By / Mar 15

For many students, the youth group is where they go to get away from Sunday worship. It’s often a place where they can laugh at some silly antics, enjoy music that is their style, and listen to lessons that might be a bit more palatable than what they’d receive in corporate worship with the larger church. But trying to escape “big church” is a problem. Instead, I’d like to suggest that your student ministry worship service should train students to participate in worship on Sundays. 

Some dangers to watch out for

While there is a place for appropriate contextualization, the temptation to replace songs sung on Sunday with what’s new, cool, and hip leads to one of the worst iterations of youth ministry. Sometimes the set list begins to look more like the average Spotify playlist more than the song list of the church. The sermons might be significantly shortened with less depth, less Bible, and less demand. Or, there may be no significant teaching at all. And, if your church does responsive readings or recites creeds, those may be left out completely.

Though this might come from a good heart meant to reach students you would not normally reach in your context, I believe that this approach drives students further away from the most essential discipleship aspect of the week: the Sunday gathering. The regular meeting of the larger church is one of the essential means that God has ordained to sanctify and grow his people. If our youth services undermine or cause confusion about what is essential and ordained by God, we have gone in a bad direction. 

Merely getting youth into a church building does not mean you are discipling them, training them in godliness, or seeing them saved. If anything, simply attracting youth to a church for the wrong reasons harms both the youth ministry and the church at large more than it helps. It creates a culture that entertains non-believers and keeps new believers immature rather than providing steps for spiritual growth.

A better way

By contrast, what if we saw our student worship gatherings as an opportunity to equip youth and facilitate greater participation in corporate worship? What if we used our student gatherings to train students in the how and why of our church or tradition’s rhythms of worship? This would mean making uncomfortable or uncool aspects of corporate worship accessible, instead of avoiding them. We’ll help youth grow as Christians and be better church members by discipling them in an understanding of how to best participate in that which is essential. After all, they are in high school for just a few years, but they’ll be Christians in the gathered body now and for the rest of their lives. We should pastor youth like that is the case. 

However, I am not arguing that we should get rid of all contextualization. Your youth service will look different from the corporate gathering because of the age of the kids, resourcing, help, and other practical matters. But I am saying that your student ministry service should not undermine the style, elements, and importance of your Lord’s Day gathering. Rather, the two gatherings should complement and feed one another, not create the sort of dichotomy where students feel at home in one and not the other. 

Some practical considerations

So, how do we equip them for Sunday worship? One of the easiest and most important things you can do is take advantage of the power of explanation, practice, and ritual. These three things, if reinforced in a student service, can help students sing louder, participate more fully, and engage with preaching as well as anyone in the church. Here are a few examples:

Singing. Instead of eliminating hymns, take a few minutes to explain why we sometimes sing old songs. When you sing new songs, explain what it is about that song that made it worth singing. Old songs and new songs glorify God but not because they are old or new. Our songs are intended to help us see and worship the risen Christ. Three minutes of explaining some good theology as it’s expressed in your music could not only help youth sing better but also disciple them toward a greater appreciation of a diversity of songs. 

Reading and reciting. Students often find responsive readings, creedal recitations, or written prayers strange. Instead of eliminating or replacing them, talk the youth through how Christians have engaged these practices and confessed these truths for thousands of years. In doing this, you connect youth to something deeper and richer than the next game or gimmick. I’d wager that with Generation Z’s search for authenticity and depth, they may even find it to be cooler than you think. Both singing and recitation also provide hands-on ways for students to lead worship as well. You might explain the practice yourself but then have a student lead the reading or singing.

Preaching. Preaching has fallen on hard times in student ministry. Some have abandoned the practice completely and others have pushed it so far to the periphery that it is not a key element of a student ministry. One of the reasons that students don’t like preaching is because they’re told that it is important for someone else, but in their spaces, it is not needed. Instead, we should be teaching students as God has instructed us. Paul commands Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). That command should be in effect in student ministry as much as anywhere. Our students can sit for two-hour movies and sporting events. They sit and learn for much longer at school. They can certainly sit for a shorter time in order to learn about eternal things. 

If we expect students to grow from Sunday sermons, our student ministry sermons should look and sound similar but with more contextual application. Students are hungry for the Word, and preaching is one of the best ways to give it to them.

The ordinances. At our church, we practice baptism and communion in our gathered Sunday service. But one idea we’ve found helpful is to use a youth service before a Sunday where one of our students will be baptized in order to explain these ordinances. Give 5 to 10 minutes to go over why we baptize, how we baptize, and who gets baptized (or the same with the Lord’s Supper). Do this quickly and contextually in a way that builds anticipation for the upcoming Sunday worship service. Then, end your youth service by encouraging the students to come to the larger gathering where the ordinances will be celebrated.

