By / Jun 1

In a span of just 10 days, the United States was rocked by the news of two mass shootings. The first, a racially motivated crime, occurred in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people. The most recent tragedy occurred at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and resulted in the deaths of 19 students and 2 adults. The nation finds itself, once more, discussing and debating what policies and prevention are needed to stop these atrocities and how to do so in a way that respects our Second Amendment rights. Christians should be ready to enter into those complex discussions with a perspective that is governed by a desire to honor God through obedience to Christ and protect the vulnerable. In the midst of these crucial conversations, it’s also important that we weep with those who weep while being forced to reckon with the inevitability of our own deaths.

Weeping in the face of sorrow 

Undoubtedly, when Paul instructed the churches in Romans 12:15 to “weep with those who weep,” he envisioned the example of Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb. While the Son of Man fully trusted in the Father and did not waver regarding his goodness and sovereignty—even amid the suffering and loss of Lazarus—he still wept. Jesus’ perfect knowledge did not prevent him from expressing perfect compassion and grief in the face of deep personal loss. As those who follow the Savior who wept over the brokenness that sin brought into the world, we too, when we take sin and its effect on our world seriously, will be moved to mourn with the mourners. In doing so, we imitate Christ, the Incarnate God who is near to those who are brokenhearted (Ps. 43:18) grappling with suffering that is impossible for our finite minds to make sense of. 

While we weep with those who weep and seek to bring comfort to others as those who have been comforted by the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-4), we will inevitably be reminded of our own mortality as we come face to face with the reality of death. And, if we are not, Jesus believed we should be. This is seen in a passage from Luke’s Gospel. When Jesus encountered a group of people asking questions about the fate of the Galileans who perished at Pilate’s hand (Luke 13:1-5), he quickly redirected their inquiries. 

Facing our mortality 

As one reads the passage, an underlying assumption about the crowd emerges. Based on Jesus’ answer, it would appear that the crowd presumed that there was something inherently defective about those who suffer in this world. Otherwise, in their mind, why would such a horrible thing be allowed to happen? That was the only way they could think to make sense of such a tragedy. Jesus, however, answered by saying that there was nothing substantive or morally different between the Galileans who perished under Pilate and those who did not. The evil committed by Pilate against those Galileans was not due to something wrong with them. 

Jesus then went on to make the same point in the passage by highlighting another tragic accident in Siloam, where a tower had fallen on a group of 18 people, killing all of them. Those that survived in Siloam were not more righteous than those who perished. In other words, one’s goodness or badness is not the sum total explanation for “why” any given tragedy occurs. Jesus rebuked the people for what was implied in their search for an answer to the evil they experienced and turned their question on its head by ending his comments with a warning of repentance. 

Those that addressed Jesus were hoping that they could establish criteria for the type of people that bad things happen to, but Jesus wouldn’t allow it. He would not let them rest in the idea that somehow they could, through their own decisions and effort, avoid the horrors of this life in a fallen world. Instead, what they could do is repent and prepare for eternity so that they would not perish forever. In the Old Testament, the author of Ecclesiastes emphasizes the importance of considering our mortality: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (7:2). The solace of understanding this on the other side of the cross is that those who trust in Christ will ultimately pass through the valley of death into a life of neverending feasting and joy (Ps. 23; Ps. 16:11). 

Hope amid the horror 

While we dwell in this broken world and weep with those who weep, we must not assume that somehow we are or can be immune to the sufferings that others experience. Mankind’s rebellion against God has resulted in a good world gone bad because of the curse of sin. Our only hope of escaping the curse that sin has brought is for someone to bear the curse for us. This is what Jesus, the Son of God, born of woman, born under the law, does for all who would place their trust in him (Gal. 4:4). And this is the truth we point to as we love others and meet their physical needs in the midst of terrible sorrow. 

Jesus, as the only sinless, innocent, stainless human to ever live, came and took on our sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him (1 Cor. 5:21). He bids us to come to him in our grief and under the weight of unbearable burdens (Matt. 11:28). He alone has conquered death, and the precious promise we have is that all who are in him will be raised like him when he returns. It is from this posture of hope amid the horrors of this world that we can face our mortality and come alongside others to minister to them and mourn with them in their darkest moments. 

