5 Keys for Developing Long Term Strategy in Student Ministry

I’ve been asked to speak a few times on the topic of Student Ministry and here lately have had a few great conversations with fellow youth pastors about Student Ministry.  The following is a short version of my notes I have used on occasion.  The bold sections are a revision of my thoughts.

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The culture is changing rapidly and it provides us an excellent opportunity to examine how we should change our approach to student ministry. But there is one thing you need to know, even before the culture began pick up the pace Student Ministry was failing. The statistical data on Student Ministry is not pretty. We have a 75-85 % failure rate depending on whose statistics you read. To get a picture of how huge that number is…for every 4 kids actively involved in student ministry one makes it to church as an adult. Much can be said about why, how, and who obtained the various statistics but what I would like to do is use the current buzz around student ministry to help us evaluate our methods and begin exploring what success looks like in student ministry.

Create Long-term Goals

We need to create long-term goals for student ministry. Too often success in Student Ministry is measured in short term numbers. Nothing is wrong with using numbers to measure success. but are we using the right numbers? One sales job I had required you to wait 60 days before you collect your pay check. The reason was simple. People bring things back and you don’t get paid on what gets returned. (I’m not staying that kids lose their salvation, its just that sometimes they don’t really make genuine commitments. I’ve had students “get saved” at a concert because the invitation was offered in conjunction with a free bracelet from the evangelist. The were responding to a free bracelet offer and got counted as trusting in Christ. What is really sad is that i don’t think the evangelist was trying to cause this kind of confusion. He preached a sincere gospel message.)

Be Able to Measure

One of the key problems in this assessment is that most tangible numbers for student ministry are short term (decisions and attendance) and therefore get the most focus. Most long term goals in student ministry are intangible or we just haven’t developed a measuring stick and therefore in many ministries get little or no focus.  The questions we should be asking about student ministry isn’t, “how many?”, but “what do students who graduate from our group look like?”  Our focus needs to shift from entertainment with a christian vibe to discipleship (By discipleship I mean teaching our kids to know and put into practice the word of God in their lives… Not just know how to hotly debate side issues of doctrine.  Jesus tells us in the great commission that part of disciple making is “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” ) One of our measurements at a church I served was having students who are able to teach or disciple others.

Know where you are

Once you have determined the measuring stick, figure out where you are.  Get an honest assessment of how close or far away from the goal you are.  You may need to enlist the help of outsiders to give you an honest evaluation of your group.  If you are new to your position, ask a leader or youth worker who has been around if they know where the students are in relation to your goal of (bible reading, scripture memory, acts of service, leadership, discipleship, etc…) Ask yourself questions.  Ask your students questions  (Something as simple as a survey would work for “how often do you read your bible”)

Develop the playbook

If you set long term goals then you won’t achieve them overnight.  In fact, depending on your students, announcing your long term goal may backfire on you.  Sometimes it is better to establish short term goals that will help you get closer to your long term goal. For example, having students assist in teaching children at a backyard bible club is less intimidating that to disciple a peer.  The next step would be to have a student teach at a backyard Bible club.  Then maybe it is a student Sunday where students team up and teach adult classes, lead music, and preach.  Then maybe its calling on the older students to teach younger students in the course of a disciple now weekend.  Each one of these is a strategic step towards a larger goal of having students who are able to teach.  (Hint: celebrating each step along the way will help students develop the confidence and trust in God to take the next big step)

Stick around for the Results

Unless you build from the ground up or start with just a small handful of students it will take time to see strategy come to fruition.  If you develop a 4 year strategy and leave after two years you were only halfway through the plan.  That is kind of like quitting the game at half-time.  I know that sometimes circumstances are beyond your control or God calls you to go somewhere. But where possible see it through.  Discipleship is a lifelong commitment.

Every Student, Every Neighbor

It was 4 AM and I couldn’t sleep.  So I just laid there in bed with thoughts racing through my head about prayer, how to pray, why we pray, why we don’t pray enough and who would be at their flag pole in the morning.  I was worried because I am not normally compulsive about simple events like asking students to show up and pray at their flag pole.  So I eased my mind and began to call out to Jesus for clarity and  for focus.  In my heart he began a burden that was more fully realized later at the flagpole that day.

