Archive for the ‘student ministry’ Category


student minstry is a stepping-stone!

November 13, 2010

Don’t you just hate it when people look at student ministry as a stepping-stone? How dare someone take our calling and belittle it to a mere hoop to jump through. I have had heated and passionate conversations with many colleagues around this topic, and as I write this today, most of those people have done just that. They used to be in student ministry and have stepped into another calling. The problem is, at the core of our being, we fear that it might actually be true, student ministry really is a stepping-stone.

For many young people who sense a call into ministry, student ministry is the only real place for someone to work out their call. As a recent college graduate there is only one option to explore vocational ministry, and it is with students. I have yet to see a church hire a 22 year old pastor of spiritual formation, or teaching pastor, or small groups pastor. But many churches would love to hire a 22 year old to work with their students.

And the truth is that student ministry is a great place to explore a calling into ministry. In this job you realize that ministry is complex and challenging. You begin to understand the emotional and spiritual weight of walking through life and working out issues of faith with people. You also begin to realize that a call into ministry involves paperwork, politics, budgets, and bosses. And through the graciousness of God, if you can make it through the church’s version of hell week, then you might be called into vocational ministry.

The greatest gift about vocational ministry is that whatever your unique passion is, whatever context gets you the most excited, and whatever unique gifts and talents you bring to the table, there is a place for you to serve in the Church. Student ministry is only one, very small slice of what this call to vocational ministry could look like.

It makes sense that so many people view student ministry as a stepping stone, because that is what is happening. Many people are using student ministry as a place to being exploring this call. And as God clarifies their call, many people move on to be faithful to the new place where God leads. Many of my colleagues have left student ministry to be church planters, associate pastors, heads of non prophets, teachers, and even a mailman.

For me, it wasn’t until I had turned 30 and completed my M.Div. that I actually felt called to student ministry. It was the first time in my life that I had many doors open to me in the ministry world, and of all the options, student ministry was the place where God wanted me to stay. But for me, and I would guess even for you, student ministry still is just a stepping-stone. Will I be doing this when I am 40, 50, 60? Only Steve Pace can say yes to this, and I bet that even Steve would see his role in student ministry dramatically different than he did in his 30’s and even his 40’s.

The fundamental issues is not whether or not student ministry is a stepping-stone, but it is rather, are we being faithful to listen to God and obey his calling. The psalmist says that God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. I am pretty sure that we are only supposed to see one or two stones at a time and we walk along this path of calling. If we get too hung up on this stepping-stone business then we will miss out on opportunities that God might have for us, and worse, crush the calling God may have on our colleagues.

May we fully live out our calling to students while we are on this stone. And when the voice of God calls us, or our fellow youth workers, into an another area of service, we will gladly and faithfully go wherever that is. For the glory and honor of Jesus Christ. (Today, I am glad that it is still on the student ministry stone!)


your students are not developmentally ready to live missionaly.

November 9, 2010

I think baseball is an amazing sport. On the surface, it is a simple game, hitting and fielding. But the more you dive into the game, the more you see the deep strategy, pitch selection, and the never ending statistics. Since my dream of becoming a professional baseball player didn’t pan out, I am now putting that pressure on my son. So, this last spring we signed him up for his first season of T-ball. It is quite an entertaining sight to watch a group of 5 year olds learning the game of baseball. The first season of T-ball is just that, learning the very basics. By the end of the season, this kids mostly know their positions, the direction to run around the bases, how to hit a ball off a T, and that is about it. But the foundation has been laid and a trajectory set for these kids to become legitimate baseball players and for my son to fulfill my dream of playing in the Bigs!

But, even more than my son playing professional baseball, my dream for him is to be a godly man who loves Jesus. And as he loves Jesus, to live a life that reflects that love in his personal life. As his personal life reflects his love for Jesus to live “within the culture as a missionary who is as faithful to the Father an his gospel as Jesus was in his own time and place.”

My dream is that my son would mature in his faith and live a life that is missional.

