Why Student Ministry is Failing in Most Churches

Why student ministry is failing in most churches

Before we begin, you need to know that I spent years as a student participating, as a volunteer serving, and as a pastor leading in the student ministry trenches.

I began as an idealistic young man. I was going to love Jesus, love students, and serve God to the best of my abilities.

But the daydream ended fast. I had no idea that the biggest opposition in student ministry would come from within the church instead of from the outside.

Unless you’ve been there yourself, you’ll never understand a student pastor’s burden and why many don’t last long.

There are exceptions to what I’m going to share, but I’m afraid it’s a growing problem. I’ve heard from a lot of student pastors who feel the same.

Here’s the big problem: Most churches either don’t value the student ministry enough, or they value the wrong things.

And because of this, far too many young people are abandoning the church after they graduate.

Although we could debate the statistics, the simple fact is that most student ministries see more students falling away after graduation than remaining in their faith.

So here are three major problems that I believe have led to the failing state of student ministry in most churches:

1. We Measure Growing Crowds, Not Disciples

We don’t evaluate the effectiveness of the spiritual education of teenagers.

All we value is the numbers.

I’ve seen student pastors with no biblical education who regularly take the Bible out of context (bordering on heresy) get promoted just because they are good with people and can draw a crowd.

Is that the goal? Is that why churches should have student ministries?

Yes, evangelism is a big deal. It should be one of our primary focuses. I am not advocating kicking evangelism to the curb. But in our lust for numbers, we’ve forsaken the gospel.

We are making fans and not disciples.

I’ve even been told by a supervisor, “I don’t care if you just sit around and eat donuts, just get students in the room and do something.”

Discipleship takes time, but student pastors have a short leash. They are pushed to grow the ministry fast, or they’ll be looking for another job.

So a lot of student pastors shoot for quick growth instead of long discipleship for the sake of keeping their job and feeding their family.

Sure, it may lead to a larger student ministry in the short run, but we’re producing shallow disciples who don’t last in the long run.

Jesus often turned away the crowds to focus on his disciples. And it’s no coincidence that it was the disciples, not the crowds, that led the church to change the world.

The crowd fell away when the journey got hard, but the disciples persevered until the end.

2. We Fund Adult Ministry but Ask Students to Fund Themselves

If you want to know how much a church values students, follow the money.

Most student pastors are expected to work long hours for little pay and pull off large events with no budget.

It’s not uncommon for a church to give 10% to foreign missions, more than 70% to adult ministries, and less than 5% to student ministry.

We fund other ministry and ask students to throw bake sales and car washes to cover their needs.

If you truly value ministry to the next generation, put your money where your mouth is. Fund them!

And don’t give the lame excuse I’ve heard so many times before that the church will fund the ministry more when more students come.

That’s backward thinking.

Fund the ministry first and give it the resources to reach more students.

3. We Expect the Student Pastor to Lead, But Not the Parents

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the way to raise Christian kids is to drop them off at their weekly church event and leave the rest to the professionals.

But we’ve created a culture where the student pastors (the professional) is expected to impart all the faith a teenager needs without any extra help.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten that the church existed and thrived for hundreds of years without the modern invention of the student pastor and student ministry.

They knew that it wasn’t a pastor’s job to raise young men and women.

The primary person responsible for the spiritual well-being of a child is their parent.

But instead of helping parents lead their teenagers in a growing walk with Jesus, we expect the student pastor and maybe a few volunteers to act as their surrogate, spiritual parents.

We need to place more expectations on parents in our church to take responsibility to raise their kids well (like the Bible teaches in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Ephesians 6:4)).

Thankfully, many churches today are beginning to shift their thinking to begin partnering with parents.

Unfortunately, this usually means that they only send a weekly email or a paper handout, so parents know what they learned.

It’s a start, but it’s not good enough.

If we ever want to see a generation of young people raised to be world-changers for Christ, it will have to start with their parents at home.

Student ministry (and children’s ministry for that matter) should be a resource to help parents, not the sole source of a child’s spiritual formation.

Thankfully, despite all our flaws, Jesus is still using our mess to accomplish his mission.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are a lot of amazing things happening in student ministries too.

But come on church, we can do better!


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By | 2018-02-07T08:31:23+00:00 February 7th, 2018|

8 Comments

  1. Anonymous 02/17/2018 at - Reply

    Thanks for this article. Reading it made me feel like our church is actually in the right track despite the “numbers” not being huge. We are not a huge church and don’t have full time pastors for any specific ministr areas like worship, children’s, or youth. Instead we rely on lay leaders, and thankfully some of our best have been led to team-lead the youth groups with significant support/dollars from the central leadership group/pastor. We preach from childhood through youth that parents are responsible for pastoring their kids, and perhaps because there are no professionals, people seem to actually believe that. And we are doing a building expansion in which one of the big benefits will be giving the youth some space of their own. Always a little hard to tell if we are making disciples as much as we could be, but we definitely do see some very solid maturing youth, for which we are very grateful!

  2. Michael M 02/07/2018 at - Reply

    I almost deleted this post. I’m a youth pastor, six months in and i’m so busy with work, church and family that I hardly have time for a good read. After reading through the main points, I decided to read the entire article and found this to be very helpful and encouraging. I to, have been trying to focus on large groups because it is encouraged by the leadership team. But my heart in mostly focused on those with broken homes and nowhere else to go along with the regular kids that come only because they are made to. Making disciples is what we are called to do and that will be my primary focus. Thank you for the article, it was an eye opener.

  3. Timothy 02/07/2018 at - Reply

    I definitely agree about that fact that parents should lead and student ministries should be a resource not the end all be all. But I am just wondering if anyone can give me some examples of ways to make that happen. How can we partner with parents more other than just sending them an email of what has been going on?

    • That is the big question, isn’t it? Communication with emails or handouts is a good starting point, but what else could we do? Maybe parenting classes, regular preaching on raising kids, more parents involved serving in the student ministry, student pastors broadening their scope of ministry to parents as well as students (talking to parents and not just students), doing a better job at casting vision for how the student ministry wants to partner with parents to help them win with their kids, and involving students more in church wide activities instead of segregating them. Just a few ideas…

  4. Brad 02/07/2018 at - Reply

    Great post! I totally agree with everything you said here. I have been a student pastor for many years for little to no pay. I have been involved with many different sized groups. The great commission was to go and make disciples and then teach them everything Jesus taught. I want to draw a large group of students. Services are a lot more fun when the place is packed, but it can’t stop there. It has to be filtered into a discipleship model. Discipleship happens on the basketball court or a slice of pizza and it takes time and effort. Anyways, great thoughts here in this article. Godspeed!

    • Thanks Brad. I agree that there is a special energy in large groups that is exciting, but like you said, those conversations over a slice of pizza have the potential for even greater impact. Keep up the good work of making disciples!

  5. Anonymous 02/07/2018 at - Reply

    “Jesus often turned away the crowds to focus on his disciples. And it’s no coincidence that it was the disciples, not the crowds, that led the church to change the world.” Thanks for the reminder, Brandon. Simple statement, but powerful nonetheless.

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