility of being the primary spiritual influencers of their students.
Often the success of a student ministry is measured by whether or not students want to attend. That is a faulty measurement. Public schools are not measured by whether or not students WANT to attend. They are measured by the academic (or athletic depending on where you live) success that their students demonstrate on standardized tests. My point is this: why as parents and other adults do we use such a faulty measuring tool? I realize that public schools have the benefit of compulsory attendance laws, but I also realize that while students may complain about going to school, they still go. Why? Because it is what is expected of them. As parents, you have set the standard that they will go to school. It is what they are supposed to do. They know that. Your students know that they will attend school for years before they are prepared to enter society at large. For student ministry to be successful, we have to stop allowing our students to dictate whether or not they will participate. (What?!?!?!) How do we do that as parents? We make our own spiritual development a priority. The reality is that even the absolute best student ministries in the world will have times that are not the most entertaining or fun. You want to know why? Because not everything that occurs in the spiritual development of students (or anyone else) is fun or entertaining! Think about that for a minute. When a student in a local school commits suicide, our students do not need fun. They need to know that while a life was lost and questions may abound, there is a loving God to whom they can turn for comfort. When a student’s parents are going through a divorce, they do not need fun. They need to know that while their world has been rocked with uncertainty, there is a God who is in control and will never leave them for another! When a student shares that they have an eating disorder, they do not need fun. They need to know that while others may not always view them with significance and value, there is a Savior who died and has given them more significance and value than they can ever possibly imagine. When a student reveals that they have been sexually active, they do not need fun. They need to know that there is a loving God who waits with arms wide open to receive them and offer forgiveness. When a student reveals that they have been sexually abused, they do not need fun. They need to know that there is a Savior who earnestly desires to rescue and set them free from the pain and bondage of their past. When a student is diagnosed with a season-ending injury or a life-threatening illness, they do not need fun. They need to be pointed to the God who brings healing, hope, restoration, recovery, and ultimate deliverance! Please get this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ that gives wicked, rebellious, spiritually dead people life in abundance far surpasses in its infinite worth the value of mere fun or entertainment!
So, what is the role of student ministry today? It is the same as it has always been: to partner with parents in the spiritual formation of their students. How do we achieve success in student ministry today? The short answer is: apart from parents accepting, embracing, and valuing their role and responsibility, we do not. When parents do, however, accept, embrace, and value their role, we see success in student ministry because parents are actively involved in the discipleship process by leading their students to internalize their faith and share it with others.