Missional Living is truly advanced Christianity. It is advanced because it assumes the foundations of the faith are firmly established. It assumes that we have our identity firmly set in Christ. It assumes a biblical world view, which means that we have a base understanding of scripture. It assumes that our lives reflect the hope and transformation that happens when we grow in Christ. With this foundation of faith firmly set, we can then differentiate ourselves from our culture, we can think abstractly and wrestle with issues of contextualization so we can be faithful to the gospel message in our time and place, just like Jesus was in his time and place. With this abstract thinking we are ready to take our personal faith and our cultural understanding and live as missionaries to our context where we can communicate the good news of Jesus with both our words and deeds.

This advanced form of Christianity is a needed direction for the Church to go. I have been so encouraged by the books and blogs that I have read, the conversations I have had with my colleagues, and even by the conversations among our church’s leadership. Living a missional life, getting outside ourselves and the walls of the church, is exactly what we need to be doing to reach our communities for Christ. While I agree with that this is the trajectory of the church, and the needed direction for our churches, the issue is how much of this our students can digest.

Everyone from Chap Clark to Time Magazine has been saying with a unified voice that adolescents is taking decades longer then the generations that preceded them. What is taking so long is the ability to answer three significant questions regarding their identity. In the book Starting Right, the author says that these key questions are; Who am I? Do I matter? How do I relate to others?

At the very same time that it is taking longer and longer for students to mature, many youth workers are wrestling with how to give this advanced form of Christianity to people who can’t even answer with any certainty question one about who they are, let alone even begin to answer the final question about how they relate to others. While the church needs to have these conversations, it is vital that those of us who work with students don’t put our spiritual journey onto our students. What we are learning and they ways we are working out our faith has to be different than that of the 15 year old boy in our student ministry.

In the student ministry world “milk” has gotten a bad rap. It is true that in Hebrews the author lays into the congregation for still drinking milk. But for real babies, that is what they need to drink. The rub comes when they should be eating solid food and are still drinking milk. I think high school, and certainly middle school students, are not at all ready for steak. This isn’t a put down. If we are honest and take a look at our average student in our ministry we would also agree that our students are not ready for this advanced form of Christianity. They have no idea who they are, or if they matter, or even how to relate to others because of their identity.

Our students are fragmented in their thinking and in their living. At church and with their church friends they live one way, and at school with their school friends they live another. And for some of our students who are blessed to have overlap with these worlds, it appears that they are ready for more, but really they just have a great community while they continue to work out their identity. Working out their identity is the key. And their identity has to be differentiated from their parents’ identity, their peers’ identity, and even their youth group’s identity. This means that who they are and the faith they have and are going to live out is all formed and worked out during this middle season of adolescents.

This brings us back to the original point that students, mid-adolescents, are not ready to live missionaly. They need to work out the fundamentals of their identity and faith by differentiating it from others. It is only after this is done that they are ready to engage their culture in any sort of meaningfully missional way.

My son’s T-ball season is more similar to student ministry then I thought. You see, T-ball is teaching the fundamentals, it is painting the picture of what real baseball will be like. His coaches don’t just give them the age appropriate version of baseball mechanics, they give them age appropriate version of baseball. And this is the delicate balance we need to give our students. We don’t make them have a faith they aren’t ready for, and we don’t baby them with giving them a faith for just where they are at. We give them an age appropriate faith that points to what a mature faith should look like.

Here are a couple of thoughts as we move forward to allowing space for our students to be where they are developmentally, while painting a picture of what healthy mature faith looks like:

  1. We model steak eating Christianity in our own lives. This means that, as adult leaders, we live lives of purpose. Lives where we have a personal and social righteousness, lives where we love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with our God. And these lives are lived out missionaly, firmly planted in our cultural context.
  2. We communicate a Christianity that is missional in our words and deeds. This means that even though our students aren’t developmentally ready to do this, we help them develop the habits of missional living. Just like my son practicing running bases and throwing the ball to first base doesn’t fully matter in T-ball, but it is vital in baseball. In the same way we do these fundamentals with our students. We take them on mission trips, we do acts of service and compassion, and we partner with organizations who work for justice.
  3. We do this in an age appropriate manner. And for this age, our focus should be on identity formation, not identity application. We have to help students figure out who they are and how they matter before we put them to work. If they are just doing the motions without a clear identity, they will struggle with how their faith is any different than the Lions Club or Rotary or Habitat for Humanity. We live missionaly because we have been redeemed and transformed by the power of Jesus Christ, and this is the hope that is the foundation for any sort of missional living.

