How Can I Reach Students Better?

Have you ever gone to the mall on a Friday night to get some clothes shopping done, and ended up spending more time people watching?

Don’t lie to me. You have, and I know it.

Normally, the big things you see at the mall on a Friday aren’t people accomplishing their gift shopping or locals supporting small businesses. You see so much more than just these rare gems.

No, you see high school students out on “dates,” which means the guy is aimlessly wandering around with a cute girl from school until their moms come to pick them up before the mall closes.

They’re the most interesting creatures on the face of this earth. They want to act like adults, spend mom and dad’s money like adults, but have none of the responsibilities of adults. They think they’re older than they really are, more mature than they really are, and more competent than they really are. They love their independence, but can’t help but flock to attention. They scorn authority, but want to be the ones in charge. They’re the most intricate oxymoron in society, and we adults know it because we once were one of them.

These high school students, and middle school students alike, are the ones who fascinate me and break my heart in the world right now. I’ve spent the last almost 6 years (3 years vocationally) pouring my heart and soul into seeing these kids take the next step in their faith, including the first step into seeing who Jesus really is. I fought the calling I had for student ministry for a good while when I stepped back from it in 2015, but I’m more convinced now than ever that student ministry, middle school through college, is where my heart is.

Over the past 6 years, I’ve learned so much about how to relate to students that stand where I once stood. I’ve learned that the way I understand things isn’t how they understand them, nor is the way I understood things in high school the same way high schoolers understand them now.

For all intents and purposes, as I move forward, here’s how I define the “students” to which I’ll be referring:

A student is anyone including, but not limited to, those in 6th grade through 12th grade, and at times including post-secondary education individuals. These individuals are held to a high standard in the academic world, being tasked to complete rigorous course requirements in order to certify mastery in any given subject.

This definition seems a little like a no-brainer, I’ll admit. But, I think our church culture has gotten this all wrong. The big C American Church has belittled the potential and the power of 6th through 12th graders and unknowingly confined them to their age instead of their position. When churches call their 6th through 12th grade programming grouping a “youth group” instead of a “student ministry,” they grossly mistake what these students can do.

A “youth group” is just a gathering of young people. A “student ministry” is a discipleship community of responsible individuals who have the potential to disciple others, which the church recognizes.

So, I’d like to share 5 thoughts on student ministry with you that I’ve observed over the past 6 years, and thoughts that I think can change the way you reach students better in the church and outside in the community.

1. Go where they are.

If you want to know the people you want to reach, you must be in the environments and places that those people are. It’s no different with students. If you want to know more about your students, then at the very least you need to be at the places they are. Seeing students in their normal lives, without the careful scrutiny of parents or people who want them to be something they aren’t, will tell you a great deal about what they believe, who their friends are, and what they’re dealing with at any given time.

Go to the mall, see how you can get into their school lunches, go to their football/baseball/basketball/soccer games, etc., and you’ll see what I mean. Not only does that let you see who they are; it lets them see that you care. It shows them that you care enough about them just to show up, and that goes a long way when ministering to students in this day and age.

2. Be who you really are.

If you want to know who your students really are, what makes you think that you can be some self-righteous, holier-than-thou person who puts on the church mask when you’re around them? Another big component to student ministry is being the real you. If you fake your life around your students, they’re going to know. They can smell fake from a mile away, since they’re so used to fake people at school with them. Being a part of a safe environment means being a source of truth in their lives, and that starts out the gate by being the real you.

When you’re real with students, they’re going to see that you don’t always know all the answers, you mess up just like them, and you haven’t figured it all out, which is really comforting to them in the most roundabout way possible. They’ll see that it’s okay to not be okay, and that even following after Jesus like you are doesn’t solve all the problems in the world; instead, it gives them rest and peace when everything around them is chaotic and disheartening.

3. Don’t skimp on the hard stuff.

With students, it may seem easier to give a watered down, easy-to-swallow lesson that contains basic principles of faith, like “Love Others” or “Tell The Truth”, without any sort of depth or substance to it. You may think that they’ve sat for 7 hours in a classroom all day, so they don’t need another weighty lecture at a place where they don’t actually have to be, even if their parents said they had to be there.

In as few words as possible, that’s wrong. That’s the furthest thing from what they need. They need the hard truths of Scripture, even if they don’t always say they want it. When crisis strikes, or when what they’re learning at school conflicts with what you’re saying on Wednesday nights, where will they turn? If you give them the right tools through theology, apologetics, and a deeper understanding of the Bible, they’ll more readily turn to Jesus when hard times hit. Go deep in your messages, lessons, and conversations; you’ll see your students think more critically and more objectively, and, in turn, will take what you’re saying more seriously.