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 / Oct 11

Every pastor I’ve spoken with in 2021 has called this the hardest year of their ministry. We could point to political polarization, COVID-19, mask mandates, racial tension and more as the reasons why. But one theme that has been a personal discouragement for me has been the so-called deconversion of young adult believers who formerly seemed solid in their faith.

It would take at least two hands to count the number of friends and people I’ve done ministry alongside who have lost their faith in the last few years. Several patterns have emerged as I’ve witnessed these deconversions, but one in particular struck me recently. We spend all sorts of time and energy preparing high schoolers for college, afraid they’ll lose their faith when they get out of the house and into campus life. But I have seen far more people walk away from their faith in their 20s than in college. Why is this happening? And is there anything church leaders can do? I’d like to suggest four reasons we are seeing so many deconversion stories. 

4 reasons young adults are leaving the faith 

1. Leaving the discipleship pressure cooker 

For many, college is an intense discipleship environment. Some students get involved in college ministries that meet multiple times a week. Some spend all summer at the beach working by day and being trained in Bible literacy and evangelism by night. Others spend a month at camp being filled up by adult staff members and, in turn, pouring out what they’ve been taught to campers. These environments are life-changing. But what happens after college? 

Recent college graduates often move to a new city for a job or get married and start looking for a different church. Now, instead of spending five or six hours a week in concentrated Bible study with close friends and leaders, they might spend 90 minutes a week at a community group, half of which is devoted to fellowship and half to discussing the previous Sunday’s sermon, with people they don’t honestly know that well. And instead of raising their big questions or doubts to a Christian roommate, discipleship group leader, or college pastor, they might work up the courage to call up a pastor at their new church. But, more than likely — especially if they attend a large church and have little access to a pastor — they’re taking their questions to blogs, social media and podcasts. 

A few years go by, and these young adults have kids. Instead of spending 45 minutes or an hour a day reading Scripture and praying, they’re fighting for 15 minutes a few days a week in between night feedings and lunch packing, school drop-off and pick-up, work and house chores.

The loss of these three things — intense and regular communal discipleship, access to those more advanced and knowledgeable in the faith and extended devotional time with the Lord — amounts to a removal from the pressure cooker of college discipleship.

2. Looking for wisdom in the wrong places

One result of being removed from this pressure cooker is the pursuit of answers in new places. In the absence of the resources they once had, where do young adults go for wisdom? This challenge is only exacerbated by the ever-increasing amount of issues which demand their wisdom. The whirlwind of lightning-fast information exchange, ubiquitous social media and a polarized American culture demand not only our attention but also our “correct” opinion.

Many young adults — and older adults, too — turn to the 21st century’s solution for finding answers: our phones. Anyone with a social media account knows there are countless “influencers” offering their “expertise” on all kinds of cultural crises. Not sure who to vote for? Your favorite podcast can tell you. Don’t know what to think about vaccines? That Instagram model does. Not sure what to think about Afghanistan? Your favorite Twitter theologian has it figured out.

These influencers are ready to offer authoritative answers to all of these and a host of other complex issues, and we’re drawn to their certainty. We go to them for their opinions on sports or fitness or postpartum depression; we stay for their opinions on geopolitics, pandemics and racial justice. Before we know it, we’re so bought into their project that we’re listening not just about matters of temporal significance, but matters of eternal significance: issues related to human sexuality and gender, commentary on the trustworthiness of Scripture and (revisionist) history about the evangelicalism that taught us how to read the Bible, pray and share the gospel.

The unique challenges of 21st-century young adulthood tempt us to trade community, spiritual disciplines, theological expertise and pastoral wisdom for the sharp-tongued certainty of unqualified bloggers and podcasters who are quite literally profiting from our attention. 

3. Owning your faith

The first two reasons for young adult deconversions are related to the transition out of college. These next two stem from things often taught in our student ministries, one of which relates to the heavy emphasis placed on “owning your faith.” 

Both college and high school students are urged to let go of the coattails of Mom and Dad’s Christianity and make a personal decision for Christ. In college, this often takes the form of choosing your own church and beginning to engage in personal spiritual disciplines — good things. But two characteristics of our secular age make this a precarious value: expressive individualism and the “subtraction story.”

