I love youth ministry because our culture has so little hope for our students.
Pundits talk about “losing a generation” to their cell phones. The sociologist Jean Twenge reports that teens “are on the verge of the largest mental health crisis in decades.” Even Christian leaders say Generation Z represents the least reached, most secular and selfish generation to date. I’ve heard phrases like: over-medicated, over-diagnosed, pornified, over-programmed and coddled to describe our church’s teens. Maybe some of those things are true. But that doesn’t make me turn up my nose at my youth culture, or despair about student ministry. In fact, it makes me profoundly hopeful.
In the Bible, it’s people who are left for dead that are most likely to see resurrection. It’s when all hope seems lost that the Holy Spirit renews his people with resurrection power. Here’s another way to say all of this: when many people think about young people in church, they think about the fact that 75% of them will walk away from their faith once they graduate high school; but when I think about your kids, I think about Daniel and Esther…
Daniel and Esther were both teenagers when they were ripped from their parents’ homes and thrust into some of the most brutal, pagan, and sexualized halls of power in human history. If any generation was going to be lost, it would have been theirs. But it was precisely as Daniel was falling towards the lions – and when Esther was consigned to the harem – that God did the miraculous. He shut the lion’s mouths and promoted Daniel to prime minister of Babylon. And it was in Esther’s forced marriage that she saved Israel from Haman’s plot to ethnically cleanse the Jews.
When I think about the hopelessness our culture has for your teenagers, I think about the hopefulness our Scriptures have for them. Hopeful not because it’s the Hallmark-card-y or youth-pastor-y thing to say, but hopeful because Jesus rose from the dead. I love student ministry because while our culture has so little hope for the next generation, God’s hope for them and his plan for them has no limits.
Whenever I recruit my volunteers, I tell them one of their jobs is to mirror God’s hope for teenagers back to them; treating our students as if they could become new Esthers for our suburban Persias, and new Daniels for our Babylons. That hope begins by dreaming with our students about how their gifts and talents can be used by God to push back the darkness of our world. But that hope is fed by refusing to talk down to our students, dumb down difficult concepts, or skip over the hard parts of Scripture. Student ministries are notorious for being entertainment-driven spiritual mush. I don’t think that’s because student pastors are lazy and obsessed with being cool. I think it’s because they themselves are hopeless that student ministry can address anything more than what the lowest common denominator feels they need. They have forgotten that Jesus’ resurrection power guarantees our students can look hard things (like death) in the face, and come out more alive than they were before.
I pray that this type of hopeful discipleship means we will see our students walk among the powerful and elite. I pray that our kids, like Daniel and Esther, would cause our nations to recognize that Yahweh is the President above all presidents, King of kings and Lord of lords. But mostly, I hope God would make us all student pastors who pray for daily, weekly, and monthly resurrections in a youth culture given up for dead.
If you’re a student pastor, you should ask yourself, what hope do you have for your students? Are you training your students as if they will walk the halls of pagan power? Does your hope match what Scripture hopes for your teens? Is your vision of what your graduates can become shaped by the bleakness of the statistics or by the empty tomb?
I love student ministry because these hopes are never wishful thinking. It’s hope guaranteed by the resurrection, backed up by history, and promised in our Scriptures. If you are a student pastor, or a parent, or even a student reading this; remember that our students belong to a God who works when all seems lost and delights to use the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
For related resources, check out “What Does the Book of Daniel offer Today’s Teenager?,” “Four Things Youth Workers Would Tell Parents About Teenagers, Social Media, and Technology,” and “The (Failed) Indoctrination of Daniel.“