The following post in an excerpt from “Your First 100 Days in Student Ministry and the 40 Years That Follow,” a new book from author and pastor Jeff Borton. Jeff has been in student ministry for over 20 years. He has served in both small and large church contexts and desires to see them all thrive. Jeff enjoys teaching, consulting, and seeing student ministry leaders develop. He’s passionate about discipleship, missions, and seeing students be transformed by the gospel.
“SeaWorld is an amazing place. When I would visit as a kid, I was blown away by the aerobatic displays and the variety of sea life. One show that stands out in my memory is the Orca presentation. The trainers taught 10,000 pound killer whales to soar out of the water and jump over a rope 20 feet in the air. It blew my mind!
Clearly, Orcas aren’t born with the instinct to obey a trainer’s whistle and soar into the sky. Although it looks effortless, an incredible amount of training goes into performing one 30 minute show. Before a ticket is ever sold, a trainer saw potential in a particular whale and trained it to do something amazing.
The Orca’s love of fish is one of the vital tools the trainers leverage to teach the massive mammal to fly. The process starts slowly. First, the Orca is trained to simply swim over a rope placed above the pool floor. When he does that, he gets a fish. When that becomes familiar, the rope is raised, the process starts over, and he receives another fish. After mastering each rope height, he receives a reward, and the rope is raised. You see a pattern here. The whales don’t start at jumping 20 feet in the air, they start by swimming over a rope laying above the floor of the tank. They are gradually and intentionally trained how to jump to new heights.2 We only see the trained, disciplined whale doing what it was taught to do in the show. It’s a time intensive process, but all the training leads to people being willing to wait hours in line and spend hard earned money to see the amazing results.
For far too long, student ministry has underestimated the heights to which our students can soar spiritually. We’ve kept the rope very low and equated spiritual growth with showing up to a program once or twice a week. The figurative rope is laid on the bottom of the pool and we cheer when students “swim” over it. Regrettably, that’s the extent of our expectations.
Learning to help students develop spiritual maturity doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a six-week Bible study with your best group leader. It won’t happen by filling the student ministry calendar with events and options, hoping students become disciple makers. Discipleship is not a drive-through process; it’s more like a slow cooker recipe.
For example, one way we lower the standard is by maintaining a seating capacity mindset, where the goal is to fill the seats each week. We should want to fill the seats each week—the more students show up, the greater their opportunity to hear the gospel. But keeping the expectation at just showing up to church brings results that are indicative of where many student ministries are today—a mile wide, but an inch deep.
In a seating capacity mindset what happens in the ministry is determined by whether it will put students in seats. What’s measured as a win is a full room, the numbers entered (and maybe even celebrated on social media), students instructed to come back next week and to “bring a friend.” That’s it; they met their goal. Then, leaders focus on the next week and how to do it all over again.
Listen, getting students to show up is an incredible feat, but if that’s the only intent, the goal is short-sighted and the standard is set ridiculously low. There is a real danger with seating-capacity thinking. Students learn by observation more than by what they are told. If we celebrate students when they show up but never show them the next spiritual step, they will believe they are already doing all that’s necessary to grow. Without a word being said, students are learning: “Just show up when its your turn and have a great time. You’ve done all you needed to do to remain spiritually healthy.”
Apply this thinking over the course of a few years. If the room is full every week, does that fulfill what Jesus commanded us to do? Can we lay our heads down on our pillows at night and know for certain that we have fulfilled the Great Commission? Did we do what our Lord commanded by getting students to show up? Even more terrifying, do we pat ourselves on the back because we did at least part of what Jesus said? A seating-capacity mindset robs students of experiencing God more deeply. Shame on us when we are comfortable to let our students swim over a rope in the spiritual shallow end when they are capable of what God has intended for them, leaping over the rope 20 feet in the air.”
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About the Author
Jeff Borton is the Next Generation Pastor at Long Hollow Baptist Church. Jeff lives by 2 Corinthians 12:8-9, which reminds him of Christ’s grace and power in his life. Jeff enjoys going out for Mexican food and spearfishing. But when it’s time to relax, he loves to grab a Tim Keller or John Maxwell book. He cheers on Wake Forest football, the Miami Dolphins, and the Miami Heat.