Marks of a Healthy Student Ministry

Appetite and Ability to Study God’s Word

The third mark of health in our series is:

A healthy student ministry has people with an appetite and ability to study God’s Word.

Many passages reveal the importance of God’s Word in the life of a believer and in the life of a church. For example, as soon as the church started to gather in the book of Acts we find four things that were most important to them:

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship and to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)

While fellowship, the ordinances, and prayer are critical to spiritual health as well, devotion to doctrine is conspicuously absent in many churches and particularly absent in most youth ministries. Craving Scripture is commanded for everyone.

So putting away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk of the word, that by it you may grow up to salvation. (1 Peter 2:1-2)

Desire for God’s Word should be natural and innate in those who have been born of God. Just as a person is born again by the Word (1 Peter 1:23), so they should continue to crave and feed on Scripture for spiritual growth. Therefore, the apostle Peter commands Christians to long for the pure milk of the word. The imperative applies to every believer, old and young.

This is more than simply reading the Bible. We’re promoting a hunger that isn’t satisfied with scraps; a longing that causes someone to linger over God’s Word until it is at home in their heart.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)

An appetite for the Book is distinctively characteristic of an individual’s spiritual health and by extension the health of any ministry, especially ministry to young adults.

Craving God’s Word is important not only for growth, but knowing Scripture is valuable for ministry.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The word profitable describes something that is useful and beneficial. In this context, the benefit of Scripture’s inspiration is to provide inerrant direction and counsel for shepherding and service. God’s Word prepares and enables a person for every good work. Many ministry problems would be solved by looking to and learning from the Bible. Many youth pastors would be patently armed for youth ministry if they knew more about the Bible than skateboarding and contemporary Christian music. Many students would be ready to use their spiritual giftedness if they continued in what they had learned from God’s Word] instead of building their buddy list on MySpace.

So why don’t more student ministries focus on Scripture? Perhaps it is because studying Scripture takes time and work.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

A worker is someone who does WORK! There are no shortcuts to Scripture insight; it takes study. This work requires diligence. The phrase do your best describes the importance of zeal and eagerness in this effort. And while this verse primarily applies to the teacher, the importance of rightly handling God’s book is relevant for everyone. A healthy student ministry must train staff and students so that they would have ability to study (and obey) with accuracy.

And finally, feeding on Scripture is to be nonstop.

Feeding on Scripture should take place during times of corporate teaching, even in (I might say, especially in) student ministries.

Against this are some who suggest that student ministries should get rid of preaching altogether. They may even go so far as to suggest that someone can get too much teaching. But passages like Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1, and Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19 exhort day and night teaching and meditation. (The only danger from too much teaching is sleeping during it! Acts 20:7-9).

Leaving God’s weapon sheathed because students can’t handle it is self-destructive. That is why all spiritually dynamic student ministries teach biblical truth and urge young Christians to apply it. God’s Word changes lives, so a healthy student ministry will wield the Sword, not fall on it. A robust student ministry will exalt God’s Word, endeavoring to faithfully proclaim the whole counsel of God. A healthy youth ministry will have students and staff people who are hungry for Scripture, not pop-psychology or self-esteem seminars.

Not only should feeding on Scripture take place when the ministry gathers but it should also happen during regular times of personal study. It is inappropriate and injurious to go days without eating. Each student must eat Bible-meals in between group meetings. If the word of Christ only visits on Sundays it is not richly dwelling in you.

Jonathan Edwards wrote about Scripture intake with relevance for both youth pastors and their students:

If God has made it the business of some to be teachers, it will follow that He has made it the business of others to be learners. For teachers and learners are correlates, one of which was never intended to be without the other. God has never made it the duty of some to take pains to teach those who are not obliged to take pains to learn. He has not commanded ministers to spend themselves in order to impart knowledge to those who are not obliged to apply themselves to receive it.

A healthy student ministry must have people ravenous for, and skilled in understanding, God’s Word.

Marks of a Healthy Student Ministry

Godly Leaders

Here is the second mark of a healthy student ministry:

A healthy student ministry has people who are godly leaders.

We cannot bypass the principle of godly leadership and still expect to see God’s blessing. Holiness is the primary ingredient for leaders in the church.

It is staggering to consider how many churches–and youth ministries in particular–select leadership. A man (or woman) is not to be a leader in the church because he is the best businessman, has innate leadership ability, or has a large bank account. In student ministries specifically, leaders aren’t chosen because they can snowboard or play Halo or whatever. Those with worldly gifts and talents are not God’s best tools; God wants and uses righteous instruments.

Godly leaders are those with deacon qualified character. When Timothy stayed in Ephesus, he had the responsibility of bringing the church to spiritual maturity. The apostle Paul knew Timothy couldn’t do it alone and that he needed godly leaders beside him.

Titus faced the same challenge in Crete, and Paul gave him similar advice. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 Paul gives a profile of the kind of people that are to be leading the church. They are to be:

  • above reproach
  • devoted to their wives
  • temperate
  • prudent
  • respectable
  • hospitable
  • able to teach
  • self-controlled
  • not self-willed
  • not quick-tempered
  • not pugnacious (not a punch-throwers)
  • not contentious
  • gentle
  • not materialistic
  • managing their household well
  • having a good reputation among unbelievers
  • lovers of good
  • just
  • devout
  • and not new converts

Those are the qualifications given in Scripture for leaders in the church. They indicate the kind of people God wants to lead His church. A church should not accept just any volunteer; it should elevate godly ones. While not everyone on the youth staff will be an elder or deacon/deaconness, these are the spiritual characteristics that must be promoted and pursued.