Robert Bellah coined the term “expressive individualism,” but it has been popularized by the Catholic Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. The basic idea is that we live in a context that locates one’s identity in one’s desires. We are told to look into ourselves — our hearts — to discover who we truly are, and then to express that self to the world — often in a way that rejects some important inheritance from authority figures in our lives. The danger here should be obvious. As teenagers are sent out of the home and into the world for college, “making their faith their own” usually includes not only additions (spiritual disciplines, etc.) but also rejections of something from their religious upbringing. In my case, I came home from my first semester at college ready and willing to lecture my parents about their financial decisions and to mock my Christian school for its legalism.

But something happens when we start down that road. The quest for individuality can prove insatiable. Once having rejected financial decadence and religious legalism, we often move onto political alliances, political positions and then to moral and theological positions. By their late 20s, many hold a “Christian” faith that looks different than their culturally Christian upbringing and than anything identifiable in 2,000 years of church history (by, for example, embracing the cultural orthodoxy on sexuality).

4. Defending your faith

Many youth ministries are rightly devoted to teaching high schoolers to defend their faith. We want students to know their faith is reasonable and that it can be defended by reason. We want, for example, them to be prepared for the progressive freshman literature professor who thinks Christianity is fundamentally about misogyny and white supremacy, or the freshman biology professor who mocks Christians for their belief in a six-day creation. 

But sometimes in the process of teaching them to do so, we end up teaching students, however subtly or implicitly, that the reasonableness of the Christian faith lies in their ability to explain or defend it. In the pressure-cooker discipleship environment of college, this doesn’t usually start to pose a problem because students can rely on community and well-educated leaders to help them wrestle with those Christian beliefs that prove intellectually or emotionally challenging. But when those challenges arise in young adulthood, it can prove to be a disorienting and confusing experience. 

Prepare students for life, not just college

So, how can pastors and ministry leaders prepare young people for life beyond college? Is there a way to prevent some of the young adult deconversions that are happening to those who made it through college without a significant challenge to their faith? While offering thorough strategies is beyond the scope of this article, I would offer four brief encouragements for student ministry leaders.

(1) Get students out of the pressure cooker and into the slow cooker. Many of us have had incredible moments at the “mountaintops” of Christian experience. But the peaks-and-valleys approach to discipleship is not sustainable. Feeding students a diet of this sets them up for starvation in young adulthood, when the peaks are out of reach and the valleys become faithful friends. 

Young adults often lose their faith because they haven’t been shaped in the sustainable rhythms of personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. They haven’t been given a vision of “a long obedience in the same direction,” to use Eugene Peterson’s words. They’re not prepared for the disappointment, depression and difficulties of Christian life as an adult — summer camp didn’t have a breakout session on that. We give young people a gift by training them in these sustainable rhythms long before they realize they need them.

(2) Teach students to value theological expertise. I have had the privilege to spend the last decade in formal theological education. The process of theological education has come at the expense of short nights of sleep, sacrificed time with my wife and daughter, neglected friendships and literal tears. I am in the company of many others who have studied theology so that we can build up the church. But, in our society, the opinions of the podcaster or Instagram influencer with no theological training are valued above scholars. 

There is a real crisis of authority and expertise in American society. Evangelicals are suffering from the death of theological expertise. Our young people need to be taught — before they become young adults — that neither they nor their favorite TikTok theologian is going to ask a question that hasn’t already been asked and answered by someone in church history. The Bible and the Christian theological heritage have the resources to deal adequately with modern challenges to the faith, and theologians spend countless hours and energy mining those resources for this very purpose. Teach your students how to identify expertise, to respect and appreciate it and to take advantage of it when challenges inevitably come.

(3) Don’t teach students to make their faith their own; teach them to receive the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This sounds counterintuitive. Don’t we want students to have a personal faith? Of course we do. But we need to make sure they understand that it’s a personal appropriation of a faith that was there before them and will continue to be there after them. Coming into a personal faith is a lot less like finding a hidden waterfall in the forest and a lot more like jumping into a well-known rushing river that has carried faithful travelers through the starts and stops and storms of life for millennia. We need to emphasize this with young people.

