Here’s a scary thought: You can have a good youth ministry that never makes a single disciple. All that a “good” youth program requires is energetic programs, lots of kids who are friends with one another, and some cool events. Of course success here would be defined by things like attendance or how much kids enjoy the program. One of my fears in leading our ministry to students is that we might work too hard to have a good program rather than working to make disciples. Here are a few dangers inherent in student ministry that can force our focus off of disciple-making.
- We want students to want to be there. Nothing wrong with this, but it gets a little confusing when we tell the congregation that church is not about them and the student ministry seems to be saying the opposite. It is so tempting to cater to what kids want so that they will participate in your ministry. I had a student tell me that he was going to go to a new church because they had a Wii and an Xbox 360. Truthfully, my first thought was to figure out a way to get a PS3. My second thought was how sad it was that this student bought into the idea that the church is designed to help him have a super fun time. I want students to like being here, but I want them to like it because they recognize that it is making a difference in their faith and their lives.
- We have really cool ideas. I’m an idea guy, but sometimes I have to realize that while my ideas could make my ministry look newsworthy or unique, the ideas actually do nothing to build up our students. It’s hard to pass up flashy curriculum or a cool event, but the focus needs to be on what will build our students up. Truthfully, sometimes it is just an easier sell to get kids to a movie rather than a food bank. When I consider the events or plans that I come away feeling the best about, they almost always are those that focused the most on discipleship. Some of my most encouraging times in ministry have been sitting around discussing the Bible rather than playing laser tag (though, I do love some laser tag).
- We must feed the machine. Our student ministry is pretty complex. We have worship, small groups, retreats, camp, mission projects, Bible study, and a church volunteering program. It takes a lot to make this work. Unfortunately, there are times that we are so focused on keeping the programs going, that we lose sight of the people who come to the programs. When I was a new minister, I would often be running around crazy trying to make sure things were all set for a Wednesday night or an event. Rather than greeting students or sitting and eating with them, I was busy getting things loaded or printed. It’s a painful experience to realize that your main concern was the program rather than the people. Making disciples is a relational activity, and our programs need to reflect that reality rather than take away from it.
- We think that a student’s attendance reflects his or her spirituality. Bad news, a student can come to every program you offer and never grow one bit in their faith. We probably think this about the adults in the church, but do we also realize it could be true about student ministry as well? Books such as Almost Christian and Soul Searching have demonstrated that many very active students in our churches have very little ownership of the faith they claim to be living out. Discipleship is not a passive activity but an active one. The only way to gauge how our students are growing is to have conversations. We are finding it more a more important to do check ups to see just where our students are in terms of maturing in their faith.