In Defense of an Expositional Student Ministry
Student ministries that fail to disciple students in Scripture shouldn’t be surprised when the world has discipled them away from the faith in young adult years.
“Just because it works doesn’t mean it’s biblical.”
This quote by Ed Moore, a pastor in Queens, N.Y., has shaken more of my ministry understanding than entire books. A simple Google search reveals much of popular student ministry culture is built around what works, and in some cases, based entirely upon what the world uses to capture students’ attention.
Why are we seeing the biggest drop in student baptisms in 40 years? Perhaps it’s because in chasing the world’s methods, student ministries end up neither keeping pace with the culture nor raising up disciples of Christ.
If we are to take the job of bringing the gospel to students seriously, we must critically evaluate it through the lens of Scripture, and not the world. Why does your student ministry do what it does? What values are shown at your weekly meetings and what vision leads you when planning events and activities?
I’d like to argue from both Scripture and my own ministry experience that an expositional student ministry is the most biblical, faithful, and effective way to raise up students. While this might seem obvious, my hope is to encourage student ministry leaders to stand against the tide of pop culture (and too often student ministry culture at large).
1. It Makes Students Look to the Bible
While our student ministry met in host homes, a church down the street was putting on productions to rival Broadway. Laser light shows, fog machines, and paid worship music leaders helped set the stage for their group.
While it had students attending in droves, a high school girl that started there left that ministry for our group. Why? Not because I was a charismatic leader, a fantastic teacher, or because we had the best games. She came because we talked about the Bible.
My fear with these “popular” student ministries is that they might be able to offer them the world, but can’t give them what matters most: knowledge that leads to salvation (2 Tim. 3:15).
When we fix our eyes on popular student ministry culture and see it drawing large groups of students while our own expositional student ministry is hard work with seasons of little fruit, we are tempted to throw up our hands and give in to the temptation to accept a little leaven from the world (1 Cor. 5:6). The cure for this is to do what we must teach our students — look to Christ and his Word, knowing that his nearness is our good (Ps. 73).
When students have traumatic events in their life, what has your student ministry taught them to look to? Has it taught them to look inward and find the answer in themselves? Has it taught them to look to the main teacher and his thoughts? Has it taught them to look to the world and apply what works in their life? Or has it taught them to look to Scripture and trust in the goodness of God even amid their suffering?
In good expositional teaching, students learn how to study the Bible, giving them a framework that can be built on for the rest of their lives. Jesus warns us about those who build upon the sand of this world, and how all they have will be washed away when the flood comes (Matt. 7:26-27). Student ministries that fail to disciple students in Scripture shouldn’t be surprised when the world has discipled them away from the faith in young adult years.
The world is endlessly attempting to disciple students (and adults) into sin, and leaders must recognize the amount of opposition they face when running a student ministry. The gospel is radically countercultural and is only effective when delivered that way. When we present the gospel in a worldly package, we haven’t contextualized the message, we’ve poisoned it.
If your student ministry has traditionally been built upon principles that are found more in the world than in Scripture, you will likely see some students, and even entire families, leave your church as you lean more into expositional student ministry. As much as we hate to see people leave our churches, the reality is what we catch students and families with, we keep them with.
Some students will inevitably lose interest in your ministry if your focus continually becomes more Christ-centered. However, I believe this ultimately is a good thing. A half-gospel that draws crowds still leads to a whole hell. The biblical Christ alone saves, and a worldly amalgamation of gospel and pop culture simply inoculates our students from the truth.
2. It Makes You a Better Leader and Teacher
Teaching expositionally though the Bible is difficult. It requires hard, consistent work, but it produces beautiful fruit. The more I worked at expositional teaching, the more I began to love Scripture and communicate it more faithfully. It forces the teacher to grapple with the text and study deeper than other forms of teaching and equips you to provide better counsel to the students.
How much better can you equip your students to confront the questions they will face at home and school than by walking through the wisdom of Scripture?
If you feel under-prepared for this task, consider asking your pastor about forming a residency or discipleship wherein he can teach you how to exegete a text and prepare a sermon. Is seminary or Bible college (in person or online) an option for your stage of life? If you feel called to ministry, it may even be prudent to step away from ministry for a time to be better equipped for a lifetime and preaching and teaching students.
If you are a volunteer leader who already feels overwhelmed, please don’t hear me throwing another weight upon your crushing load. There are some truly great training resources out there that you can work through in your own time, just don’t allow your busyness to become a license for a sinful attitude toward the ministry you lead and will give an account for.
Scripture also demands that those who teach provide not their own thoughts on the Bible, but to preach Scripture itself. While student ministries are not churches in themselves, the commands to faithfully preach still apply (2 Tim. 4:2, Titus 2:2).
Student leader/pastor, please do not be deceived: you will give an account for every word, activity, and event you bring your students into under the name of Christ. This is a daunting truth, but one that needs to shape every decision we make. Is Christ given his rightful place as the Name above every name that all creation will bow to in our messages? In our events? In our retreats and camps? If the answer isn’t a clear yes, then we must tread very lightly, lest we show our students that Jesus is willing to share his throne.
Finally, it also equips you to better serve the parents of students. Many student pastors and leaders are younger, so pulling upon their own parenting experience to serve parents isn’t an option. The good news is that Scripture is full of parents who provide wisdom that you can draw upon to counsel and encourage parents.
Do you have a parent who has a child struggling with pornography? Point them to practical helps such as Covenant Eyes, but also point them to Solomon’s words to his son in Proverbs 5. Your job is not to replace parents, but to aid them as a secondary discipleship influence in the life of the students God has placed in your care.
In all this, if Scripture is the center of your student ministry, take heart; God’s Word will not return void. Your faithful labor in student ministry does not go unseen by God, and in moments that appear like a fruitless harvest, remember that ministry is often a long game. Student ministry is full of planting and watering, so trust God’s timing for when he gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).
Lead Them to Treasure Christ above All
Ultimately, the important question is not “What works?”, but “Is it biblical?” If student ministry leaders pursue these things, you may not have the biggest group, the coolest group, or the nicest things to offer your students, but you will have the treasure worth giving everything for — Christ.
This is what our students truly need, and God’s Word alone offers lasting life change and true hope in a desolate world.