Is Student Ministry Important?

Do you think student ministry is important? Is it strategic for God’s mission to all nations? Or is it peripheral, a transitional phase of missions and ministry, a “necessary evil” compared to more vital aspects of missions? Does student ministry put a strain on resources? Is it basically a sacrificial aspect of the ministry of the Church or parachurch—or is it in fact a most effective means for communicating the gospel? Is student ministry primarily event-driven and entertainment-oriented—or does it flow from the personal relationships housed in authentic communities of young believers?

Be honest. When you contemplated answers to these questions, were you thinking of student ministry as something others do to/for students? Or were you thinking of something students do to/for others?

Most Strategic for the Mission of God Today
Student ministry—the kind done by students to/for others—is most strategic for the mission of God today. It has always been so. God worked with and through youth in biblical times. Think of David, the young shepherd boy loading his sling for battle against Goliath. Or the teenaged Joseph, the youngest son of Israel. How about Timothy, the pastoral student of Paul? Most scholars agree that the disciples of Jesus were in their late teens or twenty-somethings.

God also used students and youth to accomplish his mission throughout post-biblical history. Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century Italian, began his pilgrimage as a contrarian, rebel, mystic, and servant of the poor when he was a teenager. The Swiss Anabaptists students of Ulrich Zwingli, “first lights” of the free church movement of the sixteenth century, were martyred at the hands of Protestant and Catholic churches alike. Remember the outflow of young, talented, student missionaries from Europe and America during the decades following the Haystack Prayer Meeting (1806) or the remarkable mobilization of the gospel through the subsequent Student Volunteer Movement (1888)? How about the generation of students during the 1960s Jesus Movement?

Historically, God has used students and youth to expand, even explode, the gospel of Jesus to impact the nations for his glory.

Still Today
Open your eyes and look around the world. Do you see them? Students and youth are stepping up to serve as witnesses and disciplers among all peoples. Majority World youth and students, inspired and led by God’s Holy Spirit, are “salting and lighting” their worlds for Jesus Christ (Matthew 5). Do you see them? Take it from this old Baby Boomer, they are there—still today!

Students and youth are stepping up to
serve as witnesses and disciplers among
all peoples.

In Zurich, a church movement of students and young professional Christ-followers swept through cities in Switzerland and Germany in the past decade. This European mega-church network (International Christian Fellowship) resembles others around the world. Yes, its top leaders are older, but the energy comes from the youth, the twenty-somethings. These kinds of youth-driven churches are rising up around the world.

How many international students attending universities in China were catalysts for church starts in that country? History will show that God used students on the leading edge of his multiplication of churches in East Asia and beyond. As I travel the world, I discover students meeting in coffee shops, relating to each other in authentic communities, discussing faith issues, and dealing with global realities through the eyes and ears of postmodern, global citizens. They are uniquely aware and refreshingly naive at the same time.

Who Are These Students?
There are five characteristics which set these students apart.

  1. They are passionate about Jesus. As always, students are passionate. They are willing to sacrifice and even die for the cause. God keeps using these radically passionate youth in his mission.
  2. They want to make a difference. Although they may not know how, when, or where, they absolutely want to be used by God in extraordinary ways. Maybe they have seen their parents or elders arrive at too many meaningless life destinations. In fact, this is how God made youth. Their ideals have yet to be ground down. They want to be about something that can change the world.
  3. They want to do it together. They are uncommonly communal. I’m writing this article from the Eastwest College in New Zealand (a WEC International ministry). This week I have thirty-one students, half are twenty-somethings from six countries—all training for the mission field. They don’t always get along with each other; however, they want to work together. This need to “hang out” together is a natural model for biblical discipling and church planting.
  4. They are brutally transparent. The younger they are, the more transparent they are. They see anomalies the rest of us miss. They have little patience for superficial politics and social fluff, but they may not speak out boldly against such. They simply disengage and seek out what is “real.” Sounds like the youth and students of the Bible and history.
  5. They may not have a clue how God wants to use them. Less performance-driven than Boomers and more engaged and concerned about others than Busters, today’s students and youth lack direction. They want to make a difference; however, they seem in no hurry to do so. They contemplate next steps, experiment with possibilities, and venture into short-term experiences. In short, they need direction.

What Do We Do with Them?
There are six things we must do with them.

  1. We must accept them. After all, we were once them! We must acknowledge that they are the future, not us. We need to remember that youth have always seemed irresponsible and impetuous to older, wiser ones. But, God is still using students to break through the darkness of the world and shape the future of the Church.
  2. We must empower them. We must release them to lead and disciple others in Christ. We must be willing to allow them to make, and learn from, mistakes as we did. We must free them to make changes they feel led by God’s Spirit to make.
  3. We must exhort them. We must speak the “truth in love” (Ephesians 4) as we walk alongside them. Like Paul to Timothy, we must continue to teach them the basics of the faith, and when they seek us out (and they will), we must hold them accountable not to our standard, but to God’s.
  4. We must coach them. We must take the time to coach them along the way. The most strategic thing I do is not teaching in class or advising field missionaries. It is sitting one-on-one and in small groups with students. It is listening and then speaking into their lives as they allow. They will seek out our coaching if we make the time for them. It may be the most important thing we do.
  5. We must learn from them. Perhaps the greatest blessing in working with students is learning from them. Sometimes it’s re-learning some beautiful aspect of the gospel we’ve long forgotten. It might be a subtle reminder, or a challenge to our thinking. Often it comes with a jolt or shock and can be quite embarrassing. It must honor God to see his younger children teach his older ones. I think he smiles when it happens.
  6. We must celebrate them with God. We must pray for them and thank God for how he uses them for his mission and his purposes. We must let them know we are proud of them and bless them.

After thirty years of international business, missions, and intercultural studies, and as a student of the history of God’s mission, I am convinced that the most strategic thing for us to do is to release these students and youth to be on mission with God among all peoples. At its core, this just makes good missiological sense. Most of the least-reached world is young. Who better to reach them for Christ than the young? They are best suited to equip the saints to evangelize, disciple, and plant churches among the least-reached.

Churches, stop trying to conform twenty-somethings into your mold for their lives. Just keep them in front of Jesus, his word, and the Holy Spirit, and watch what he does through them. Mission agencies, stop fooling yourselves that investing in students and youth is peripheral. It is at the core of our task of world evangelization. Christian leaders, don’t be afraid of their ideas. Let them experience what you did. Be patient with them as they test their faiths, stumble, and rise again, stronger and wiser than before. Majority World church leaders, don’t lord your power and influence over your students and youth. And please don’t use your culture and worldview as a scapegoat for not releasing your students to fulfill the Great Commission.

If you are a student—go for it! Don’t let anyone grind down your Jesus-centered radical rough edges. But make sure you are radical for Jesus, not yourself or others. As Paul said Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Launch out for Jesus, that all might know him. Be smart, find some older and wiser coaches and draw from their wisdom. Teach them along the way and they will be blessed. The older I get, the younger I think. Thank you for that, Lord!

Is student ministry important? What do you think?

Dr. Mike Barnett is professor of missionary church planting at Columbia International University (CIU). He and wife Cindy served twelve years with International Mission Board, working throughout the 10/40 Window. Barnett has published on various topics and is co-author of Called to Reach: Equipping Cross-cultural Disciplers, 2007.