Flag's at Ransom Middle School (iphone)

I stood around with a crowd of about sixty teenagers at a flag pole as they prayed.  I watched from my huddle of adults as hundreds of other kids piled around the court yard wondering what was going on at their flag pole.  My heart broke for the students.  Sixty at the pole and about three hundred on the outside watching, more arriving each minute.  As I stood there I could see it like a sign over thier heads.  People lost like sheep without a shepherd.  Words about addictions, struggles, and issues that lead to death filled my mind. Words like anorexia, school violence, drugs, depression, peer pressure, alcohol poisoning, drunk driving, bulemia, abortion, suicide, rape, racism, bullying… lies that people believe.  My heart was broken knowing that many have never even heard the name of Jesus other than a cuss word.

Then I called out to God from the noise in my head and pleaded for him to empower these sixty, these few to reach their school for Jesus.  Though much of the freedoms once afforded teachers and other adults on the campus were coming under attack in our area, one thing was clear… students still have the freedom to share the gospel and tell their friends about Jesus.

Yet peer pressure stands in the way.  That is what kept sixty around the pole instead of in the crowds.  Its also what kept students from finding their way to school on time and praying at the pole.  The older I get, the easier it is to see.  Like going on a mission trip and seeing the need in another culture, I look at students, now that I am a generation removed, and see more clearly than ever their need for the gospel.  Indeed, I am a missionary to another culture.

Then it struck home.  What about the place where I live?  What about my culture?  What about my neighborhood just a few blocks away?  Do I see the need there?  There is a need.  Though my neighbors have houses like mine, cars like mine, kids like mine, and experience the same weather I do, many do not know, or have not heard about Jesus.

So I transitioned out of thought and into thoughtful action.  Rebekah (my 3 year old) and I are out walking the streets in the evenings meeting neighbors and developing relationships for a bridge to the gospel.  My aim is to meet and find opportunities to share the gospel with all of my neighbors.

I am still burdened for our schools and the student culture (and their parents) that I have been called to pastor and be a missionary to.  My prayer is that as we pray and ask God to send laborers that students and families would catch a vision for God and He would use them to share the gospel with every student, teacher, and faculty member by the end of the school year.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  (Matthew 9:35-38 ESV)

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”(Romans 10:13-16 ESV)

What about you?  What is your strategy to reach your neighborhood, school, or workplace?  Are you partnering with others to see Jesus proclaimed where you are?

3 books that have profoundly influenced my life

I have to be honest about two things. First, I should state that I was influenced by the authors, not just the books themselves. I have since read many books by many of these men and enjoy the conversation I have with each one. Second, with the exception of John Piper, the authors on this list are dead. God has used them in a mighty way past the years he has given them on this earth. I am thankful that though they are dead, they still speak.

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1. Desiring GodJohn Piper

I first read this book while still in school at the University of Mobile and it opened up a world for me to begin to understand God in a way that I had never understood him before.  I was amazed to discover that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  I don’t think any other single person (short of my parents) has had the level of impact on my thinking.  I was blessed to hear a sermon by Dr. Piper a little later that year entitled “Doing Missions When Dying is Gain.”  (you can listen to the same sermon for free here.) I have never been the same.

2. Pilgrim’s ProgressJohn Bunyan

I read pilgrims progress when I was a child at a small Christian School in Montana.  I have since read and reread it in several different modern English versions.  It was through John Bunyan that I was introduced to the rich application of the scriptures.  I have never read another book that so completely described the Christian journey.  I think this is the book I have shared most often with others. It was once a theme for a Disciple Now and a Christian Heritage Conference Its an easy read, but spiritually challenging.

3. How to Win Friends and Influence PeopleDale Carnegie

I picked up the 1936 edition of this book and read it when I was 16 years old.  A speech teacher had told me about it and I set out to read it.  It profoundly shaped the way I communicate and made me a different person.  Dale Carnegie taught me to take a genuine interest and really care about people.

What about you?  What books or people have greatly influenced your life?

My Story (Part 3): Lost in a Religious World

flickrcom-photos-harmony19490-36241501621 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matthew 7:21-23).

Lost in a Religious World

I found myself at the age of 16 rejecting an opportunity to attend the Alabama School of Math and Science in order to move with my family to Missouri.  I was trying to run from all the bad things I had done and ended up being a self-righteous snob.  I had an earnest desire to prove that I was a good person and a secret desire to make up for all the wrong I had done.  I was engaged in religious activity and very involved in a student group 30 minutes away from our house (back when gas was $1.16 a gallon).

I also started a small student group of about 8-10 kids in the basement of my father’s new church (an aging 25 member congregation).  I was a great self-starter but lacked substance and depth.  I learned a lot about student ministry from the way I failed when I was just a 17 or 18 year old kid trying to lead a group of my peers.