Let us not put our developmental issues on our students. We need to be missional, we need to push our churches to be missional, but our students need to understand who they are and who they are in Christ before we push them to be missinal. May Jesus, who is so faithful and uses all our feeble attempts, continue to woo, redeem and transform our students so that He may use them to missionaries in their context.


If your student likes nelly, then she will like . . .

October 29, 2010

For the longest time, I have tried really hard to relate to students. I have known that music was a very powerful gateway, and if I just had a little guidance then I would be able to relate to them, to understand them, and be able speak their language. But even more than relating, I would be able to influence their musical diet and help them transition into artists that would help them develop spiritually as well. Year after year I would buy curriculum that would help me “understand” my students and would be able to point them to “appropriate” choices. And as I did this, year after year, I realized that this attempt to understand youth culture actually did a disservice to me, my students, and my calling as a youth worker.

When we look to some outside person, group, curriculum, author to tell us about our culture, we are actually embracing a false reality. There might have been a time when there was a youth culture. But that time is no more. Even in our small youth group we have students from different versions of youth culture together in one room creating our own unique culture. Because there is no one, two, or even three versions of youth culture, we can not rely totally on outside voices to speak into our lives and equip us to do the heavy lifting in our context. It might be time to put that resource back on the shelf and do some hard work.

We need to first swallow the tough medicine that there is not one unified culture, one way to meet kids’ needs, one model of student ministry that will work for us. We live in a fractured culture where there are millions of options to define us, and every option defines us in different ways. In order to understand how to meet the specific needs of the students we work with, we have to figure out the specific context we find ourselves in.

What is the context we find our selves:
Where do we live? Urban, suburban, rural?
What are the economic conditions? Rich, poor, depressed, generous, stingy?
What is the spiritual climate? Are people churched or unchurched? Pro, Neutral, Anti Christian?
What kind of church do you work in? Evangelical, Mainline, Catholic, Pentecostal?
Who is your church in your community? The leader, the follower, the biggest, the smallest?

By just figuring out our location, we see that there are already a variety of issues and needs that will need to be addressed and will need to be addressed differently depending on where we live. But these questions only get us part of the way. This just gives us a broad picture of where we find ourselves. Within this unique context we have our fractured youth culture with an entirely new set of questions.

Who are the student in our ministry and in our community:
What is their family background? Strong family, broken family, really broken family?
What kind of resources do they have? Huge allowances, part time jobs?
What activities are they involved in? Sports, band, art, service, video games?
What is their spiritual background? Churched families or unchurched families?
What are your specific students main needs? Felt, unfelt, spiritual?

With just a cursory look at the actual place you are called to do ministry and the specific students to whom you are called, you can see that there is no way a boxed curriculum or author or speaker can tell you what your students needs are or how best to meet them. But we do have an example from scripture of someone who understood their unique context and unique sets of people within that context. The apostle Paul was a master at this.

In In Acts 13, Paul finds himself in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. In this Jewish community Paul easily retells the story of God’s faithfulness to his people; God rescuing the people of Israel from Egypt, giving them the law of Moses, conquering Canaan, and establishing a king, King David. And although David died, Jesus, his decedent, rose from the dead and conquered sin and death, and offers the forgiveness and justification the law of Moses was unable to do.