(4) Teach students the importance of Christian presuppositions. The more I see my friends deconvert in their 20s, the more convinced I am of the importance of presuppositions. Many of us grew up being taught to remove presuppositions so we can see with objectivity and clarity. Some of us got to college and heard professors — from the other side of the religious aisle — doubling down. Both were convinced that an objective, reasonable approach would prove their point. But one of the surprising gifts of postmodernism has been the exposure of the myth of objectivity. We all have presuppositions. I am increasingly convinced of this. And if we all have presuppositions, we might as well have the right ones — or, at least, Christian ones. 

Here are three Christian presuppositions every Christian should fight to maintain: (1) The Bible is God’s Word; (2) God is our Creator, so he knows what’s best for us; (3) God is good, so he wants what’s best for us. With these presuppositions firmly fixed, we will assume the right things as we face discontinuities between the Bible’s teachings and our culture’s ideologies. We will assume, for example, that if we don’t like something God has said in his Word, the problem isn’t with God or his Word; it’s with us. That leads to a second assumption — and a humbling one: if we don’t immediately see the answer to some question or problem that arises from God’s Word, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. That’s where the pursuit of understanding comes in. But the pursuit of understanding, as Anselm taught us a millennium ago, comes after faith, not before.

The 21st century has not proved easy for ministry. Disappointment after disappointment has come in the form of beloved friends and family members walking away from the faith they once held dear. Our sadness in the face of this reality should be accompanied by prayer, believing that God’s arm is not too short to save or draw back those who are wandering. And while we recognize and hope in the role of the Spirit in drawing people to Christ and giving them saving faith, we also want to consider how to effectively change methods or practices that may unintentionally lend to this trend of deconversion. My hope and prayer is that a more careful, historical, biblical approach to student ministry can help prevent a similar exodus of young adults from Christianity in the years to come.

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 / 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.1 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%).2

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.

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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.

By / Jul 28

This was a unique summer for the ERLC interns as the program moved online. The students who would have been in the Washington office but interned with us from all over the country, join Jeff Pickering and Brooke Kramer to reflect on their experience. The group discusses their favorite projects, memorable meetings through Zoom, and what it’s like to be a college student during a global pandemic.

Our internship program exists to prepare students and young professionals with a gospel-centered, kingdom-focused perspective on the issues of everyday life. We offer semester and year-long programs with both of our offices in Nashville and D.C.

Guest Biography

In this episode you will hear from Mary Beth, Julia, Juliana, Carolina, Jackson, Sloan, and Seth – our 2020 summer interns with the ERLC team in Washington, D.C.

Resources from the Conversation

By / May 18

College is supposed to be a time of freedom and discovery—finding new friends, developing a new lifestyle, exploring new interests. But now, most of us are back in our homes with our families. And while extended time with family may be one of the greatest blessings of this pandemic, it can also be one of the biggest challenges.

With a return to home has come a return to arguments with my siblings and miscommunication with my parents. Being part of a family brings challenges of aligning schedules, priorities, and expectations. It’s easy to revert back to old habits and frustrations in the midst of these changes, and the nature of family relationships often means that these frustrations are more readily expressed.

While relational conflict is common to all families, it can feel particularly poignant during this stage of life. In the transition to adulthood, young adults must reconcile their natural desire for independence with their parents’ authority within the family. 

How should college students navigate this unique time and stage of life within the home?

1. Strive for peace. 

With the added anxiety and fear surrounding the pandemic, many of my family’s conversations have quickly escalated into hurtful arguments. Anything from laundry to social distancing to politics can trigger deeper insecurities and discontent.

But I see the Lord doing the sanctifying work that can only come through the close relationships of the home, forcing me to face my own selfishness, self-righteousness, and impatience and consider the heart of Christ. “Keeping in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:35) means daily dying to ourselves—acknowledging our sin, repenting of it, and living instead “with all humility and gentleness with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). 

It can be especially hard to respond with gentleness when our main concern is to prove to our parents that we’re no longer children and to fight against being treated like one. But the gospel frees us from the pressure to prove ourselves and assert our voice. Rather, in Christ, we can “count others more significant than [ourselves]” (Phil. 2:3), knowing that our worth comes from the Lord, from his deeming us co-heirs of the Kingdom. The remarkable way of the cross is the way of self-sacrifice, for Jesus’ ultimate victory came not in asserting his authority at the expense of others, but in demonstrating his authority by laying down his life for the undeserving (Phil. 2:5-11).

