Many things we do in church are just “baked in.” We’ve “always done them that way.” Your church might serve the Lord’s Supper quarterly, or your Sunday school class might have an annual hayride, or the women may attend that same conference together year after year. Student ministry is no different. Often, we do the same thing week after week. The students hang out, eat snacks, play a fun game, and sing worship songs. Then, a pastor teaches, and the students break into small groups. This model is traditional for student ministry across America. And traditions aren’t necessarily bad.
Our “baked-in” model of student ministry, in fact, closely mirrors the rhythms of a Sunday worship service—that is, aside from the pizza, foosball, and minute-to-win-it games. This is why many youth pastors go on to become senior pastors. They have experience planning a worship gathering, and they’re practiced teachers.
But I wonder if our student ministry tradition is worth keeping? Should student ministry look like a Sunday worship gathering? Or (if you’ll allow me to ask a more direct question), does our student ministry need to sing? After all, students usually attend Sunday morning worship, too (or at least they should), and singing isn’t something that comes natural to many teenagers. So, why keep doing it? Should we focus our efforts only on teaching the Bible and helping students apply it to their lives?
Singing is discipleship
In the evangelical church, we prioritize preaching because God’s Word is the primary tool he uses to grow and shape his church (2 Tim. 4:2). But sometimes there’s a temptation that accompanies that conviction. We’re tempted to view singing as merely the warm-up for the Sunday sermon. Some members of our congregations demonstrate that they’ve embodied this subconscious assumption by arriving late—after the singing, but just before the preaching starts—week after week. But singing isn’t merely supplemental. It’s essential. Paul connects singing with a full spiritual life when he writes, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:17–19).
We also believe that singing comes as a response to the gospel; our doxology follows our theology. We’ll spend an eternity in heaven singing God’s praises. But singing is not just reactive. It’s also formative. That’s why Paul writes in another place, “Let the message of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col. 3:16). Singing helps us to remember biblical realities we may have forgotten, and by warming our hearts, it also helps us to trust and believe.
Singing is essential. Singing is formative. Singing is discipleship. And teens need it.
Students need a better song
The teenage demographic drives the multimedia industry. Producers today look to the lip-synching and dancing on TikTok and Instagram Reels to discover the next big hit. It’s equally true to say that music as an art form helps to shape how youth feel, think, and believe. You can see the cultural influence bleeding out of stars like Billie Eilish and the K-pop band BTS. Teens don’t just passively consume their music. They’re active fans, allowing the music to impact the way they dress, act, and talk.
The cultural influence of the music industry is scary for some parents and church leaders, and I’m not suggesting a separatist approach. You shouldn’t force your teenager to burn their Spotify and Apple Music accounts in a bonfire (like many of us did with our CDs, only later to regret it). I’m not sure how that would work anyway. The truth is we don’t grow in godliness simply by avoiding worldliness. More important than rejecting the music in the culture is giving youth a better song to sing.
Singing isn’t merely supplemental. It’s essential. Paul connects singing with a full spiritual life.
In Romans 12:2 Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” There are two commands there. Don’t conform and renew your mind. In other letters, he uses changing clothes as the analogy, and he says that we need both to “put off” and “put on.” That’s why theologically informed, gospel-centered singing matters so much for teenagers. It’s not just a tradition; Christ-centered worship offers the better story and better news they need. Learning to sing the good news forms youth over the course of their lifetime.
So, how can we be intentional about discipling teenagers through song? Here are three encouragements:
First, sing the whole gospel, not just the happy parts. It’s tempting to only sing songs about Christ’s victory with youth. This may be well intentioned, but it falls short. One of the reasons pop music is so appealing to youth is that it reflects the brokenness and sadness of their reality. When teens only see churches singing about triumph, it feels out of touch. It’s hard to sing about how “Jesus has won” when mom and dad just got a divorce. In fact, it feels hypocritical.
Instead of being triumphalist, we must sing the whole gospel story: “God is glorious, the world is broken, and we are broken. Yet Jesus has worked on our behalf to make us and this world new again. We can experience this newness by faith.” Lead your youth group to sing songs of confession and lament in addition to songs of victory. In doing so, our worship will embody Jesus’s heart and the whole biblical story.
Second, give students a celebrated role during Sunday worship gatherings. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was normal for churches to have a worship gathering for students that was completely separate from the church’s primary worship service. If you left the main gathering and walked into the youth gathering, you’d notice big differences. Each service—“youth church” and “big church”—was aimed at its particular demographic.
One result was that the primary worship gathering was aimed only at adults, and any teenagers there were simply called to observe. The trouble with this is that believing teenagers are called to encourage and admonish the church in song as much as the adults are. The Sunday gathering is for God’s redeemed of all ages, ethnicities, and cultures. We’re called to worship the risen Lord together. The 60-year-old needs the 14-year-old singing in the next row. The young married woman needs the middle school boy across the aisle who may have forgotten to put on deodorant that morning. Every part of the body is indispensable.
Reeducate your church and reinforce the role of worship as personal discipleship for all. And, if you’re leading worship, address the youth directly, and call them to engage. Celebrate their presence with God’s people, and make clear that the service is for them. Doing so will produce long-lasting fruit in their lives.
Third, sing during your youth programming too. If your church does have a program or a ministry geared toward students, don’t forget to sing. God doesn’t want kids only to be discipled through Bible study and community, but also through song. So, we should sing as often as we can. If singing was only the warm-up for Bible study, then, sure, we could ax it. But if singing trains our students to believe and hope in the gospel, then we should sing more and more.
Singing in student ministry is a way to raise up a generation of worshipers. It may help raise up a generation of worship leaders as well. When students gain a passion for worship, they need a training ground where they can grow in their ability to serve others through song. Student ministry is often a great platform for such students. It’s a place where they can use their gifts in a lower-pressure environment and still edify fellow believers.
These days, church leaders are fearful for teenagers’ futures. Data shows that large numbers of students are leaving the church. The reasons are legion, and the calls to action are many. Yes, we need to equip parents to speak into their teenagers’ lives. Yes, we need to involve teenagers in larger church community. Yes, we need to teach them Bible engagement and apologetics. But we also need to sing! And we don’t need less singing; we need more.
Raise your voice with the next generation. Worship him through song in whatever style you prefer, with whatever equipment you can afford, and in whatever venue God has provided. But let me encourage you again. Whether they know it or not, students need to sing. Win their hearts with the gospel’s better song.