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.
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!