Recently I had the privilege of sitting down with a former student who has discerned a call to youth ministry. In beginning his first year of seminary, this gifted young man began to doubt whether he needs a Master of Divinity (MDiv), which is often considered the standard ministry degree for pastors.
He’s not alone in this question; many youth workers wonder whether they truly need to know Greek and Hebrew in order to minister to students. The biblical languages can feel a little distant from the realities of walking with teenagers through anxiety, break-ups, and college admissions pressure. My young youth minister friend was unimpressed by the standard answer that having an MDiv would open the most doors in his future ministry. He wanted to know whether I’ve actually found the MDiv helpful in my day-to-day ministry to students.
My answer was a resounding “Yes!” I urged him to continue pursuing the MDiv, and here’s why I think you should consider it, too.
Teenagers are People Who Need Pastors.
Once in a conversation at home, I caught myself distinguishing between youth ministry and pastoral ministry. Before I could correct my slip, my husband said with conviction, “What you do is most certainly pastoral ministry: You counsel students and parents. You are present in all kinds of crises. You regularly teach the Word and help people apply it. There should be no distinction.” His speech has encouraged me in my work ever since. Although it can be tempting to distinguish youth work as a sort of minor league ministry setting (even for youth pastors themselves!), teenagers are people—and like all people, they need pastors.
I am not arguing that youth pastors must have an MDiv any more than any other pastor must have one; however, it is considered the standard degree for pastoral ministry. So I believe youth pastors should pursue it if at all possible. The youth pastor is a generalist, just as the senior pastor is one. Both need to be well-versed in matters of ethics, counseling, and leadership that will certainly arise in ministry. The MDiv provides a cursory look at all of these, preparing ministers to know where to look for resources in whatever challenges may arise, whereas a general theology degree will have you specialize in just one area.
Teenagers Should Be an Integrated Part of Our Churches.
If we’re serious about integrating young people into the life of the church, then we need youth workers who are equipped and dignified as church leaders. For too long, many youth ministries have been sidelined as glorified babysitting. Students have often been exiled from the main service to a far corner of the building where they participate only once a year on “youth Sunday.” Instead, we need to recognize young people as a needed part of the Body of Christ today (1 Cor. 12:21-26). They should be in our corporate worship services, serving in the church, and participating in community.
Having an MDiv behind you brings a level of seriousness to your ministry that can be helpful in overcoming the old youth-leader-as-babysitter model. As the church sees you taking Scripture and church life seriously, they will unconsciously begin to take the youth group more seriously, too. And as students observe you taking a lead role not only in the youth ministry but also the whole church, they are bound to sense that they have a part to play as well. This kind of healthy integration isn’t dependent on a degree alone—but credentialing ourselves in a way that’s commensurate with other ministers is one way we dignify youth ministry in the local church.
More Than They Need Ideas About God, Teenagers Need God’s Word.
A couple of years ago, one of our high schoolers stopped into my office to chat after school. He told me excitedly how studying Scripture regularly at our student leader meetings and in his small group was changing him. He said, “Jesus is transforming me, and it’s through studying the Bible with other Christians.” I have seen this reality time and again as we encourage students to feast on God’s Word. There is no greater delight in youth ministry than to see students trusting in Jesus this way!
One of the primary roles of any youth worker ought to be to teach students to love God’s Word and to study it for themselves. To be effective, we must learn all we can to “rightly handle the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Although it may be tempting to pursue a shorter degree in theology or leadership studies, these pursuits will not ultimately equip you to give students what they need most.
For the Christian, the study of biblical Greek and Hebrew is not merely an academic pursuit, but an intimate discovery of God’s Word to His people. I realize it can feel otherwise when you’re endlessly drilling Hebrew flashcards (I’ve been there!), but stick with it long enough and you will begin to see the treasure you are being offered. Time in the original languages acquaints us with Scripture in a precious way, and the skills of exegesis pay off dividends in teaching. In our regular time of Bible study with our student leaders, for example, I’m awed by the deep questions students pose—and I’m thankful that my training allows me to walk with them in the tension of those questions confidently, albeit imperfectly.
You might be surprised how many evangelical professors of biblical studies are well-versed in modern youth culture—either because they are parents themselves, or simply because they work hard at cultural exegesis. Choose a seminary where the professors are churchmen and women, and then approach every class with the heart of a youth pastor. I’m willing to bet your professors will eagerly help you apply what you’re learning to the cause of discipling teenagers, just as mine did.
So dear youth minister, please don’t shy away from a ministry degree that includes the rigor of the biblical languages along with more general ministry courses. Today’s Church is in need of men and women who will take seriously the call to pastor teenagers, involve them in the life of the local church, and saturate them in the study of God’s Word. I pray that God will equip you by His Spirit as you follow Him in this work.
 At many evangelical seminaries, biblical languages and exegesis courses make up roughly a third of the the Master of Divinity degree program. This is because two semesters of each Greek and Hebrew is considered the minimum for doing biblical exegesis for teaching and preaching.