I wonder how we would treat others if we truly believed that the Lord is near (Phil. 4:5)—that he’s here with us, and that he’s coming again soon. When conflict arises, we might be the first to apologize, to fight division with grace, and to humble ourselves before the Lord and before others. So let’s strive for peace, for it’s in this good fight that we will be conformed more into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).

2. Honor your parents.

I used to think of the biblical command to honor our parents as meaning simply to obey their commands, but as children mature into adults, relationships with parents are defined less and less by instruction and obedience. Interestingly, the Greek word used in the Ephesians 6:2 direction to “honor your father and mother” denotes a veneration and recognition of value. So while we may still honor our parents by submitting to their authority in obedience, we should seek first and foremost to honor them in our attitude and care.

“Clothing [ourselves] . . . with humility” (1 Pet. 5:5), we’re reminded that no matter our college course load, we still have much to learn. I’ve been humbled by the opportunity to witness my parents at work, and I’m finally able to grasp the significance of their care for me throughout my childhood. I see my dad diligently continuing to care for patients despite new challenges of telemedicine and organizational change. And I see my mom sacrificing her time and energy to care for her mother and mother-in-law, tirelessly buying and washing groceries and thinking of creative ways to embrace them in the family.

Interestingly, the Greek word used in the Ephesians 6:2 direction to “honor your father and mother” denotes a veneration and recognition of value. So while we may still honor our parents by submitting to their authority in obedience, we should seek first and foremost to honor them in our attitude and care.

Nevertheless, regardless of our parents’ contribution to the family, the Bible teaches us that human worth does not come from ability, competency, or knowledge, but from God’s creation of us in his image. We can honor our parents simply because they bear the image of God and have a unique role in bringing us into the world as fellow image-bearers. With this recognition, there is no place for contempt or disdain.

Instead, we might look to praise, encourage, and express gratitude. We might put their needs above our own, perhaps showing them how to use new technology, helping to prepare meals, or simply offering emotional support. After all, many parents bear the additional weight of navigating new work environments, dealing with financial stress, and caring for their own elderly parents, all while trying to protect and guide their families. If nothing else, we can honor our parents by praying with and for them, interceding to the Lord on their behalf and for their blessing and comfort during this time.

3. Love your younger siblings.

Coming home, I realized that I never treated my relationships with my younger siblings with the same intentionality that I did with mentoring relationships at school. But with my younger sister finishing her last year in high school and my brother finishing middle school, I’ve realized the unique opportunity the Lord has given me to share wisdom and encouragement in these pivotal stages of their lives.

One LifeWay Research study found that 66% of American young adults surveyed stopped attending church between the ages of 18 and 22, one of the leading causes being the move away from home. But college students who are followers of Christ have the unique ability to point their younger siblings toward the truth and help prepare them for the future, speaking into life and culture in a way that parents might not be able to.

This might mean simply offering to listen, not being afraid to ask the hard questions, or sharing lessons we’ve learned during our transition to college. Praying with and for our siblings can help resolve conflict and share truth when it may not be appreciated, and we can help our siblings honor our parents in our words and actions.

A word to parents 

While children should honor their parents, parents can love their children by extending grace, particularly toward college students facing unique challenges during this time.

The Lord has likely used your child’s college experience to grow and shape him or her more into his image, with new interests, skills, and knowledge. The child who left your house after high school is probably not the same person who’s returned, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than operating by expectations from their childhood, you might look for the ways they’ve grown, treating them as the adults that they are.

A loving Father

The pandemic has brought much loss and disappointment, but as we long for a better future, let’s not miss the Lord’s calling for our lives in the present. My prayer is that when we look back on this time 10 years from now, we’ll remember it as a time of great sanctification, when the love of Christ was reflected in our love for one another within our homes. And by this love, perhaps those who have yet to know Christ will meet him for the first time.