In Acts 17, Paul finds himself in a completely different context. Now he is in the middle of a Gentile city, surrounded by pagan idols. The story of the people of Israel have no touch points in this context. Paul’s personal testimony of persecuting the Jews, or the heartbreak of his ministry doesn’t matter to the people of Athens. And instead of Paul relying on his own history, his own experiences, or his own expression of faith, Paul taps into a larger gospel story, one that will be received in this unique context.

During his time in Athens, Paul notices the religiosity of the people and uses their idol worship as a thin place to share Jesus. He capitalizes on one of the temples and uses a known poet as a hook and then shares how this mysterious and unknown God has been made known by Jesus his son whom he rose from the dead. And although a revival didn’t break out in this city, Paul did manage to capture their attention and opened the door for further conversation.

The apostle Paul understood that his location impacted his message. Paul understood that even in s similar location, the specific backgrounds of the people he was sharing with impacted his message. Paul had a deep faith in Jesus Christ and had an amazing combination of passion and wisdom. This is the combination that we are going to need to move forward in ministering to needs of the specific students in our specific context

So, even though we are colleagues in ministry. And even though we share a passion to walk with students along this journey toward Christ. And even though we may do student ministry in the exact same context and in the exact same town, God has given each of us totally unique and special people with very complex needs and issues. We may be able to share ideas and resources, but God has given you the call to ministry to the specific students in your ministry.

Let us give up trying to be someone we are not. You see, I don’t even like Nelly. And the truth is I couldn’t tell you one of Nelly’s songs. All I know is that Nelly has a song that is in the top ten downloads this week. I will never know “youth culture.” But I do know my students. And It has been a pure joy to walk with them, as they work out their issues of life and faith. And because I am working with my particular students in my particular context, I get to spend time getting to know them, praying for them, speaking truth into their lives, and showering them with grace and mercy. It is actually easier not knowing anything about “their” culture. We are already outsiders, With this reality, may we now have the freedom to ask questions and be invited into their world.

As we go, may be be true missionaries to our unique context with the passion and wisdom of Christ as we proclaim the good news to our students. Amen, and amen!


king sized snickers for everyone

October 7, 2010

It is impossible to walk through Target these days and not be overwhelmed with Halloween. Since the beginning of September, aisles of orange and black decorations, bags of candy, and costumes have been calling out to my children, building excitement and expectation for their dream holiday. For my kids, Halloween is that holiday. For them it is a simple holiday that involves their two favorite things, candy and dress up. For Christians, Halloween seems to be a bit more complicated.

No matter how you slice it, Halloween has a dark and seedy past. It’s history can be traced to a roman festival that involves worshiping the goddess of fruits and seeds, or a pagan festival of the dead, or a Celtic festival celebrating the end of summer. This part isn’t that bad, just the part of the festival that celebrates the spirit world coming close to the living world. And, it is also a holiday that has many touch points with the occult.

This is not good. How in the world can Christians get behind a holiday that, at best . . . Ok, there isn’t anything we can get behind in the history of Halloween.

As bad as it seems, I think there might be another way we can look at Halloween. And I don’t mean to pretend we are against it publicly, and quietly celebrate it with our friends and family (like a good wine). I think there is a way we can actually celebrate and even promote Halloween in a way that honors God and might even bring the Kingdom of God closer to your neighborhood.

Before you call my pastor and get me fired, humor me for one minute. How many of us Christians have Christmas trees as part of our family tradition and home decoration? If you google, “Christmas Tree Pagan” you will find there are over 3,000,000 sites. A quick view of these sites and you will find many stories and traditions where evergreens were used in worship and celebration as a symbol of life in the midst of death. In ancient Rome and Egypt there are traditions of tree worship, burning sacred logs. The most worrisome history is that of Odin, a German god who would require sacrifices to a sacred Oak tree

. Even though the history of the Christmas tree is shady at best, it has been recast in a Christian light. and by the 18th and 19th century, the Christmas tree became a full blown part of the celebration of Christmas.

