Ecclesiology, the study of the nature of the church.
What is the church? What is its purpose? Why should we go to church? What is the church for?
The study of ecclesiology holds the answers to these questions, but most students in your ministry are not searching through their systematic theology textbooks to find these answers. Instead, they are forming answers through their experience in your student ministry.
As leaders, what we think about the church theologically leads to how our church operates practically, but it happens in reverse for our students. As they see how the church functions practically, they develop their own theology of the church, their own ecclesiology.
I want to offer up three areas to evaluate in ministry that might lead students to understand the true biblical nature of the church.
#1 Equip / Consume
Ephesians chapter 4 explains that the role of church leaders is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. If you are fulfilling this call, the church, including your student ministry, should be a place of equipping.
Do your students see the church as a place to be equipped in their part of the mission of God, or is the church a place where they consume the religious services being offered weekly?
If a were to be a part of your ministry student, could they go from being far from God to making disciples of another student? How are Sunday school, small groups, and student worship geared toward an equipping mentality versus a consumption mentality?
If students do not leave your ministry understanding that the church is a place to be equipped for every good work, then they will only go to church until they aren’t entertained anymore. They will constantly seek churches with bigger and better services and events to be consumed.
#2 Discipleship / Events
Events are a great tool to utilize in ministry. They can be catalytic moments in the lives of a student and their discipleship. However, events are terrible replacements for discipleship.
Do your events serve to facilitate discipleship relationships and serve as a part of your overall discipleship strategy? Or are events like camps, retreats, or your weekly student gathering the only areas in ministry where growth happens? Do students only grow because of your events or because they are weekly walking with Jesus?
Covid-19 was a great test of this in our ministries. Suppose you worried that your students weren’t growing in discipleship simply because they couldn’t come to your weekly student services or attend the big event that got canceled. In that case, it might be that your events were the only mechanism for discipleship in your ministry.
If the weekly meeting or the big event is the only place where discipleship happens in your student ministry, then students will see the church as an event to attend and not a family where they belong. This can, in turn, create a perspective of the church as a place where we are spectators at weekly and yearly events and not a family of faith to love and serve.
Moreover, event-driven discipleship will not produce lasting fruit or adults engaged in the local church for the long term. Instead, discipleship-driven events create the environment for disciple-making relationships to be formed and nurtured for long-term ministry.
These types of events seek to create environments where students leave more connected to those in your ministry who can disciple them consistently. Such as their own parents, small group leaders, or even upperclassmen or college students who desire to make disciples who make disciples. A helpful question is, “how will the time and resources given to this event result in more students being taught how to follow Jesus, be changed by Jesus, and join the mission of Jesus?”
Where will your student go to church once they graduate? Will they go to church at all? What have you taught your students to look for in a church through your ministry? Do they even know to look for another church?
Lifeway research from 2019 shows that the main reason students stop attending church is simply that they moved to college. They were not intent on skipping church, but if they understood the church to be an event to attend or a service to consume, it just might not make the priority list.
Student pastors must be diligent in connecting students to a new local church where they are moving. Create a resource document for each college your students might attend with churches and local campus ministries. So your students have a tangible tool to connect to a church after they leave your ministry and load it with contact info and social media handles of local ministries and churches.
Student pastors are teaching ecclesiology every week in their ministry. Let us be good stewards to point students to the body of Christ that equips them through discipleship and prepares them for a future to follow Jesus all the days of their lives.