While not every college student’s experience is the same—some may be struggling with broken relationships, continued separation from family, and loss of family—regardless of our circumstances, followers of Christ can trust that we have an unchanging and loving Father who brings us into an eternal family. It’s this reality that can compel and empower us to love those whom God has placed closest to us.

By / Mar 26

We are all shaped by the events that we live through. I was born in 1998; I’ve never known a pre-9/11 world. I felt my parents go through the 2008 financial crisis. I graduated high school in the national turmoil of the 2016 presidential election. And now, I graduate college, without a ceremony, into a world that feels like it is collapsing around me. I’m looking for a job in a world of tremendous illness, uncertainty, fear, hiring freezes, and soaring unemployment. Young people today, just like those before us, have known tragedy and loss一 we grew up in it. But this feels unprecedented, and brings a different kind of grief.

My friends and I were given days to evacuate our campuses. Student-athletes’ careers were instantly over. The internships, study abroad programs, and things we’ve worked so hard for were suddenly gone. We were sent back to places that, for many, no longer feel like home and prematurely said goodbye to the people that have become our families.  We can’t help but feel like important lasts went unnoticed and meaningful goodbyes went unsaid. 

In addition to the very real emotional losses we are facing, our futures feel especially uncertain. Some students had already moved out of their homes before college, and now, they have been evicted from their schools to return to a “home” that no longer exists. As they were forced to leave, many college students lost the part-time jobs they relied on to meet their needs. While paying down crippling student loans and continuing to pay rent and tuition, college seniors are trying to find jobs in a world where no one is hiring and pre-existing offers are being rescinded. 

It is natural and right to grieve the loss of the time we were supposed to have and the incredibly difficult circumstances we are facing, but Christian college students must not stay there. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 reminds us that we do not grieve as those without hope. We have confidence that, although we may not walk across a stage, God sees and knows the work that we’ve done. We can reflect with gratitude on the gift that our college experiences have been. We can remind ourselves that God has always been in control and will remain in control in the days to come. As our circumstances seem more uncertain and our comfort has been stripped away, let us lean into the Comforter and trust that none of this has taken him by surprise. 

So, what can the church do? How should Christians care for the college students among us?

1. Pray: Ask God to reveal himself in a new way to college students as they are forced to recognize dependence on him more completely than before. As I said before, college seniors are facing a daunting job market. Many were forced to leave or laid off from their current jobs at their schools. Some go home to financial uncertainty or scarcity. All are losing their community and will face loneliness. Pray that God would provide in tangible ways with jobs, finances, friends, and peace.

2. Extend grace: In times of tragedy, it is easy for us to minimize the experiences of others and count their feelings as less valid than our own. As young people, there is the temptation to say, “Well, I’m not vulnerable—who cares what I do?” As older people, there is the temptation to say, “You’re not even at risk—why are you complaining about your loss?” While we all have seen our fair share of tragedy, none of us has lived through a pandemic and done this before. It is a weird time for us all, and we are all doing our best with what we have to make it through this. Love your neighbor by extending grace to each other, genuinely listening and seeking to understand the pain we are each feeling in our own ways.

3. Give: Reach out to a local church or university and see if they know of any college students in need. Giving financially, providing temporary housing, storing items, or helping with transportation are practical ways to love college students well. If you order takeout from a restaurant, consider tipping above your normal amount. If you are working from home, ask a college student in your neighborhood to help you with childcare as a form of employment. If you want to look further, check out this spreadsheet that Jefferson Bethke created where people are posting needs and others are meeting them.

4. Celebrate: Think of creative ways you can celebrate and champion the accomplishments of the college seniors in your life. Send them a card in the mail. Give them a call. Even if there are no ceremonies to attend or parties to throw, let them know that you are proud of them and love them.

As we journey through these tragic days and grieve all of the things that should have been, cling to the one whose ways are higher than our ways (Isa. 55:8) and who is in control yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). In him is our trust and our hope.

By / Aug 30

Church staff and volunteers across the country are finalizing preparations for the start of a new ministry year as kids return for the start of school. If you're lending a hand with children's worship, volunteering in Awana, or serving as a small group leader in your high school ministry, have you considered who is likely to be missing this fall from your ministries?

landmark study published by Dr. Andrew Whitehead of Clemson University in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion suggests that the presence of specific mental health, developmental, and physical disabilities significantly increases the likelihood that children with those disabilities will never attend church.

