By Josh Branum
When parents and pastors think about student ministry, they often have vastly different expectations.
Most agree churches should have a healthy ministry for teenagers, but not everyone agrees on how that should look. According to a multi-year study by Barna, pastors and parents tend to have sharp differences in their goals for student ministry.
I believe these differences come from a few misconceptions about the nature of student ministry.
1. It’s not a social club, but it should foster biblical community.
Parents want their children to have healthy friendships. That’s understandable and right. I want my daughters to have children their own ages whom they enjoy being around.
According to Barna, the top three parent priorities for student ministry are a “safe space to explore faith,” “positive peer relationships,” and a “place where they can bring their friends.”
Moreover, the number two and three expectations parents have for student pastors are “helping [students] navigate friend relationships” and “helping [students] navigate family relationships.”
Obviously, parents want positive relationships for their children, and this desire makes sense, both practically and theologically.
We also serve a Trinitarian God who lives in constant community. He created us as relational beings so that we could image Him. Our Creator embeds the desire for community in us.
But this good desire can lead us to create programs that resemble little more than a church-sponsored mixer. Students can hang out and have fun with other students in a safe environment.
This social club mentality does little to foster actual biblical community. It’s just people with similar interests gathering to have fun. What makes that uniquely Christian?
Student ministry should foster healthy, biblical friendships. And students should recognize their calling to love, forgive, rejoice with, and even weep with one another. They should hold one another accountable to live lives that glorify Christ.
We also want to help students develop healthy relationship with adults in the church. In our student ministry, we encourage our adult leaders to invest in the lives of students outside the church walls.
We want them to pour their lives into students and to help them understand the nature of the church as a family of believers.
2. It’s not Mom and Dad, but it should support the ministry of parents.
In a sermon on Deuteronomy 6, I once told our congregation that it wasn’t my job as a student pastor to disciple their children. You could tell not everyone agreed with me. If being the student pastor didn’t involve discipling students, then what was my job?
The Barna research reflects this attitude toward student pastors. The researchers note that student pastors play a significant role in shaping the dynamics of the ministry. This can often create confusion for parents.
Since the “professional” student pastor has such an influence, many parents conclude the student pastor is the one responsible for discipling their children, whether they’d ever admit it or not.
This mindset makes sense in our culture. We go to professionals for everything, so why not for something as important as our children’s spiritual growth? After all, parenting is hard enough on its own, and it’d be nice to have some help.
However, healthy student ministries never serve primary roles in discipleship. Parents have the God-given responsibility to disciple their children.
Student pastors and adult leaders can have and should have a tremendous influence, but not to the degree that it replaces the role of parents.
Instead, churches should come alongside parents and equip them to fulfill this responsibility.
Student pastors often have training and experiences with teenagers that most parents don’t have. Their insights can prove invaluable in helping parents embrace their God-given privilege of being the ones to evangelize and disciple their children.
Once a culture has been established that models this biblical approach, older parents can serve as mentors for younger parents.
3. It’s not a babysitter, but it should engage students with the gospel.
The Barna report states “safety is of paramount importance to virtually all parents.” Ninety-six percent of parents said providing a safe place to explore faith was at least somewhat important.
Almost 7 in 10 (69 percent) said it was very important. Safety was the highest priority among parents.
All the talk about safety makes me concerned that some view student ministry as a free babysitter for parents. They can participate in church activities and feel good about leaving their children in good hands.
But student pastors and volunteers don’t want to serve as babysitters. We want to introduce your child to Jesus—and that’s not always safe.
For the church, everything we do and everything we say must point students to the gospel. Many people may balk at this statement, but I’d stake my life on it.
Being centered on the gospel doesn’t mean every activity or event must have a sermon and end with an invitation. Every event should, however, somehow involve taking the focus off ourselves and putting it where it truly belongs—on Jesus.
We must be careful that in our desire to keep our children safe, we’re not preventing them from submitting to God’s will for their lives.
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus calls us to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,” which means that all followers of Jesus, regardless of age, are to make Jesus known to the world.
God’s will is not always the “safest” place for us to be, but it’s always the best place. We want to develop students who honor the Lord by living out the Great Commission boldly and courageously, reaching their families, schools, and neighborhoods with the gospel.
When we move past the misconceptions of student ministry being a social club, a replacement for parents, or a glorified babysitter, we can begin focusing on what student ministry should actually be: partnering with families in raising young people who bring glory to God by making disciples of all nations.
JOSH BRANUM (@JoshBranum) is the family pastor at Faithbridge Church in Jacksonville, Florida.