I’ve noticed throughout the years that student pastors have developed adverse feelings to following words: evangelist, evangelistic, numbers, and invitation. At the same time churches in the Southern Baptist Convention have declined in youth baptisms at an alarming rate. In 2013 60% of the 46,125 SBC churches reported not baptizing a single person between the ages of 12-17. In order to be on the top 100 list of SBC churches in youth baptisms, a church needs only to baptize 36 teenagers. Since the year 2000 in the SBC, total annual youth baptisms (ages 12-17) have decreased from 93,100 to 71,457 in 2014. Student ministries are not reaching the youth of our nation effectively.
Healthy student ministries are evangelistic, but they aren’t manipulative with the gospel. There are two contributing factors to the adverse feelings towards “evangelist, evangelistic, numbers and invitation.” First, there has been a reaction to what many would label as an unhealthy approach to evangelism that was present in the 90s and early 2000s of student ministry. Many leaders will remember a time when an emotionally charged message lacking a strong biblical foundation would be given with a vague (and, again, emotional) invitation plea encouraging everyone in the crowd to come to the altar and make a decision.
Second, we have a more theologically aware and diverse group of student ministry leaders in today’s culture. There are more theological conversations happening between student pastors, leaders, and students now than ever before, especially related to topics in the reformed tradition. These two factors have caused the pendulum to swing in student ministry, and it needed to. The unintended result is that the pendulum has now swung to a place with devastating consequences.
As a student pastor, I remember one sermon more than any other. I invited someone to speak at an event for our students, and he preached one of the greatest messages I had ever heard in my life. The guest preacher traced Jesus throughout all of Scripture over the course of about 50 minutes with my students. Yes, it was 50 minutes and they were engaged the entire time. The preacher was dynamic and clear in his delivery, but my students were absolutely captivated by Jesus as they encountered Him throughout all of Scripture and saw how the Bible, collectively, is the story of God’s plan to redeem His people. “Light bulbs” were going off in student’s minds all over the room. It was an amazing moment.
Then we got to the end of the message.
After spending 50 minutes brilliantly walking students through the gospel of Jesus throughout the Bible, the message ended with a prayer and an amen. There was no action step. There was no invitation. There was no public opportunity given for students to respond to the grace of God that they had just been exposed to. I will remember that moment for the rest of my life.
Instead of correcting the evangelistic course of student ministry, many leaders have allowed a theological position or a disdain for past events (perhaps both) to keep them from fully accomplishing the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). A student ministry cannot be healthy if it isn’t expanding God’s kingdom. Student pastors and leaders must return to an evangelistic mindset, but not one characterized by the mistakes of our past. Kingdom Expanding evangelism is much more than convincing students to pray a prayer or come forward the last night of camp. Kingdom Expanding evangelism ensures that students understand the gospel and the reality that God invites us to respond to His grace. Because of this, student ministry leaders must consistently provide opportunities for students to respond to the gospel. Giving an invitation isn’t manipulative and thinking evangelistically doesn’t mean you’re all about the numbers.
The road to a healthy student ministry begins as you embrace building a student ministry that is Kingdom Expanding. We are in a time when student ministry desperately needs pastors and leaders who will return to an evangelistic mindset that is centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ because it alone is has the power to save all who believe (Romans 1:16).
This blog is an excerpt from my new book Student Ministry That Matters. I wrote this book to help student ministry leaders like you answer the question “Is my student ministry healthy?” You can find out more information about the book and begin your discovery of the 3 Elements of a Healthy Student Ministry here.
This post was written by Ben Trueblood, Director of LifeWay Student Ministry