Christians transitioned the Tree of Odin to a tree with some vague inferences to Christianity and now all is well with Christmas Tree. The goal was to take a cultural norm with pagan symbols and use it to tell the Christian Story. In a similar way, that is what we need to do with Halloween. But simply transitioning Halloween to a Harvest Festival to make it more tolerable might be a missed opportunity.

If our cultural context had many touch points to spirit and ancestor worship, goddess worship, or occult practices then celebrating Halloween might be a tough sell. However, in my context, suburban America, Halloween has nothing to do with anything except candy and make believe. The only people who are even remotely aware of these darker issues are Christians. Because pagan worship has nothing to do with the world I live in, and Halloween is actually a totally secular holiday with zero spiritual overtones, maybe we could actually embrace it and use it as a place for Christians to impact their communities.

Halloween gets to be our holiday, a holiday of hospitality. With hospitality being one of the Christian virtues that is being thrown away, Halloween gets to be the holiday where we embrace our neighbors. We get to break down some of the barriers that have built up among those people who live on our street and be a blessing to them. In a time when you are less likely to be known by people in your neighborhood and they are less likely to be known by you, Halloween gets to be the perfect holiday to rebuild that bridge. Halloween is our holiday. It is the holiday for Christians to ooze the love and grace of God to their entire neighborhood. If you haven’t celebrated Halloween in a while, here are a couple of ideas to make this our holiday:

  1. On a normal day, no one from your street comes to your house. Halloween is the one day where the entire neighborhood comes to your door. The one day where all your neighbors mill around your street is the one day that your lights are off and door is locked. That doesn’t seem quite right. Step 1: be home, turn your lights on, and answer the door.
  1. If everyone is coming to your house, why not be the house that gets the reputation for best house to trick-or-treat at. Instead of the house that gives away raisins or toothbrushes, or even tracts, your house can be known as the house that gives away full-sized Snickers Bars. 30 years later, I can still remember the stingy houses and the very generous houses.
  1. As a youth worker, this holiday can even be a blessing for your students. Get your kids off the streets and put them to work by helping you make your house amazing. Have a party for them at your house. While they are there, have them decorate, pass out candy, do card tricks, whatever. By just being there, your house transitions into a place of life.

Halloween is the one holiday where your neighborhood actually comes to your house. Instead of running away from this holiday, maybe we should embrace it, redeem it, and make it our own. What story are you telling to your neighbors when they knock on your door? What are the values you are sharing with them? Jesus came to give us life, and life abundantly, and Halloween is the perfect time to share this abundant life. How great would it be if your house is the house that celebrates life; if your house was the house the neighbors couldn’t wait to get to. Let us recapture the value of hospitality and let’s show off this abundant life we have in Christ! KING SIZED SNICKERS FOR EVERYONE!


is your gospel too small?

October 2, 2010

One of our favorite hobbies as youth workers is bashing on the church. For those of us who have grown up in it, and now do ministry with in it, we have a lot to bash. I find myself wresting with the institutional church and its relevancy for me and our culture. I have decades of examples of hypocrisy and hurt. I see little difference in the lives of people in church, including myself, and those outside the church. I have a faith that is trying to break free from the systems and programs that have shaped me up ‘til now. But these issues and growing places are my issues and my growing places.

As someone who works with students it is essential that I am aware of my faith and the places where Jesus is meeting me, transforming me, and challenging me. And thankfully I can identify and am enjoying these places. But even more importantly, I must be aware of the faith development of the students I work with and the issues they are wrestling with. As someone who shares the gospel with people in a completely different season of life and in a different culture, I must enlarge my view of the gospel. This means I must discern the parts of the gospel story that help students come to know the real Jesus who loves and cares for them where they are at. Part of this process is separating my own walk with Jesus as he loves and cares for me in the place that I am at.

The apostle Paul was brilliant at this. Paul encountered Jesus in a very real and wild way on the road to Damascus. This is by far the most unique conversion story ever! Paul writes in his epistles about his struggles in faith and in ministry. He writes about wrestling with sin and doing the things he doesn’t want to do. He writes about the thorn in his side that overwhelms him. He writes about people in his ministry that have personally wrecked him and broken his heart. Paul had a dynamic and growing faith that was real and intimate.

