Missional Student Ministry 101

Today too many in student ministry build on the wrong assumptions: that youth are just overgrown children, that entertainment and enthusiasm form the bedrock of student ministry, and that with the right personalities and programs we can disciple students effectively. I would argue that has not worked out so well. A fundamental shift must happen in contemporary student ministry, and is in fact happening in many ministries across our land. I call this a missional shift. But what is missional student ministry?

Missional student ministry flows out of a missional church seeking to create missional students. The compartmentalization of student ministry from the life of the church, often functioning as a virtual parachurch ministry using the church facility, must be replaced with an integrated approach involving the whole church ministering to the whole body, with specific application to various groups such as students and senior adults. In 1 John 2 we read teachings addressed to “children,” “young men,” and “fathers.” Focusing on a given group such as students can be validated in Scripture, but such focus should always grow out of the mission of God as applied in the local faith family.

The Missional Church Network suggests three theological distinctives helpful to understanding what is meant by missional church, which I will apply to student ministry today.

First, a missional church focuses on the missionary nature of God and His church.[i]

Our God is a sending God: The Father sent the Son, the Son sent the Spirit, and the Father, Son, and Spirit send the church. Likewise, student ministry should help students and their families see how their lives should grow out of the mission of God. The mission of God is more than a phrase—it summarizes the message of Scripture, indeed the message of Christianity. As we center our ministries on the gospel, we rediscover the missionary God who seeks to save sinners.

A biblical focus means reading/teaching all Scripture with gospel lenses―preaching the gospel to believers and unbelievers. It means student leaders demonstrate a lifestyle of repentance and cultivate a culture of wonder at the gospel. It means creating a safe place for those who do not yet “get” the gospel (whether radically unchurched or steeped in/blinded by religion).

Being missional means to focus on the supernatural, Spirit-led work of God. Study the history of great spiritual movements and you will see young people involved throughout. Jonathan Edwards said the First Great Awakening―a remarkable revival in the 1700s that changed the American colonies and helped shape what would become the United States―was essentially a youth movement. What if this generation of students were set on fire by the Holy Spirit to see God work in power?

We will not create missional students by merely implementing missional programming. Missional means helping students think, react, and live as missionaries in a broken and lost culture. We seek to develop a student ministry culture, an ethos, in which students take the posture of missionaries, living to fulfill the mission of God through the gospel of God regardless of vocation or location.

Doing this will require a fundamental shift in our teaching. Much of what we do in student ministry focuses on the lowest common denominator: What truth can we teach that will apply to all? In an attractional, event-driven ministry, this approach is necessary to keep people coming. And, if your ministry focuses more on the how of Christianity (how to date better, how to witness, how to be happy) than on the why (focusing on God and His plan), it will thus be more focused on truth that applies to the widest possible audience. But the more we focus on helping students see the big picture of who God is and what He is doing and why He is doing it, they can learn to make application to the unique aspects of their lives.

A second distinctive given by the Missional Church Network is that the missional church is about the church being incarnational rather than attractional.

This means being the presence of Christ, living out the gospel in how we relate to others at public schools, in our neighborhoods, jobs, and relationships. Yes, invite people to weekly church services and seasonal events (attractional). But also invite them into your daily lives to experience a relationship with God (incarnational). Jesus was sent into the world as God in the flesh. Our resurrected Lord then sent the church as His body to make disciples of every nation

Student ministry has too often been run on the engine of events, so that in practice a given ministry moves like a roller coaster, up the hill with the next event, flying down the tracks in a blur as the event happens, and then the arduous trek back up the next hill only to fly down once again. Events do matter and can be used to help create a missional view. But the obsession with them, and the utilization of events as the key scorecard for success, must not drive our ministry.

The final distinctive outlined by the Missional Church Network is that the missional church focuses on the mission of God, or the missio Dei.

In other words, those with a missional perspective no longer see the church “service” as the primary connecting point for those outside the church. While we want the lost to become Christ followers in the context of a local faith family, the church, our primary goal is not to get students into a building but to get them to Christ. The missional church is a “sent people,” more concerned with sending the people of the church out among the people of the world than with getting the people of the world in among the people of the church.

Students in their middle and high school years are not merely adolescents, or children finishing their childhood years; they are young men and women moving toward impact in the adult world. Therefore, if you are a minister in the local church, you must think of yourself less as simply a Bible teacher or leader; you must think like a missionary strategist, equipping students to know the gospel and the culture, and to live as missionaries.

This means we seek to create a missional posture in the students we lead. How? Here is a list from the Missional Church Network that offers a good place to start:[ii]

Spiritual formation/transformation.

How we teach believers, whether middle schoolers or senior adults, will focus on life transformation, not merely information dissemination. Spiritual formation becomes the goal more than teaching a lesson.

Emphasize the priesthood of believers.

Whether you are a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, a student, an athlete, or a teacher, your life and ministry are as vital as the pastor’s or anyone else’s.

Change the scorecard.

Student ministry too often measures by numbers and events exclusively. Numbers matter. The Scriptures record a lot of numbers. But we are in danger of becoming like David, who sinned when he numbered the people, if we rate our success by numbers in the building rather than the lost around us.

Our scorecard should measure the impact we are making in the local public school as much as (or more than!) the numbers we have in our youth gathering. How many students are sharing their faith? How many are volunteering at the school? How are students in your ministry cultivating relationships with unchurched youth? How are their families doing?

Value “third places.”

Jesus Christ did not come to establish a moral code; He came to launch a movement. Today young people by the thousands stand in long lines, pay highly inflated prices, and go out of their way to meet friends at Starbucks. Why? Because Starbucks created what sociologists call a third place (home, school, third place).

Starbucks has become the epitome of a third place for students. Everywhere I go I see students passionate about meeting friends there. They do not go to Starbucks because of the products they sell, but because of the environment they create. I constantly encourage pastors and student pastors to spend less time in the church office and more time in the third places in their community.

Give students the metanarrative.

The overarching Story of Scripture, the metanarrative of Creation, Fall, Rescue, Restoration, helps students see how all of reality relates to the work of God in our world, not just our “spiritual” lives. Show students that although Jesus certainly came to give us the hope of heaven after death, He came to give us life now as well.

As you begin 2015, which of these need more emphasis in your ministry?


*Note: This article was adapted from Alvin L. Reid, As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students (Navpress, 2013).

[i] “What Is Missional?,” Missional Church Network, accessed August 17, 2012, http://missionalchurchnetwork.com/what-is-missional.

[ii] “What Is Missional?”

Header image provided through creative commons, photographer Pawel Kadysz.

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