4. Observe their culture.

Culture is a really interesting topic when it comes to student ministry. Do we bring culture into the church, or do we bring church into the culture? It’s a concept that has stumped me as I prepare my messages and lessons, and have conversations with students at church and out in the open. But, the reality is that culture shapes so much of what your students do. And not just culture as a whole; their culture specifically determines what’s “cool” and what’s trendy to them. The things they hear on the trending Spotify playlists, listen to on the radio, watch on TV, and see on the Internet are the defining pillars of their world; as a rule of thumb, whatever we see in the media sphere is what we can expect to determine what our students think.

So, in order to understand students better, take the time to study their cultural norms. Listen to their music. Watch some of their TV shows and movies. Ask them what their go-to playlist on Spotify is. Figure out what voices they’re listening to in their world, and figure out how to tune in your ear for just one moment. By doing so, you’ll put your finger closer to the pulse of culture, being able to reach your students through the media they enjoy and to which they respond best.

5. Take them on the journey of a lifetime.

This, by far, is the most important thing I’ve learned. Old-school church says, “Do this. Be here at this time. Don’t have too much fun. Don’t do these things.” And old-school church has pushed students further away from church than they’ve ever been before. Don’t do the things that are old and outdated when you relate to your students. Don’t tell them just to follow Jesus; show them how. I firmly believe that if we walk alongside our students in the relationship with Jesus, then they’ll see the wonders and beauty of our Lord and Savior more clearly.

Everything in their world is pulling their attention in multiple different directions. Show them the brightness, the vibrancy, the sufficiency of a relationship with Christ. Don’t change the Gospel message to be more attractive; let your life show them that it’s attractive to you, and that you’d stake your life on it. Turn their heads with how much you love Jesus for Jesus’ sake. Invite them on the most exciting, most interesting, and most thrilling journey they’ll ever go on in their lives: a journey with Jesus.

There’s so much more I wish I could tell you about these things. There are so many more components to these five thoughts, but it would take books upon books to give you a fuller picture. Student ministry has changed my life, because God changed my life through student ministry. Through men like my student pastors, Ben Trueblood and John Paul Basham, and my leaders in middle and high school, Jake Holland and Donald Whipple, God gave me life in my deadness and changed my world forevermore.

In closing, if you’ve ever wanted to change the world, then get involved with those whose world is still being formed. If you want to make a difference in your community, get involved in student ministry. Be a volunteer at your church. Call your church’s student pastor and say that you want to help, even if it’s just standing at a door while students funnel into service. I urge you and challenge you to influence these kids for the better, because they’re our world both now and in the future.

2 thoughts on “How Can I Reach Students Better?

  1. i’d be interested in hearing your take (similar format) on the “next phase” in the chronology of age-grouped disciples: the “singles”/”college” ministry group. ,…
    thanks for your thoughts. everything you said in this mini-treatise is thoughtful, true and spot-on. and as you say “living it” is the hard-necessary part. tried it in church ministry – though i fell for the “youth group” moniker of the 1980’s, right off; but He overcame it for some moderate successes. tried it in parenting with my wonderful wife Beverly, with much more success: same principles work on the off-spring, quite well – if we say so ourselves.
    thanks for all you do and Who you represent. be blessed.

    1. Hey Frank! I think I would recommend those same exact principles for a young adults/college ministry (which I’ll restate because I’ll lose my train of thought if I don’t repeat it). In order to reach the 18-25+ crowd, here’s how I would contextualize those 5 ideas:

      1. Go where they are.
      – The biggest difference between teenagers and young adults is their freedom to change current locations as they see fit. If ministers don’t position themselves in the student unions, coffee shops, or surrounding areas where their people frequent, or opening their homes to their people for a place to call a second home, then you’re missing an opportunity to be a confidant and key player in someone’s life.
      2. Be who you really are.
      – Young adults, even though they’ve learned the art of adapting to different circumstances through abstract thinking, truly value authenticity, and will respond with more authenticity when ministers offer it freely. There’s also a transition from congregant to peer in this “young adult” phase, which creates a view of “this person is more my equal than my superior,” and that warrants true authenticity in an iron-sharpening-iron/discipler-disciple relationship.
      3. Don’t skimp on the hard stuff.
      – Young adults are either in the thick of post-graduate education or have finished an equivalent, possibly multiple times over depending on their location in the age range. They can handle deep theology, deep petitions, and can even respond well to accountability & spiritual confrontation. They need to continually have the reinforcement of, “Life is hard, but God is bigger.”
      4. Observe their culture.
      – They’re taking in the culture of those in the phase under them, and therefore are forming their culture based on what they see. If ministers don’t pay attention to the gears turning in their heads and catch the wave of their culture, ministers can very easily lose touch with the people they’re aiming to reach. Know what’s relevant, even if it’s only at a nominal level.
      5. Take them on the journey of a lifetime.
      – Young adults are looking more than ever for something to engage them. They have message flying at them all day long, varying in content and degree. Give them something that will take them on a more exciting, worthier journey through Scripture and theology that will create deep wells of doxology that sustains through their middle and mature adult years.

      Knowing all three of your children (Laura and Paul better than I do Amy), I firmly believe that you raised them right and raised them to be thriving members of this world in their respective circles.

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