Students are often capable of far more than we expect of them. They are used to studying challenging topics in school like Algebra, Trig, and British Literature. Yet, student pastors are frequently critiqued for not being theologically deep enough. These critiques often prove true. But many student pastors are hesitant to adopt a theologically-driven model of ministry because the environment they were hired into is not willing to sustain a discipleship-focused, Bible-driven student ministry.
“My kid does not have fun.”
“Numbers are not high enough.”
“You teach too much.”
Phrases like these immediately capsize any student ministry that attempts to get theological. Eventually, churches hire high-energy guys who do not possess theological education, meet pastoral qualifications, or desire to teach students the deep theological truth churches confess.
Instead, the criteria for selecting a student pastor becomes, “How many students can he attract?” This strategy works for a while and can result in more butts in seats. It consists of “fun” and lots of hype. Soon, however, the church that adopts this strategy begins to wonder why those “numbers” are not sticking around as church members post-college. As it turns out, metrics that value “fun” and “numbers” more than formation and growth do not produce the adult Christians the church wanted from those numbers.
When the student pastor they hired to create a fun atmosphere and host events tries to change, he’s met with resistance from the culture he (and the church) built. Suddenly, he does not possess the categories to have the theologically-driven student ministry he now desires. The guy often ends up between two worlds, not able to do either model well. This is why it is essential that the church and staff value the kind of student ministry that the Bible values—otherwise the student pastor is left on an island with nowhere to go.
5 Ways Churches Can Support A Theologically-Driven Student Ministry
So how can we move forward as churches?
1. Hire Pastors
Many churches hire guys to be student pastors that do not meet the qualifications the Bible lists for the pastoral office. You are trusting this pastor with the soul of the next generation. Make sure he is the kind of person you want to trust with such a task. Hire a man who values the things you want your students to value as adults.
2. Invest in the Pastor’s Development
Many student pastors simply do not have the resources they need to operate and sustain a theologically-driven student ministry. They genuinely love students, but they do not know what they do not know. If they do not have theological education, make that a priority and help them get it. It is okay to not be properly equipped. It is not okay to let people stay there.
3. Have Your Student Pastor’s Back
As with all pastoral positions, student pastors receive their fair share of criticism. A theologically-driven student ministry is going to create tension with students who only come for games and the other student they have a crush on. It will also create tension with parents who bring their students to be either entertained or babysat. The community will be different from what the world wants, but at its best, this community can provide something the world never will! So back up your pastor in the midst of the tension. If you want him to see teens grow to maturity in Christ, make sure he has the support to do it!
4. Help them Find Like-Minded Community
Student pastors who travel this road often feel left out of the youth workers’ community in their area because the ministry philosophies are so countercultural. Talk with your pastor friends and use your networks to help them find mentors and like-minded friends, even if Zoom is the only way to meet. Every pastor needs communities where they can brainstorm and at least hear that they are not alone.
5. Adopt Kingdom-Driven Math
We all love numbers, and we all know the phrase “numbers matter because people matter.” Though we all should know that while numbers alone are neither good nor bad, what happens among those numbers is vitally important. A hundred students at a DNOW is a great thing, but if only twenty retain a life-long faith, was it more “successful” than the thirty-person youth group that had twenty-five students stay Christian for life? No! But you have to play the long game. Grow ministries with real disciples, and you will build a healthy church for years to come. Build a ministry with antics, games, and entertainment, and you’ll wonder where they went when the entertainment went away.
Fun is great! Numbers are fun! However, theology and discipleship are even more exciting. Your church will never regret investing in student pastors who want lifelong Christians more than flashes in the pan. Work to create an environment where these pastors and their students can thrive as they grow in Christ together.