Training ground for Sundays and for the Christian life

In each of these ways, you’re helping students understand the reason for your church’s practices, and you are equipping them for the Christian life. When you follow this model, student services point toward corporate worship, train students to make the most of what God has deemed essential, and give them a rationale for the habits and practices they might take for granted each Sunday. I admit this may not be the most attractive model for drawing tons of youth, but I believe it will be the most effective in the long run, because it disciples students in every aspect of church worship.

I encourage you to use your church’s identity to help students value who you are as a body. We do not want students leaving for college who loved their youth group but don’t know what it looks like to be a part of the church. We want students to leave our churches with a love for the church. When this is the outcome, chances are they will find another church to love and not just look for the next best thing that serves their personal style. If we conceive of our student services as a training ground for Sundays, I believe that they’ll also be training grounds for walking faithfully as Christians.

By / Dec 31

Imagine that the year you were born, the world changed forever. Terrorists decided to attack your country on the same day in multiple places in September of 2001. We know that this tragic event is real life. It changed how we lived, how we traveled, and how we view the world.

Now, fast forward 19 years. Your world has changed yet again. Your last year of high school is obliterated in the spring by a virus that no one fully understands. Fear of the unknown casts a shadow on your future, and life as you know it has changed once again. 2020 high school graduates had to finish up their high school year virtually, and some graduated virtually as well.

These same young people, and their parents, are still trying to figure out how to navigate college. They were forced to decide if they move on campus or if they attend their first year virtually. Some didn’t even have a choice. This poses a whole new set of challenges for students, parents, and also ministries that are focused on reaching this generation.

The importance of ministering to college students 

I have the privilege of working with both campus collegiate ministers and church-based collegiate ministers in my vocation. I have had the opportunity in the last month to be on calls with them and hear their hearts. These are some of the most creative people I have ever known. Many have shared innovative ways they are trying to reach out to new college students and disciple and lead those students returning to their ministries in the middle of a global pandemic.

Any collegiate minister will tell you how important ministry on campus is to the spiritual life of college students. Many of these ministers have testimonies of how their lives were captivated by Jesus in a Baptist Student Ministry on the campus of their school or spending time with a collegiate minister from a church near their campus.

In my role as a mission mobilizer for students, I have heard over and over by those who end up serving long term in a different cultural context and language that college is where they heard God’s call the clearest or experienced missions for the first time. In other words, college is a critical season in the life of students and ultimately the church.

In light of this information, I want to share some ways you can pray for these students, their parents, and the ministry leaders that want to desperately connect with them while they are college students.

Pray for the students that are entering college, whether in person or virtually, will find Christian community and invest their time and energy there. Pray for unbelieving students to find connections and friendships among those strong believing students in these ministries. More than anything, we want students who do not know Jesus to come to know him.

Pray for parents as they send their students to dorms, classrooms, or virtual learning options. This is a unique season for parents as they work through the best situation for their children. I am sure some fear or anxiety for their children’s safety and health is involved as they drop their students on campus.

Pray for campus ministries and church-based collegiate ministries. These unique times are calling for creativity and fluidity. I say fluidity and not flexibility because things are changing quickly with requirements and rules imposed by the university campuses on which they work.

Ask God to give these ministers endurance and encouragement as they seek to love and disciple young adults.

Pray for God to move among college students even with these challenges. We know that nothing is impossible with our great God (Luke 1:37). He will continue to draw students to himself, empower his people to share the gospel, and build his kingdom. We can trust him to display the light of his glory, even in the midst of such pandemic darkness. 

By / Dec 15

Matt Sliger, a pastor at Southwoods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, recounts how his own children have been ministered to during his church’s response to the coronavirus.

By / Nov 30

I remember attending my university’s freshman orientation the summer before school began. For all of the talk of academics, the prevailing conversation among us, the prospective students, revolved around the fun we were ready to have. To us, college was one big game, a grand experiment that was just waiting for us. After all, that’s the way it’s pitched. Sure, college is the place we go to get a degree, but more importantly, it’s the place we go to have fun before entering into the real world. The underlying narrative is that every person gets four years between high school and a 9-to-5 job to do whatever he/she wants. For most freshmen, it’s viewed as four years with no parents, no curfews, no restrictions—to have the most fun possible—with no consequences.

All students eventually discover that the generally accepted narrative is unable to deliver on its promises. Though college is fun, it’s unable to produce lasting satisfaction. This realization, though disappointing, is bearable. But, the truly devastating realization for most students is that the choices they make in their quest for ultimate fun do inevitably bring consequences, sometimes life-altering.

For the past four years, I was the college pastor at the same university that I attended as a student. And each week, I sat with students who were struggling through weighty consequences. It broke my heart to see the effects of the “grand experiment” lifestyle; however, it also gave me unique opportunities to be a voice of gospel healing and hope in a hard-to-reach place.