And while all this is going on in his walk with Jesus, Paul was able to separate out his own issues with Jesus and discern what the people in a particular context needed to hear so they could connect with Jesus and begin to experience their own walk.

In Acts 13, Paul finds himself in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. In this Jewish community Paul easily retells the story of God’s faithfulness to his people; God rescuing the people of Israel from Egypt, giving them the law of Moses, conquering Canaan, and establishing a king, King David. And although David died, Jesus, his decedent, rose from the dead and conquered sin and death, and offers the forgiveness and justification the law of Moses was unable to do.

In Acts 17, Paul finds himself in a completely different context. Now he is in the middle of a Gentile city, surrounded by pagan idols. The story of the people of Israel have no touch points in this context. Paul’s personal testimony of persecuting the Jews, or the heartbreak of his ministry doesn’t matter to the people of Athens. And instead of Paul relying on his own history, his own experiences, or his own expression of faith, Paul taps into a larger gospel story, one that will be received in this unique context.

During his time in Athens, Paul notices the religiosity of the people and uses their idol worship as a thin place to share Jesus. He capitalizes on one of the temples and uses a known poet as a hook and then shares how this mysterious and unknown God has been made known by Jesus his son whom he rose from the dead. And although a revival didn’t break out in this city, Paul did manage to capture their attention and opened the door for further conversation.

In this season of my life, I am wrestling with growing deeper in my love of, and for Jesus. And this wrestling has been bringing up more issues then it is settling. And while I love the wrestling match, I need to get myself and my story out of the center of the ministry God has called me to. My walk with Jesus is my walk. I am called to be a cross-cultural missionary to this adolescent culture. And I need the Holy Spirit to illuminate my heart and mind as I attempt to find the thin places in their culture where their brokenness can meet Jesus’ healing. I can not make my thin places theirs. And thankfully the gospel of Jesus Christ is big enough to meet the brokenness and needs of every person in every culture in every time in every part of the world.

Jesus, show me where these thin places are in my students’ lives.


adolescent theology

September 5, 2010


Kenda Dean has written a really challenging book titled, Almost Christian. And CNN wrote a really fair review of the book and her study:

Dean’s conclusion is simple and profound: “Your child is following a ‘mutant’ form of Christianity, and you may be responsible . . . more American teenagers are embracing what she calls ‘moralistic therapeutic deism.’ Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.”

My conclusion: YIKES!

Student Ministry is a really complicated calling with an even more complicated application. For their entire personal, emotional, and spiritual development until adolescents has been without the ability to understand abstract concepts or ideas. Their world is concrete and they are the center of it. Everything that occurs happens with them in the center. In fact it is actually impossible, developmentally, to see outside of this reality. And for better or worse our children’s ministry and our student ministry fit this developmental framework as we come along side them and help them see that in this world of theirs there is a God who loves them desires a relationship with them. Jesus loves ME this I know!

As children transition into adolescence, they can actually being to conceptualize a world outside themselves. I know that any 5 minute conversation with a teenager might cause you to question that statement, it is true. Chap Clark summed up a ton of complicated sociological work into the term individuation. This is the process in which students are sorting out their own identity. And this process can only happen by separating yourself, by developing an identity as someone other. And to do this, means that for the first time students can begin to conceptualize a world outside themselves, and even a God that might be about more then their world.

While I so appreciate the hard work that Dean has done, and agree with her conclusions, I am not quite ready to throw out youth ministry, the church, or parents in the process. This is a reality that is well documented, and to address this “mutant” form of Christianity, we need to first recognize some of the significant obstacles in helping our students develop good theology.

1) Adolescent development means that their natural inclination is to have an ego centric view of theology. And as adolescence lengthens the chances to really tackles this is even more difficult. Where middle schoolers were developmentally ready to work out their theology just a generation ago, high schoolers are just at the beginning of this process. So instead of six solid years to work this out, we are looking at maybe one or two years where students can realistically develop a theology that is healthy and centered around God and not themselves.