Dr. Whitehead's study examined the impact of a variety of physical, developmental, and mental health disabilities upon church attendance using data generated from the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). The study accessed data from three waves of the NSCH (2003, 2007, 2010-11) and compared the reported rates of children never having attended a religious service in the past year among kids with no identified disability to rates among children with 20 different chronic health conditions included in the survey. The large sample size of the survey—95,677 phone interviews were conducted for the 2010-11 wave—allowed for meaningful statistical comparisons. The findings challenge many assumptions leaders have made regarding disabilities that affect church attendance and ministry participation.

The study found that the children most likely to be excluded from church are those with autism spectrum disorders and common mental health conditions—anxiety, depression, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, and ADHD. Specifically, 

  • Children with autism spectrum disorders are 1.84 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with depression are 1.73 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with traumatic brain injury are 1.71 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder are 1.48 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with anxiety are 1.45 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with speech problems were 1.42 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with learning disabilities were 1.36 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Kids with ADD/ADHD were 1.19 times more likely to never attend church.

The study also noted the presence of a number of other chronic health conditions, including Tourette Syndrome, epilepsy, hearing problems, vision problems, intellectual disability, and cerebral palsy, did not appear to impact church attendance.

Good mental health ministry represents a mindset for including children and youth in the activities you already offer to help kids and families grow spiritually.

One in 59 school-age children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with autismOne in every five youth meet criteria for a mental health disorder associated with severe role impairment and/or distress, including 11 percent with mood disorders, 8 percent with anxiety disorders, and 10 percent with behavior disorders. If the number of children with those conditions in your ministries falls significantly below those thresholds, you've just identified your missing kids—along with their missing siblings and parents who are missing from your church's worship services and adult ministry activities.

If your church is interested in reaching and welcoming the families of the missing kids in your community, here are four ideas to help you get started. 

Identify training and resources. These will enable you to make your ministry programming more welcoming to children and youth with common mental health conditions or developmental disabilities. Key Ministry developed a model for starting a mental health inclusion ministry and provides free video training and consultation to churches seeking to include kids with disabilities and their families. CLC Network offers outstanding training and support to churches and Christian schools seeking to include persons of all abilities. 

Start a respite outreach. Having a child with a developmental disability or a mental health condition imposes a significant burden upon marriages. Many of our "missing" children are being raised by single parents lacking the support or financial resources to access high quality child care. Launching a respite outreach for kids with disabilities and their siblings is a great way to develop relationships with families in your community altered by disability. By serving typical siblings, you decrease the resistance among kids with common mental health conditions and more subtle presentations of autism who would otherwise flee programming designed for kids with "special needs." Nathaniel's Hope and 99 Balloons are excellent nationwide ministries offering training and ongoing support to churches interested in providing respite care.

Talk about mental illness. Consider hosting a speaker to talk about the challenges in parenting children with common mental health conditions or developmental disabilities. Speak about mental illness from the pulpit. According to a study from LifeWay Research, families affected by mental illness want their pastors to address the topic in their preaching and teaching. Use your social media platforms to educate attendees about mental illness and autism and make it easy for them to share resources with their friends and neighbors. A key finding from the LifeWay study is that a majority of unchurched adults believe churches won't welcome persons with mental illness. Communicating a sense of welcome is essential to overcoming misperceptions regarding church among families of your "missing" children and youth.

Launch a group for teens with mental illness. The team at Mental Health Grace Alliance has developed a wonderful new curriculum designed to help young people examine unhealthy patterns of thinking that contribute to anxiety, insecurity, and despair and to reconsider their assumptions in the context of Scripture. Fresh Hope for Teens is another small group model offered by a reputable ministry with a nationwide network of Christian-based support groups for adults with mental illness.

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Anything your church does intentionally to welcome "missing" kids is a start. You don't need to start another "program." Good mental health ministry represents a mindset for including children and youth in the activities you already offer to help kids and families grow spiritually. Your church has already been positioned to share the love of Christ with families in your community touched by "hidden disabilities," such as mental illness or autism. You simply need to take the first step.