The need for a pro-life voice on campus

One particular consequence common to university students that demands a loving, hope-filled response from the church is unplanned pregnancy. Statistics reveal that college-aged women (18-24-year-olds) experience unplanned pregnancy at a higher rate than the rest of society.1https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/unintendedpregnancy/index.htm Sadly, many of these pregnancies end in abortion. In fact, when abortion rates are broken down by age group, college-aged women account for nearly a third of all abortions (31%).2https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/ss/ss6713a1.htm

These statistics alone are devastating, but what’s even more tragic is that many women (and men) walk through an unplanned pregnancy and the grief that follows an abortion in isolation. The “grand experiment” narrative sold to them as exhilarating—a retreat from “being tied down” by meaningful relationships—breeds a life of loneliness that only compounds with the fear of an uncertain future. Often, in these moments, a friendly voice seasoned with reason, hope, and stability acts as a salve to the fear, grief, and loneliness. 

In my experience, the college students who are suffering in this way are desperate for a place where they can share their pain and be free from shame. They just don’t know where to find that person. This is where the people of God can not only provide a listening ear and safe place to cry, but we can also apply the love, grace, and hope of the gospel to their life and circumstances.

How to be a pro-life voice

The first time I encountered the need for a pro-life voice on campus occurred when I was a student. I was discipling a guy who asked me for advice on a situation that he and his girlfriend were walking through with their friend; she was facing an unplanned pregnancy and considering abortion. Their friend, who was not a Christian, approached them, who were both Christians, because of the genuine care she felt in their relationship and asked if they would drive her to an abortion clinic. The guy I was discipling wanted to know what he should say and where he and his girlfriend could take their friend for real help. I don’t remember my exact words. I’m sure I stumbled through a response and pointed them toward church counsel, but more than anything, I remember feeling ill-equipped for the situation as a 19-year-old.

My hope is that the Lord uses our pro-life voice to protect babies in the womb, provide hope and healing to the hurting, and most importantly, to lead many to salvation through Jesus.

Years have gone by since that day and though it was difficult, I’m thankful for that experience as a student because it greatly influenced my strategy as the college pastor and continues to shape the ministry’s objectives today. It reinforced my belief in the need for a pro-life voice on campus as well as the need for a practical strategy of how to be one. As a result, here are three things I put into practice during my tenure: 

1. Introduce pregnancy resource centers to the students

On any given week, our church’s college ministry connects with hundreds of students. These interactions take place in various settings including our weekly gathering, small groups, outreach events, on-campus marketing, etc. What’s clear to me is that God has graciously given us a lot of influence on campus. I believe a practical way to faithfully steward that influence is to use it to champion the tools, resources, and mission of pregnancy resource centers. 

In an effort to do this, we’ve invited representatives of the centers to speak at our gatherings, included their promotional materials at some outreach events, and allowed representatives to have face-to-face interactions with students in various parts of campus through our small groups. In essence, we want to leverage our influence to amplify the voices of pregnancy resource centers.   

2. Provide avenues for men and women to receive post-abortive care and counseling 

I’ve already addressed some of the heartbreaking realities that the statistics regarding abortion and college-aged women indicate. What I haven’t mentioned is that I know college students within the ministry are among those included in the numbers. Namely, there are students we interact with on a weekly basis who have chosen to get an abortion and are grieving alone. Instead of ignoring this reality, we’ve begun to address it directly and now provide avenues for men and women to reach out anonymously to receive post-abortive care.

3. Partner with local pregnancy resource centers to equip students under my care  

After my experience as a college student, I was thankful to discover that pregnancy resource centers often provide training to individuals who want to develop a more effective pro-life voice. Often, in college towns, the content is specifically tailored toward students. As a pastor, I’ve encouraged students under my care to take advantage of these opportunities, and then I work hard to help the students understand the impact of their voices for the protection of human life on campus. 

This influence is most clearly felt in personal interactions with friends or acquaintances struggling with the fear associated with an unplanned pregnancy. I am convinced that the greatest weapon students carry in the fight for life in these crucial moments is not merely statistics or arguments, but a gracious ear and a loving presentation of the truth. God has given students a meaningful voice on campus, so we’ve begun to teach them how to use it.

The college campus is a segment of the nation that seems to be growing increasingly cold to the gospel and the implications it carries for the sanctity and dignity of life. The grand experiment culture appears to have a strong hold on students. However, since Jesus provides the only real answer to the let-downs of the grand experiment, I’ve found the hearts of college students to be incredibly soft when lovingly presented with the truth of their condition and its consequences. My hope is that the Lord uses our pro-life voice to protect babies in the womb, provide hope and healing to the hurting, and most importantly, to lead many to salvation through Jesus.

  • 1
    https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/unintendedpregnancy/index.htm
  • 2
    https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/ss/ss6713a1.htm
By / Nov 10

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.