In the fall of 1997 I moved to Mobile, Alabama.  My first weekend in mobile I was invited to speak to the youth at a friends church in Gulf Shores.  The next weekend I was at Lafitte and quickly became a student ministry intern.  Things progressed quickly and just over a year later I was appointed associate student minister and then very quickly I was appointed student minister.

Building a Resume of Deeds

I had a passion and a desire for the things of God (Romans 10:2-4), but all the while I was building an impressive resume for God to accept me based on my good works.  Not realizing that my deeds did not mean as much to God as my heart (Isaiah 64:6). I worked hard to be a good communicator and studied to know much of the Bible.  You would have been hard pressed to find anyone my age more knowledgeable about the things of God.  Yet I still missed it.

I became good at telling people how to become a Christian.  Most of the places I spoke (outside of Lafitte) would see two or three students make decisions saying something had changed in their life.  Every week at Lafitte the same kids were “rededicating” their life and never changing and many of the converts I saw in those early years never became fully devoted followers of Christ.

The saddest part is that I really thought I was a Christian.  One of the things I enjoyed doing was learning new ways to present how to become a Christ follower to people.  I went through FAITH, EE, and several other presentations.  One of the key type questions in these presentations is to ask people “how does someone get to heaven?”  I always answered my instructors that it was “by doing good works” and they would correct me.  Yet, they never question me further because I was a poster child for someone interested in “Christian things.”

My list of religious deeds was long.  I lead a student group. Helped lead and developed a prayer group for reaching international students at UM.  I had opportunities to speak at several student events all over Alabama.  I helped feed the homeless on a regular basis.  I walked the streets of downtown mobile passing out religious literature.  I had been on Mission to East Asia.  I had spoken in  many churches.  I partnered in founding a conference that celebrated a protestant Christian History.  But without Christ…. I was lost and without hope (Philippians 3:4-11).

It wouldn’t be until I woke up from a Nightmare that I would come to understand just where I stood with God and what needed to be done to set things right.

Want to know more about the Christian message and how to become a Christ follower?  Click the link below.  Be sure to read the whole thing.

Who Do You Think that I Am?

9 Reflections on Disciple Now (Part 2)

3. Our teenagers glorified God by serving others with the work projects this weekend (They painted a house, built a ramp, hosted a backyard bible club, and took cookies to the home bound).

4. Our teenagers were given at least one more point of contact with our church family (they stayed in the home of church members and the relationships at Calvary were deepened and  developed as students and adults interacted)

5. Our Teenagers were given a positive aim for their life and real reason to remain pure (to glorify God in manhood and womanhood!)  Too often the loftiest aim we give our kids is to stay out of trouble… ie… “true love waits” and we fail to provide a positive challenge to our kids to raise the standard.

5 Questions About The Kingdom

2906018712_386fd8e288 I read a several books while I was visiting family for Christmas.  One book was a particularly good read but it had a catch.

The author put a lot of stock in his understanding of Luke 17:21 “The kingdom of God is in you.” Theologians have discussed the meaning of this passage at length. The debate is over whether Jesus is saying “inside of you” or “in the midst of you” (both appropriate rendering of the Greek word entos according to the context).  Since Jesus is responding to a question posed by Pharisees (by implication unbelievers)  it is my understanding that he would be stating “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

5 Questions about the Kingdom?

This only seems to be a big deal when you start listening to the way people are beginning to use “kingdom of God” speak.  The term “kingdom of God” has come to mean so many things to so many people that it is almost mind numbing.  I am sure that someone has done the world a great service of defining the different usages of the word “kingdom” and how different camps are using it.  I have yet to stumble across it.

To be sure, I doubt the author meant anything more than the rule and reign of Christ.  I just question the hermeneutic.  However doubtless to say, there are others who carry the same hermeneutic who have begun to talk about the kingdom in purely philanthropic ways.

The question the book raised in my mind are many.

  • Is the kingdom now, or yet to come, or both?
  • Does God love the poor more than the wealthy? (do the poor need the gospel more?)
  • Is the unity of the kingdom centered on the work of the kingdom or the king?
  • Is the Kingdom about what the king wants or the what the citizens need or is it the same thing?
  • What distinguishes the “work of the kingdom” from others who under take purely philanthropic endeavors like Bill Gates and Oprah? In a nut shell, “What makes mission Christian?” Apparently a current issue of debate (See IJFM Issue 25.2)

As always I would love to hear your comments and get my hands on some resources as I work towards understanding a solid definition of the kingdom.