2) Our American Christian Culture. At the very core of our national identity is this deep strain of individualism and self-reliance. And this has impacted our theology. We come out of a tradition where Jesus saves me, where Jesus heals me, where Jesus blesses me. And when Jesus doesn’t come through for me, many have a crisis of faith.

These two obstacles are enormous contributors that leave students with a self-centered view of faith. And this is not a faith in a the personal a specific God found in the Bible, but the generic, moralistic, therapeutic deism that Dean has observed. While this may be a fact, this doesn’t have to be the end. This study is a very helpful indicator of the context in which we are called to do student ministry.

Every context in every time has obstacles, and this “mutant” from of Christianity is one of ours. Now we get the opportunity to find ways that work in our context to help students develop emotionally and spiritually in a way that paints a world view where Jesus is in the center, not them. Confirmation Curriculum, The Apostles’ Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, Reading Through The Entire Bible, and Short and Long Term Missions, are time tested ways to communicate that the Jesus we follow is so much bigger than we are and so doesn’t need us in any way, but invites us to go with Him, to where He is going.

In the midst of our amazing lessons with great theology, we mostly get the privilege to graciously walk through life’s ups and downs. And as we walk alongside them, we get to help students frame their experiences with a theology that the church has affirmed for thousands of years and will serve them their entire lives, no matter their context or circumstance.


who is apollos (a.k.a. ben kerns)

August 3, 2010

A call into student ministry is a special thing. We have been called by God to participate in the spiritual development of students. For a very specific and often chaotic season, we get the privilege and honor of being adults who coach, mentor, disciple, and journey with adolescents who are exploring their faith and making it their own. What could be greater? But as we attempt to live this out, in the real world with real students in a real context, this simple and yet profound calling gets blurry.

The students we work with have joys and concerns, victories and losses, growth and set back. We attempt to be there for every student for every part of the roller coaster ride. And while we work our guts out, pouring our lives into these students our vision gets impaired. Because very slowly, without even us knowing, the joy that comes from getting to be there for students and walk with them, turns and starts to become about us. Instead of being AN adult who journeys with students for a season of their lives, we see ourselves as THE adult who journeys with them, who advocates for them, who loves them, who will get them through adolescents, who will solve their problems, etc…

It is not a difficult leap to inflate the role we have in the lives of students. We give so much of our selves to them, and in return we are part of such intimate and transforming events and conversations. We get to be a part of genuine transformation. Take these intense moments and add in the already emotionally charged reality of adolescence and it is easy to see ourselves as the lynch pin holding it all together.

This blurry lens in which I have recently been viewing my ministry through has had a refreshing cleansing. And this cleaning of the lenses happened at an unlikely place this spring. Graduation.

I didn’t plan on a graduation ceremony being the place where God was going to do a fresh work in me. In fact, I approached the day with zero expectations. Over the years I have gotten Graduations down to a science. In fact this year I managed to get in 5 graduations in a single day. Coming for the beginning taking pictures, hugging parents, saying hi to kids you haven’t seen in years, giving a nod to the other youth workers doing the exact same thing as you, jumping in the car to catch the end of the graduation across town to do the same thing. But as the day unfolded and watched speech after speech, student after student process across the podium, I saw something I have never seen before.

For the first time I looked past the students, and saw the teachers, principles, and administrators and what I saw was amazing. I saw dozens of faculty sit back and watch the fruit of their labor graduate, move from one season of life to the next with joy and pride. What was unique in this picture for me is that it is not one person or teacher who propels a student to graduation. It is 12 years of teachers, principles, and administrators that have all faithfully done their part, which culminates in a graduation. And as quickly as graduation started, it ended. The students left empowered and launched to whatever new thing they were off to do. And while the students left for graduation parties and new life, teachers returned to the classroom to clean up their rooms and prepare for a brand new group of students for them to educate, to faithfully complete their part of the process.

