Having spent the past 18 years engaged in student ministry I have come to appreciate the thousands of men and women who are pouring selflessly into our youth! I appreciate their heart, passion, and clear commitment to impact a generation for Christ. It is wonderful to see their heartfelt desire to influence those that I refer to as the younger but current generation of His church.
However, something else I have noticed while watching these committed saints is what I perceive to be some confusion over what youth ministry should look like in practice. On one end of the pendulum we see a call to become youth leaders who function almost as dictators that force-feed youth Biblical gruel while making every decision and telling them what they will do. I sense that this extreme is birthed from a sincere but misguided attempt to protect the students and promote sound doctrine. While on the exact opposite end of the pendulum we see a position that seems to be advocating for little or no adult involvement in student ministry so that students can freely pursue their passion to serve without any accountability or structure. This appears to come from a sincere desire to unleash the incredible energy of youth and not dampen their passion for social involvement and improvement. Admittedly both of these positions represent the absolute extremes, but they do give us the broad ends of a very diverse spectrum of thinking concerning the practice of youth ministry.
What if the answer rests in the middle? What if active and engaged adults truly need to be involved to ensure solid biblical truth and discipleship is happening while empowering student disciples to own and direct their ministry? I think this is exactly the balance we must strike if we want to have youth ministries that rest soundly on biblical foundations. What I am convinced we need is a shift to Student Led/Adult Mentored (SLAM) youth ministry that is being championed by the growing number of us in the Endeavor movement.
As I have traveled throughout New England, the US, and beyond this past year consulting and training adult and student youth leaders I have used the imagery of a train running along tracks to paint a picture of how I envision SLAM ministry. The train represents ministry. The engine is what drives the train while the cars are the content it carries; things like our discipleship goals, outreach plans, programs, events, and the “stuff” that we do. The tracks represent the boundaries needed for the train to function properl; these include biblical guidelines & doctrine, ministry philosophy, and ultimate direction.
Acknowledging that the ultimate conductor or driver is our gracious Lord, we as adult youth leaders need to recognize who the earthly conductors are supposed to be. It is my contention that we need to step away from the controls and acknowledge that the students are called to be the earthly conductors or drivers. We must understand that Ephesians 4:11-16 clearly teaches us that we are to equip them by using a biblical guide to help define the width and direction of the tracks they will travel on but then we need to expect them to take action for the kingdom through active current ministry in the church.
As we mentor (disciple) them by providing an environment that nurtures their soul with sound biblical teaching we will help construct a train that is fully fueled, has the right cars, and is ready for the long haul of ministry ahead! When we allow them to lead; the train runs smoother, faster, and on time. They begin to be the real youth ministers while we get the honor of cheering them on, training them, holding them accountable, lovingly redirecting them when a wheel jumps the track, and learning alongside them as the kingdom of God advances all around us.
To all the amazing youth leaders across the world I say thank you and I challenge you to consider a shift to Student Led/Adult Mentored ministry. I pray you do not see this as a call to decrease your ministry but rather as a call for you to step deeper into it. Lay the tracks, load the coal into the coal car, and help the conductors into the drivers seat. Without the Holy Spirit and I would argue without your earthly investment the train will sit idly at the station missing all the stops filled with expectant passengers looking for the hope it carries!