GROUNDED IN SCRIPTURE
If a student ministry that honors and glorifies Jesus is to be built upon a solid foundation, than the deepest level of that foundation must be the enduring word of God. “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” From this verse in the second letter of the apostle Paul to Timothy, two important things can be understood: one, that the entirety of scripture (for this purpose as defined by the protestant Bible) is the very word of God, and two, that it has both positive and negative uses in ministry. Positive in this sense means creating and forming something whereas negative means holding back or pushing against something. These are two very important sides to student ministry, though one is often more popular than the other. Teaching students the Bible and training students to live Godly lives in the world are cornerstones of historic youth ministry and for good reason. However, the negative side of the uses of scripture is neglected more often than not. The word of God is also useful for reproof and correction. Therefore, any general application of scripture in ministry will, at some level, necessitate pushing against sin in the lives of students and their families.
Sometimes it is helpful to imagine a scenario in which a foundational aspect of student ministry is missing in order to reveal its importance. In that light, imagine a student ministry that does not find its anchor in scripture. A myriad of potential problems immediately emerge! On what grounds can a youth pastor defend himself when a student or parent criticizes his or her teaching? When faced with a complicated family crisis, where can a volunteer find direction to know what to do, or even for what to hope? On an even simpler level, what should the students learn in the ministry? How can a leader decide what is important and what is not? Clearly a student ministry must find its anchor somewhere, and if it seeks to honor God, then the first place to look would be His word.
MULTI-GENERATIONAL IN NATURE
Once it is established that scripture will form the deepest foundation of the theology of student ministry, the next question is “how ought scripture to be applied in the lives of teenagers?” There are many different important and valid answers to this question, but one of them is unmistakable – that the scriptural teaching, training, reproofing, and correcting is to take place in the community of God’s people, and today God’s people is a very multi-generational community. This multi-generational community is called, in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy, to act as if blood-family relations exist between all members. “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father. Treat young men like brothers, older women like mothers, young women like sisters, in all purity.” There are many implications of this familial connection between generations in the church. One is that, within a family, no matter what kind of family, everyone has a role to play. This means that, when it comes to raising the next generation, no member of the community gets to “opt out” and claim that student ministry is someone else’s job. Big or small, everyone has a role to play. Another implication is the cohesiveness implied by calling the Christian community to function as a family. When the younger generations treat the older generations like parents and treat each other as siblings, there emerges a sense of existing as one, unified group instead of separate factions. These two implications push strongly against the tendency in most churches to delegate the discipleship of teenagers to a small group of staff and volunteers and to segregate this ministry from the rest of the church. Perhaps this is an example of scripture being useful for reproofing and correcting the norms that have developed in many Christian communities?
Imagine, for a moment, the kind of acceptance that a teenager might find in a community of adults that embrace him or her as one of their own. Imagine a teenage girl walking through the doors of a church building and, instead of shuffling down to the basement for youth group, is greeted by an elderly man who smiles and asks her how her math test went last week, a single woman in her thirties who gives her a hug and asks if she can sit next to her during the service, and a newly-wed couple that wave to her and say that they had so much fun going to her field hockey game on Friday night. Of course this image is very idealistic, but it is not completely unreasonable. It certainly is not nearly as dramatic and flashy as the latest and greatest technologically-integrated “youth worship experience,” but it does have a richness and warmth that is often lacking even in the most “cutting-edge” student ministries.
On the other hand, imagine a student ministry that does not have this multi-generational aspect as a theological foundation. Students are either mentored or discipled by no one, or by slightly older students, or by young volunteers and church staff. If the entire adult congregation does not collectively take responsibility for knowing, understanding, loving, and raising the younger generations as they would in their very own family, then the task will necessarily fall to someone else. This has the effect of taking a very large burden, meant to be distributed amongst many shoulders, and placing it upon just a few shoulders. Therefore, no matter how talented the staff, no matter how committed the volunteers, no matter how well funded the ministry; it will ultimately fail to accomplish the vision of the multi-generational community described in 1 Timothy 5:1-2.
EQUIPS & TRAINS FOR THE FUTURE
Children are taught to read in the early years of elementary school, not only because reading will be beneficial and enjoyable for them in their youth, but because it is a necessary skill that will enable them to navigate life as they grow into adults. In the same way, the knowledge, wisdom, skills, disciplines, and methods that are given to teenagers by churches are not only to benefit those students in their middle school and high school careers, but to equip them to navigate life as they mature into adulthood. “Train up a child in the way he should go; and even when he is old he will not depart from it.” In light of this, it might be said that the goal of a Biblically grounded student ministry is not mature, Godly teenagers, but mature, Godly adults. Therefore, a foundational theology of student ministry must include a distinct emphasis on equipping and training for the future.
To make the point even more clear, imagine a student ministry that only focuses on student’s spiritual growth in their current situation. Middle school students are not prepared to handle the challenges of high school. High school students are not prepared to deal with the temptations and freedom found on a college campus. Students are not taught or shown how to think about their future vocations or relationships or independence or finances. While a student participates in that ministry, he or she may appear to be thriving and the ministry may appear to be healthy. However, once the student graduates, the enormous gaps in their Christian upbringing will be revealed. Additionally, this ties in very nicely with the Biblically implied multi-generational aspect of the Christian community. If students are only ministered to by those who are also very young themselves, then how will they ever learn what they need to know to navigate the future?
ALL ENCOMPASSING IN SCOPE
Finally, a foundational theology of student ministry must see itself as flowing throughout every aspect of a student’s life, and not limit itself to ministry programs or events. “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” The lives of most teenagers are already compartmentalized into so many different non-relating areas that a well-integrated Christian life becomes very difficult. Academics are rarely integrated with athletics, which are rarely integrated with social relationships, which are rarely integrated with familial relationships, which are hardly ever integrated with a teenager’s personal spirituality. This passage from the Hebrew Torah paints a picture of parents integrating the teachings of the law into every aspect of everyday life so that their children will learn to do so as well. If (by virtue of hermeneutical and metaphorical extrapolation) it can be understood that the multi-generational body of Christ, which functions like a family, should do the same in the raising of young men and women, then this has massive implications for student ministry. In this paradigm, student ministry is no longer a structure of staff, programs, education, retreats, missions trips, etc. Rather it is a ministry that flows through every aspect of life. Scripture becomes integrated, not just in “youth group” settings, but in academics, in athletics, in social relationships, and in family relationships. Student ministry happens around the dinner table, in the classroom, on the field, in the car, on vacation, at work, at parties, and when the Christian community gathers for worship.
Again, this picture of student ministry that works its way into every nook and cranny of a teenager’s life is idealistic, but not entirely impossible if combined with the multi-generational dynamic of the church. The student ministry staff and volunteers cannot be everywhere at once. They can visit schools, watch plays, cheer at games, and invite students over for dinner, the paradigm of Deuteronomy 6:5-7 will never been attained without a constellation of adults around each teenager, present in all the different areas of their lives. This goes far beyond parental involvement. It is true that parents have a tremendously large role to play, but their role is not the only one. Nor is it sufficient to accomplish the Biblical vision for a well-integrated spiritual life.
These passages of scripture are not the only ones that can be used to form a proper theological grounding for student ministry. However, it has been shown that they each have important principles to contribute; and, when taken together, mesh to form a solid, Biblical foundation upon which can be built philosophies, goals, models, and methodologies.