Shortly after we got married, my wife and I found ourselves in a corn field…driving. As you can imagine, this was NOT our intention. We were actually on our way to a family reunion when we realized that we had made some kind of mistake. We both looked at each other wondering how in the world we got there. Then, we did what you could imagine: we kept driving (ok, not really, but I wanted to see if you were paying attention). We stopped and evaluated some things about the trip so we could get back on course. We asked ourselves how we had gotten to that point.
If you are involved in student ministry at all, then you have heard the alarming numbers of students who leave the faith once they leave high school. How did we get to this point? How did we get to the place where one of the most well-funded ministries in most churches became so ineffective at long-term results? While what you will read is not exhaustive, I do think it adds to the plethora of answers that have been offered by others.
Undoubtedly, you have heard the voices who purport the various reasons as to why student ministry is where it is today. Well, what about these reasons?
1. Are we raising students who fail to see God as the authority? I think that in a lot of conservative circles, we are VERY good about proclaiming that the Bible is God’s Word and authoritative, but I also think that we struggle to connect the dots with our students. For example, it’s much easier to SAY that the God and His Word are authoritative than it is to walk through what that means with a student who is being raised by parents who lack ANY type of biblical worldview. Students often want to grasp and accept the authority of God in their life because it is truly freeing (they realize that He is in charge and they are not), but they do not know how. Often they are forced to seek out other sources of “authority” like peers, celebrities, other adults because those of us in the church would rather talk about God’s authority than walk with them as they grow and understand Him more. Let’s be honest for a minute: when a person trusts Christ, he has a new life, but he still has much of his learned behavior, and that takes time to change.
2. Are we failing to teach both God’s love and grace along with His justness? The world in which we live is full of things and situations that do not make sense. When we focus on one or the other of God’s characteristics, we leave students with more questions. How does a student who has been taught so deeply about God’s love come to the place where he or she can accept that even though God is loving, there are still people who will perish in hell apart from a relationship with God through Jesus? How does a student who has had such focus placed on God’s justness understand and accept that even though God has a legal requirement fulfilled by Christ alone, He still lavishes His love on the vilest offenders? Could it be that we are contributing to the massive exodus of our students from the faith because we are failing to adequately teach both love/grace and God’s justness? How does a student who has been taught all about God’s love reconcile the question of how a loving God can allow so much pain in the world? How can one who has been heavily influenced by God’s justness understand how God could extend grace to a murderer and one who persecuted believers?
3. Are we losing students after high school because we “promote” them from one of the most well-funded ministries of the church to one that (in many cases) is one of the most poorly funded ministries? When a student is in high school, we seem to go out of our way to attract, connect, and keep them. Yet, when that same student moves into the college ministry, we tell them that it’s time to grow up and that they need to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. Am I the only one who sees the disconnect here? Uh, newsflash, a high school diploma does not contain a magical spiritual maturity formula. Our students need us to help them bridge the transition into our collegiate ministries. Think about it. This is a time where they are going through changes faster than Miley changed or faster than Taylor Swift’s relationships end. When we leave them to their own devices to learn how to navigate their newly acquired freedoms, we set them up for failure.
Finally, (and personally, I think this is a HUGE reason),
4. Are we losing students because we fail to answer the questions they are really asking? When our students leave high school and begin to experience their new freedoms, are they leaving ministries in which we have addressed real life issues? Too often, I think, we want nice, clean youth ministries. Umm, that’s not ministry. It’s a fairy tale. Our students are bombarded earlier, more often, and with more than any previous generation. When we fail to adequately address the questions they ask (about relationships, sex, homosexuality, cutting, drinking, money, drugs, suicide, or a conglomerate of others), we encourage them to ask those questions to other perceived sources of authority. Ask your self this: “Do I want my student learning about those things within the context of the Bible, or do I want my student learning about those things from their friends, their television, and their music?” Maybe, just maybe, the reason our students leave the faith upon graduating is because we have become irrelevant. The Lord and His Word are not, but perhaps we have become irrelevant by refusing to get our hands dirty in ministry. They are asking the questions. Will we allow the Lord to be the voice they hear, or will it be Drake, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg (Snoop Lion, Snoopzilla, Snoopopolous, Snoopy, or whatever name he goes by now), Taylor Swift, The Twilight Series, 50 Shades of Grey, or television’s Modern Family?
How did we get here? Maybe we focused on the circumstances rather than the Savior. Maybe we got up in peripheral matters. Maybe, maybe, maybe….Maybe it’s time we decided that where we are is not where we need to be. I mean, I like corn, but I didn’t like driving in that corn field. It wasn’t where I was meant to be. Hmm, this isn’t where we are meant to be in student ministry either.