Godly leaders are also those committed to sacrificial service. This involves their:

  • time
  • talents and
  • treasure

The sacrificial service of a leader is above and beyond the sacrificial service of a non-leading Christian. And since every Christian follower is called to lose their life, giving up everything to follow Christ (cf. Mark 8:34-38), how much more the leaders.

This above-and-beyond commitment is alongside of responsibilities to family and work. The family is not equivalent to the church, so serving one’s family is not synonymous with one’s “ministry.” Neither is a person’s vocation equivalent to the serving the body, regardless of the spiritual opportunities provided by the position itself.

There are other ministries in the church that someone can serve in, even “deacon” in, using their spiritual giftedness, discipling, while following Christ that will cost a person less than serving in a leadership position in a student ministry. But we should stop making apologies for how much is asked of leaders. We ultimately answer to God (and to a lesser degree, to the elders, the parents, and even the students themselves), therefore, it is not a responsibility to take lightly. We show how valuable we think the ministry is by how much it costs us to serve. Ministry that doesn’t cost anything isn’t very precious.

The consequences of our work are eternal. We’re engaged in a spiritual fight. Our work demands commitment. If a youth ministry doesn’t have leaders who measure up to God’s standards, there will be problems from the start. So we must labor to make sure that our leaders (staff and students) are biblically qualified and clearly identified. Leaders don’t just appear with the push of a button.

Marks of a Healthy Student Ministry

Part of the Local Church

I retaught my series on the Marks of a Healthy Student Ministry almost a year ago. The introduction is here and without further ado the actual marks finally begin.

A healthy student ministry has people who are part of the local church.

The Old and New Testaments are completely silent about Student Ministries. There are no verses that describe ministry focused on young people. Based on this alone, we might conclude that student ministry is at best a-biblical, that is, it isn’t found in the Bible. But though no verses support or provide instruction for this particular ministry, there are also no scriptures that condemn or prohibit it. Apparently student ministries is not anti-biblical either. So should there be such a thing as student ministry, and if so, where does it belong?

The New Testament does have much to say about the church and her role. Of course, a church is a body of believers that gather together in a local place for corporate worship, mutual edification, and biblical instruction for observing everything Christ commanded. In particular, Paul defines the work of church leaders in Ephesians 4:11-16 as strengthening and equipping believers to do the work of the ministry.

This responsibility of the church is to equip every believer. No national, cultural, gender or age restrictions exist, providing a rationale for focused shepherding and discipling of students. In light of Ephesians 4:11-16, student ministry exists to strengthen and equip students to do the work of the ministry. Done properly, student ministry is just a focus on the few to reach the many within the context of a local church.

Churches typically have other ministries aimed at specific groups of people, be that children’s’ ministry, women’s’ ministry, etc. These particular ministries are not essential for equipping the saints but they can help to target “each part of the body” (Ephesians 4:16) and “every man” (Colossians 1:28). Colossians 1:28 was not actually written for youth ministry; it is Paul’s objective for the entire church. Presenting “every man” complete in Christ is a huge task and student ministry exists to reach the “every man” among the Junior High and High School students as God enables salvation and sanctification. But it is only under the umbrella of the entire church that student ministry makes sense.

Though I’m certain there are more, here are four brief sub-points important for being part of a local church.

  1. Following Christ. As part of a local church students need to follow Christ. On one hand this is so basic, yet on the other hand we never want to take it for granted. As part of the Body we must follow [the Head][head]. Anything we do apart from following the Head misses the point of being a part of the whole.
  2. Submitting to the elders. Elders are given by God to oversee the local body. Students are responsible to submit to the direction and priorities the elders set like the rest of the body. Elders are given to guide and protect, so wandering from their oversight is inappropriate and dangerous.
  3. Pursuing the same goals as the whole body. A philosophy of student ministry should not contradict or compete with that of the overall ministry. Though some practical differences may exist, there should be no disconnect between what happens in big church and “little church.” The goals and practices of student ministry should be consistent with every other ministry.
  4. Serving others outside of student ministries. Whether helping lead in children’s’ Sunday School or service projects for families in need, students are a necessary part of the body that must work properly the makes the body grow.

Because student ministry is only healthy as it is part of a local body, student participation in “big church” worship is important as well. The youth meeting does not and cannot replace the entire congregation’s worship services. Anytime the church gathers, students should be a included.

Though it should be obvious, this also means that healthy student ministries are not isolated from the older members, those with wisdom to share and to whom the younger should watch as examples. Para-church ministries that attempt to make disciples in an isolated context away from the church are missing out on the blessings and benefits of being part of a local body.

Being part of a local church is #1 on the list for a reason. Too many youth pastors and student ministries try to do their own thing and try to be so different from what’s happening in the rest of the church that inconsistency and ineffectiveness abound. Student ministry is not finished until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, grown up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. In order to do this, students must be connected to the rest of the Body. Though churches don’t need student ministries to be a healthy churches, healthy and proper student ministries must be part of local churches.