This is exactly what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 3. In Corinth there was some grumbling going on about who their true spiritual leader was. Some people thought it was Paul, other Apollos. And Paul’s focus was on helping the people see that it is not the work of the leader, it is the work of God that should be our focus. Paul draws a line in the sand with his confrontational question, “Who is Apollos? Who is Paul?”

This question cuts to the heart of student ministry and confronts some of the false versions of ministry while the rest of the passage actually give us a healthy view of starting, ending, and continuing to do faithful student ministry in a particular context.

Paul’s questions strikes right to the heart of one of the most challenging issues in student ministry, the personality driven ministry. Because many of us use our relational and leadership gifts well, we find success in collecting and gathering students. And without even realizing what we have done, we have managed to collect students to us. And if this goes unchecked, this version of ministry puts an enormous stumbling block in front of our students.

Students are not the ones trying to pick one person to be their end all be all in life. Students intuitively know that there are a collection of people who have been a part of molding and shaping them. If we move from seeing ourselves as an adult to seeing ourselves as the adult puts students in a challenging position.

When we arrive in a new context we don’t need to be intimidated by the history that happened with out us, with the jokes and the stories. Shutting those down, belittling the person and program before us, ignoring the parents and volunteers who have served faithfully long before we arrive on the scene actually cheapens what we are currently trying to do. This alienates our older students who’s hearts are deeply imbedded with those leaders and staff they have history with, as well as shuts down those leaders and opens the door for grumbling and conflict.

We cannot forget that God has been working in the lives of these students long before we showed up, and will continue to work in their lives long after we are gone. Are we mature enough to live into the question that Paul poses? “Who is Apollos, and who is Paul?” Paul goes on to remind, encourage, and rebuke us:

“My job was to plant the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God, not we, who made it grow. The ones who do the planting or watering aren’t important, but God is important because he is the one who makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work as a team with the same purpose. Yet they will be rewarded individually, according to their own hard work. We work together as partners who belong to God. You are God’s field, God’s building, not ours.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)

What a helpful picture Paul paints for serving in a ministry context. Whether we are new, leaving, or staying put, our job is clear. We plant where there has been no seed planted, and we water the work that has been done before us. And we prepare our students to continue to grow when they move past our ministries. There is no glory in the planting and watering. It is the humble task of the youth worker. And this faithful work, partnering with the power and purposes of God is what causes growth and produces fruit.

Thankfully it is not all about us. Actually it is not about us at all. It is Jesus who is the author and perfector of our faith. It is Jesus who has the mysterious power for growth and transformation. These students are God’s building, God’s field. And while God doesn’t Need us, he invites us into a partnership. Out of his grace and mercy he allows us to participate with what he is doing.

We give all of our hearts to our students, we sacrifice time and money for them. We listen to them, celebrate with them, and journey with them. Even the words, “our students” are said with affection and the amount of love and care we have for them. But we only do this for a time. And rightly so, because these students are not our building or field, they are God’s building and field. The more we can live into that truth, the more we start well, end well, and serve faithfully for years to come.

The principles, administrators, and teachers at the local high school graduation have it right. Graduation marks the end of part of a journey and the beginning of a new one. They all gather together and celebrate the students. They understand that they play an important part in the development of the students, but only a part. And because they understand this, they are genuinely excited for students who are being launched into a new season of life, and excited for the new students to enter their classroom and do it all over again.

What a great reminder that is available every spring. Instead of racing from graduation to graduation, making sure I am seen and that students and parents know that I care for them, I can sit back with pride and watch the fruit of our labor cross the stage. What a great discipline to join with the teachers, principles and administrators and recognize that we are only part of the process. And specifically on a spiritual level, we may plant and water, but it is God who causes the growth. For who is Apollos? Who is Paul? Who am I? I am only a small part of each student’s life, for a short season. And because of that I will faithfully do my part for this time and place, finding joy as God causes the growth in students, before me, with me, and long after me.