By Chad Ragsdale
I recognize that in some respects I’m not qualified to write this article.
I’m not a paid youth minister. I understand it can be obnoxious or presumptuous for a person who is not in a field to tell others who are in that field how to do their jobs. That is not the purpose of this article. My purpose is merely to offer a few suggestions based on my unique perspective on student ministry.
I have three kids who are all very involved in the student ministry at our church. Two of my kids are in high school and the third is in middle school. My wife and I have led discipleship groups in our student ministry for years.
As an educator at a Bible college, I get to work with students who have recently graduated from student ministries. Over my years of teaching, I’ve observed both the strengths and weaknesses of some ministries in training their students.
It is from this perspective that I offer these 10 suggestions of what I would teach in student ministry (in no particular order). These suggestions are aimed at preparing students to be resilient and growing disciples of Jesus amid the realities of our world.
1. A Biblical Sexual Ethic. We know our students are growing up in a sexually charged time. Our culture has emptied sex of its sanctity while simultaneously making sex the center of our identity. This has made sex a source of anxiety and confusion. Amid the confusion, our students need to be instructed on a biblical sexual ethic. They also need to know how to live out that ethic and how to respond toward those who disagree.
2. Living with Technology. David Kinnaman’s book Faith for Exiles identified training in how to live with technology as one factor that separated resilient disciples from those young Christians who leave their faith. We know our students are growing up in a digital age. Their lives are always “on” and “connected.” This digital reality is discipling them in profound ways. Students need timely and godly wisdom on how to live well with technology.
3. Reading and Engaging Culture. The first two suggestions point to a larger need—learning how to navigate our culture. Rather than the extremes of reacting with hostility toward culture or passively accommodating it, young disciples need wisdom in how to read culture. Teach students to think about culture. Teach them to ask about the various messages they are receiving from culture. Teach them to be savvy and discerning.
4. Cultivating a Life of Virtue. In the church, we can tend to engage in behavior management. “Do this! . . . Don’t do that!” Unfortunately, behavior management does not always reflect a Spirit-fueled transformation. Transformation comes with the cultivation of Christian virtues like those found in the fruit of the Spirit. What does it look like to be a person who is kind, joyful, or self-controlled? Specifically, I can think of few virtues more critical for students to cultivate today than the virtue of faithfulness.
5. Basic Biblical Knowledge. It may seem old-fashioned, but students just really need to know the Bible. Teach students the books of the Bible. Train them to memorize key passages. Identify for them the major themes and doctrines found in the pages of Scripture. Finally, teach them the principles of how to read and study Scripture on their own.
6. Integrating Faith and Life. As you go about teaching basic biblical knowledge, you will need to help students integrate their faith into their lives. Help them to answer the question, “Why does any of this matter?” Avoid being vague. Instead, give them specific examples to show them what it looks like.
7. Multiplication and Leadership. Do you see your students as the future leaders of the church, or do you see them merely as the consumers of your programs? Youth ministries need to invest time and energy in raising up leaders for the next generation. Every youth minister and volunteer should be trying to train up their replacement.
8. Service. Entitlement kills discipleship. It stunts our growth and steals our joy. Youth ministries should challenge students to selfless service whether that is serving in another area of the church or participating in service projects in the larger community. Students should be conspicuous in the ways they are serving those around them.
9. Seeing a Big Church. Students should have a picture of church that goes beyond their particular student ministry. Give students the opportunity to have regular intergenerational experiences with Christians who are both more and less experienced than they are. Additionally, take every opportunity to introduce them to what God has been and is currently doing in the global church. Students need to know they are a part of a long heritage and a huge family.
10. Explain the Why. Stop assuming stuff. Don’t assume that your students know the Bible. Don’t assume your students automatically care about the things you care about. Many of our students are growing up in an environment where the things of faith are not at all assumed. Be the type of honest community where students feel loved and accepted enough that they can bring their questions, struggles, and doubts.
Dr. Chad Ragsdale serves as executive vice president of academics with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Mo. He and his wife have three children who are very involved in the student ministry of their church. He shared many of these thoughts in an OCC NextLevel Webinar.