Recently, a friend and I were talking about student ministry, and whether or not we felt called to stay in it for the long haul. We’ve both been student pastors for 7+ years and, when you’ve been in youth ministry longer than the average post of 1.5 years, people often begin asking the question: “Are you a lifer?”
Being a youth pastor was never my calling; I wanted to get my M.Div and head to China for long-term missions. But a youth pastor position opened up at a nearby church, and I took it to help pay the bills, never intending to stay beyond my seminary years.
Seven years later, and I’m still a youth pastor here in America.
Youth ministry is often seen as a stepping stone to “real ministry” – as if it’s a field every pastor has to serve in, merely to pay his dues before moving on to what he really feels called to do.
In general, youth ministry is not taken seriously, and neither are youth pastors. I once ran into a classmate from high school, and after telling him what I’m doing now, he responded, “So are you a real pastor?” There is no glory whatsoever in youth ministry, and it is often seen as the “kid ministry” for the young “kid” pastor before he grows up and becomes a part of the “adult” ministry.
Despite the fact that neither my friend nor I initially felt called to be youth pastors – or to be “lifers” – we also didn’t see youth ministry as merely a stepping stone. As I’ve been preparing for the mission field, I’ve come to find youth ministry not as a necessary evil to have on my resume, but actually a rigorous training ground for life on the mission field. Whether you are planning on planting churches, being a missionary, going on to be a senior pastor, or even sticking with youth for the long haul, youth ministry is an incredible opportunity for real ministry experience.
1) Youth Ministry trains us in theology
One of the biggest things I’ve learned in youth ministry is that I need to know what I’m preaching. For those of us plowing the soil (more like concrete) of the hearts of youth, we may fantasize about being in ministries where we can use words or phrases like “propitiation,” “double imputation,” or “supralapsarianism.” We may wish we could speak without having to always “dumb down” our theology, or that we could “move on” from the basics already.
But what I’ve found in teaching and preaching to youth is that if I can’t explain doctrines of the Gospel in simple language, then I probably don’t actually understand them myself. Christian jargon and cliché phrases are not satisfactory. We cannot assume our students will simply “get it” by repetition without proper explanation. Knowing a theological term does not equate to knowledge of theology, and I’ve found that nothing challenges me in my understanding of doctrine more than having to explain it to a student hearing it for the first time.
Being in youth ministry has forced me to really study and know the doctrines – not just the terms – of the Sovereignty of God, the Incarnation, Sin, Election, Propitiation, Substitution, and so on. Were it not for my time in youth ministry, I might not have as clear an understanding of theology as I once thought I did.
2) Youth Ministry trains us in discipleship
Before stepping into youth ministry, I was a leader in my college campus ministry. When I met with people in our ministry, I saw discipleship as hanging out and reading the Bible with them. College was a time when many of my peers were hungry for the Word, so discipleship seemed easy. Give them a Bible, give them a book, and give them a space to study it. Now, as a youth pastor, I’ve found that discipleship isn’t quite that simple. It is certainly no less than spending time together and reading the Bible; but the challenges we face with our youth are not always solved through such simple means.
Youth ministry has forced me to learn how to disciple people through crises, broken families, depression, suicidal thoughts, unrepentant sin, hidden idols, and gender and sexuality issues. I’ve had to deal with students who one year seemed incredibly solid in their faith, and the next are knee deep in sexual sin. It’s in those moments that I’m moved to seek Scripture and books to learn how people actually change, how the hold of sin is broken, and how to disciple people forward into a life of freedom in Christ. Though these are certainly issues we may face in any age ministry, adult believers tend to be far better at hiding them, or “figuring it out on their own.” As youth pastors, we have the incredibly complicated task of discipling students through a number of complicated situations – ones which we might not have faced were it not for our time in youth ministry.
3) Youth Ministry trains us in evangelism
One of the most difficult, yet most beautiful parts of youth ministry is leading students to a saving belief and knowledge of the Gospel. There are the pains of seeing hardened hearts blatantly reject Christ; but there are also the joys of seeing students cling to Christ for the first time in their lives. Regardless of the outcome, this work requires communicating the Gospel in a way that an eleven-year-old can understand it.
The mission of the church is not just to teach doctrine to mature existing disciples, but to make new disciples by evangelizing to the lost. And working with youth gives us countless opportunities to communicate the Gospel to lost people, and to learn to do so in a language and a culture that might not be normal for us.
Youth pastors have to learn to be missional just as much as a Church-Planter or Missionary. We have to be students ourselves, learning the culture and slang of those we’re seeking to reach. We have to be in the lives of the people, knowing the issues they’re facing and the questions they are asking. And we have to preach the Gospel in a way that is understood, but also challenges the idols of our hearers. Nothing brings me joy like getting to baptize new believers in our youth ministry, and reaching that point requires “doing the work of an evangelist” (2Tim. 4:5) amongst our youth.
Though I may not feel called to be a “lifer” in youth ministry, I’ve come to realize that I love being a youth pastor. I love it because I love these students who are in need of a deep foundation of Christ and Scripture. I love it because it allows me to use the gifts and skills I’ll need in the future on the mission field. But I also love it because of the way God has used it to sanctify me and mature me as a disciple of Christ. Despite the pains and struggles of youth ministry, my understanding of theology, discipleship, and evangelism would not be the same without it.
There are still times when I’m tired of being in the trenches with apathetic or hard-hearted students, and I long to move on to something “bigger and better.” There are many times when I consider whether I’m really doing what God wants me to do. But in those moments of difficulty and even doubt, I am learning how Christ is my rock, not my ministry or my calling, and that God in His sovereignty has me right where He desires me to be. Whether I stay in youth ministry much longer, or move on to something else (not better), I know the growth I’ve experienced in theology, discipleship, and the Gospel, will prove invaluable wherever I go.