Thoughts and Questions for Student Ministry LeadersToday church leaders have been bewildered about how detached high school graduates are from the local church.
What’s the causing this detachment?
You and me.
I’m convinced we’re a major part of the problem.
From my perspective there are many contributing factors to this epidemic of detachment, but here I want to discuss one that relates to all of us: How we define educated. It’s a major issue needing attention in most, if not all of, our churches.
So, to start the process I invite you to take a step back and look at some questions I’ve been asking about the bigger picture of education beyond the home, Sunday school, or midweek youth group.
We as church leaders know the information we want to offer, package it in age-appropriate ways, and then communicate that information. We stand firm on our beliefs and seek to invest in kids, hoping they’ll embrace truth as we have. We desire to give our kids an accurate picture of God and Christ-like living. We want them to understand a life of faith, please God in all of their pursuits, and live with authenticity regarding who they say they are as Christians.
Sound about right?
Okay, two opening questions to begin our thought process:
How do you define “educated”?
How would you define an educated high school senior?
For instance, I’ve noticed that most of the time adults teach adult faith concepts to young kids...and believe they’re educating them. For instance, we talk about pursuing “a relationship with God”—which is at the core of Christian belief—but have six-year-olds ever consciously and intentionally pursued relationships with anyone? How will they do that with God, an abstract being?
We adults know how to process “a relationship with God,” but not little kids who’re extremely limited in their abstract-thinking capabilities. The same kind of thing can be said (but to a lesser degree) about the ways in which we teach middle schoolers and high schoolers.
Is it possible that our students are hearing things other than what we’re trying to say?
If so, what’s their perception, and how does it affect their view of Christianity and the church?
Can this dichotomy in perception have negative effects? If so, what might they be?
Information Versus Education
We have to understand the potentially negative effect of just disseminating information, teaching classes, or buying better curriculums. We can easily believe that a way to help kids keep their faith when they go away to college is to just give them more information. However, reducing detachment after high school is not so much about giving more information as it is about helping teenagers embrace the knowledge they already have. Piling on more information through classes and bible studies doesn’t necessarily educate kids; this philosophy of education will actually repel college-age people.
A Question We Should All Ask Ourselves
Do I spend more time giving information and putting on programs than I do helping students embrace the information they already have?
If we answer “yes” to this question, we’re not truly educating our kids. We’re simply disseminating information and, I believe, contributing to the detachment problem.
Battling University Philosophy
Many college students who’ve grown up in church aren’t excited about the prospect of church now that they’re away from home—especially when they’re presented one-sided, overly simplistic information. They already feel as though they’ve heard it all (which, of course, they haven’t), processed through it all (which, of course, they haven’t), and want to explore other faith possibilities—or none at all (which, of course, they do).
Here’s the problem: They’ve been given some information from a Christian perspective—making them feel as though they’re “educated”—but they’ve never really thought through the implications of that information. More importantly, they haven’t been forced to think through these concepts outside of the Christian tradition. Consequently they go to college and are challenged in shocking and sometimes faith-shattering ways. They weren’t really educated on the issues; they were just given some information.
College professors intentionally expose gray areas, which the church tends to shy away from. So college is often the first place our kids are forced to think through faith at this level. Unfortunately this means most are doing so out from under the wings of loving Christian voices. On the contrary, college professors tend to embrace secular humanism.
A Question We Must Ask Ourselves
Do I teach solely from a Christian perspective, or do I expose my kids to opposing philosophies and then walk through with them the reasons why a biblical view makes sense?
Telling our kids about only one spiritual perspective doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve educated our kids; it just means we gave them biased, often overly simplistic information.
Information Minus Thought = Detachment
Generally speaking the educational philosophy embraced in most churches—i.e., disseminating as much information as possible through classes and Bible studies—doesn’t prepare kids for the intellectual challenges they’ll face in college. Plus, most churches don’t embrace college-age members with age-appropriate ministries. This is the time of life when they naturally reevaluate all the assumptions they grew up with. And we lose our kids when we leave it to college professors to guide their thought processes as they go through these reevaluations.
Questions to Consider
Once your students graduate from high school, who’s shepherding them as they reevaluate every assumption they grew up with?
Should we be the ones causing reevaluation—or should we leave this up to college professors? Why or why not?
When we simply spoon feed morality to our high school students and then let them drop off the earth after they graduate, we do them a great disservice. From a college-age person’s perspective, this philosophy of education is trite, unauthentic, and overly simplistic. On the contrary, when they’re forced to think about and evaluate important topics in new and exciting ways in classrooms versus our homes and churches, we lose. Every time.
Questions for Leaders to Ask
Are we teaching our kids morality? Or ideas that are faith stimulating?
Are we challenging thought or just repeating the information provided in Christian books without ever going deeper?
Some More Questions
There are so many questions we should be asking ourselves for the sake of evaluating our effectiveness—or lack thereof. Here are a few more questions vital for student ministry leaders to ask themselves:
1. Are there things we’re teaching kids in youth group that parents are undermining in the home?
2. If so, what are those things and how do we go about educating parents about these issues? (Note: If parents aren’t a part of our education equation, we’re in serious trouble!)
3. Do we really welcome and discuss questions, thoughts, and doubts, or do we tend to shut down questions with overly simplistic information?
4. Do our kids feel free to tell us about their questions and doubts? If not, how do we encourage this? (Note: In order to shepherd our kids, we have to know what they’re thinking.)
5. Have we ever really thought through our faith and embraced a Christian lifestyle beyond the knowledge of simple information? (Note: If not, our kids won’t.)
6. Are there different philosophies of education within our church leadership? If so, how can we work toward being on the same page?
One Last Musing and Some Practical Steps
Answering all these questions can take literally years. Unfortunately if we don’t take seriously the prospect of answering these types of questions, our ignorance will inevitably show itself in the continued and worsening detachment of high school graduates.
So here are some practical steps we can take:
1. Clearly define what it means to educate kids—and beyond giving information.
2. Unveil and be honest about different philosophies of education in your church.
3. Have biweekly meetings with your staff where all you do is discuss questions like the ones in this article. Too often our staff meetings are task driven; we need many more meetings that talk through our philosophy of education.
4. List characteristics of an educated high school senior and then structure your ministry around building those characteristics into your students.
5. Figure out a way to walk alongside college-age people. We can do all the right things up until their senior years, but if we drop them after they graduate, all of it was worthless.
6. This week in youth group, instead of teaching, share some questions or even doubts you have! When our kids see us being honest about these things and yet firmly holding to the truth of Scripture, we’re (and they’re) heading down the right path.