Me & Kaleb in Philly @Fuge w/ a Youth Group from the Pittsburgh area
I never had a youth group. I did not go to church during those years. I may have attended one lock-in at a church. That was it. I was too busy living for the approval of my peers and working to blend into the cool crowd. I was regularly involved in things that were against the law, damaging to myself and others, and rebellious against God. I do not glorify those days. I look back with disgust at my conforming, go-with-the-crowd, ignorant self.
I recently had a guy remind me of who I was during those years. He reached out to me via Facebook. He was on my high-school baseball team. He was a freshmen my senior year. He reminded me that I used to pick on him and his friend for being "Bible thumpers." Yep, that was your boy, right here. The preacher who used to make fun of people who went to youth group.
Ah, I love those words. If it wasn't for "But God" I would be doomed. Without those words there is no telling where my life would be at this moment. God rescued me. God saved me from my folly. What was once boring and unappealing to me, was now insatiably interesting. What was once considered a set of chains and shackles to keep me from doing what I wanted, was now realized to be the very path of liberation. I was already chained, I just thought I was free. Christ gave me real freedom.
When I look back at teenage Erik, I want to slap his pimply face and challenge his worldview and actions. I want to show him that his choices matter and shape the future he will live tomorrow. I cannot go back to teenage Erik; however, I have a church full of teenagers, and soon-to-be teenagers all around me. This is why I am committing myself to investing in students.
I'm Diving In
For the last three summers, I have preached to thousands and thousands of students at Fuge Camps. I have been reminded over and over again that students are not "kids," though that is how they are often treated. They can handle the meat and potatoes of the gospel, if we are willing to walk with them. However, most of the time, they are treated like older versions of our preschool kids. We give them a few stories about some Bible characters, we connect a moral lesson to it, play a game, give out cookies and juice, and call it ministry. This will not suffice.
Students are facing tough challenges. They are making real choices. They are forming a worldview and determining career paths. In addition to values and their future direction, they are making moral choices. They are faced with getting drunk, smoking pot, doing LSD, stealing from stores, cheating on tests, sleeping with their boyfriend/girlfriend, watching porn, and on it goes. These are vital choices. These decisions have real consequences. I have watched as many of my teenage friends have continued to struggle in life today due to choices they made in junior and senior high. I want to be involved in helping students work through these issues.
Many Churches Are Failing
Many churches would claim that they are already helping students deal with these issues, and that may certainly be true. But that is not always the case. A recent article in The Atlantic had an article by Larry Taunton on the profile of many college atheists. To the surprise of many, most of these college atheists revealed that they grew up in church. They attended youth groups. A common theme was that these student ministries gave trite answers to their difficult questions. They focused more on entertainment than dealing with the real issues students face. The Bible was secondary.
This does not mean having fun is wrong. It does mean entertainment will not transform anyone. You cannot base a student ministry on having fun. They need to be shown the life-changing truths of Scripture and be shown a glorious picture of God. Many churches are failing to do this, which is why we have a lot of teenagers in youth groups, but not a lot of students sold out for Christ.
TJC Student Ministry
I have been meeting with several of the existing student volunteers we have at The Journey and talking with them about student ministry. We have discussed doing everything we can to pour into students and ground them in the gospel. We are implementing a strategic plan for ministering to students. It has me excited. As a pastor, I do not have tons of extra time to spare. I am certainly not jumping into student ministry because I am bored. Rather, I am completely convinced that I, the pastor, must be involved in this ministry. This is not because I am the expert, but as the pastor, I set the tone of the church's culture. Additionally, I want to be involved in shaping the next generation of Christian pastors, nurses, teachers, police-officers, and college students. I want them to have a big, glorious, God-exalting view of the world.
I believe it can happen through a vibrant student ministry.
I want to be involved in seeing it realized.
Let me hear from you: why do you think student ministry is often marginalized to entertainment? What was your experience or non-experience with student ministry as a teenager?
Check out our TJC Student Ministry page & BLOG