I spent 13 years of my life in student ministry, and I loved every one of them. As a student pastor, you get a front-row seat to watch the Holy Spirit work in magnificent and sweeping ways in the lives of your students. However, it isn’t just the students that God molds and shapes during those times.
I learned a lot from my time as a student pastor. Here are ten changes that I made to how I shepherded students that God used in massive ways:
1. Pray more for and with your students.
Ministry in any capacity depends on the power of God to bring about fruit in the lives of others. In my early years of ministry, I was focused more on doing than communing with the Father. The most important shift I made in ministry was depending on the work of God in the lives of my students rather than depending on my own grit and grind.
2. Get parents more involved.
Student ministry in the 2000s (and even today) placed a great emphasis on creating an environment that was cool and comfortable for students. This emphasis led to keeping parents at the margins of the ministry. It didn’t take long for me to see that keeping the students’ primary disciple-makers (their mom & dad) out of the equation was a colossal mistake. From then on, I was vigilant about regularly communicating with them, providing family discipleship resources, and using them heavily in our weekly gatherings and events.
3. Preach robust sermons.
There is always the outside pressure to keep sermons short (~15 min) and simplistic in order to reach kids. Yet in their everyday lives, they could sit for 6 hours to blow through a Netflix series and take honors/advanced placement classes in schools. They can handle the meat of the Word (Heb 5:12-14) and will not grow in Christ unless a student pastor is faithful to provide robust sermons for them.
4. Preach expositionally.
It is easier for us as student pastors to build topical sermon series on subjects such as friendship, dating, or decision-making. It is quite another challenge to preach expositionally through books of the Bible. Yet, in doing so, I saw two massive benefits for my students. First, they began to see Scripture as one massive, coherent declaration of God and his gospel and not 66 unrelated books of the Bible. Second, we ended up dealing with weighty topics such as racism, depression, spiritual gifts, and sexual identity by simply preaching what was in the text.
5. Be on mission WITH them.
We are people who learn best by having aspects of our life and faith modeled (1 Cor 11:1). For students, this means we give them the opportunity to go on mission trips and serve those who don’t look like them or have the same socio-economic advantages. Sometimes, I would meet a student for a meal at a restaurant and share the gospel with someone there so the student could see real-world evangelism. Give students a chance to see and repeat when it comes to the mission of God.
6. Invest in adult leaders.
A healthy student ministry is only as good as its leadership. Having a leadership pipeline in student ministry is a must for churches. I’d invest time every week to pour into college students, young adults, and parents in the ministry in order to invest in and raise up the future leadership of the ministry. Jesus spent time pouring into 12 disciples so that the gospel could reach the nations, which is a clear picture of what any ministry should prioritize: more workers for the harvest (Matt 9:37).
A healthy student ministry is only as good as its leadership.
7. Remember that fun is important to them.
Even though I was a student pastor in my 20s, I struggled to devise games and fun events for the students. It was easy for me to write off doing fun things in my early years of ministry because I was simply not good at it, but that meant I wasn’t serving my students well in what mattered to them. I had to ask other youth pastors I knew for a solid game and event ideas, but I was able to give my students the space to be kids and have fun.
8. Get students involved in the greater life of the church.
The temptation to run student ministry as a silo ministry is massive. Yet, that is not what is best for the church or the students. I was passionate about handing students off to other areas of the church for them to serve and grow. Handing them off meant that the band kids were involved with the music pastor, or the girls that loved to babysit were involved in Kids Ministry. They weren’t as involved in the student ministry, but they were deeply rooted in the church.
9. Seek out friends.
With ministry dominating much of my time and attention, making friends was not easy. It was honestly easier to focus on ministry stuff than friendship, which led me to be quite lonely. I’m not the only way who has found myself in this position. According to the Baptist Press, 55% of pastors have felt lonely or discouraged at some point in their ministry. It took deliberate effort and scheduling to make those friendships come to life, but they breathed so much life into me.
10. Create a repeatable discipleship plan.
I thought it was my job alone to make disciples of the students. Yet, it did not take long for me to realize that I could not do that all on my own. I turned my attention to discipling two leaders and two high schoolers at a time, and then when they got to a place where they were rooted in Christ and ready, I would send them to others in the ministry for them to make disciples. This way, the burden on me had eased while scores of students and leaders were growing in Christ and fulfilling the Great Commission.