I had invested half a decade into the lives of this group of students. I’ll be honest, their big day of celebration was bittersweet for me. I knew what it meant for them to graduate high school. Most of them would be moving on to college or a job somewhere in a different town. Everything would change. I’d have a new batch of kids to invest in, then release into the wild.
That’s what I always loathed about youth ministry. It was painful. And if I wasn’t careful, my heart would become a bit more jaded with each new group of students. I could fall into a trap of thinking I had only two options: either I’d shield my heart from these new kids or I’d fight with all of my strength to keep them.
Statistics and many youth ministry books would help with that last desire, too. They’d focus on how to keep kids in your church, at least that’s how I read it. I’d read about the programs we could put in place to ensure that our students made a successful transition into the “adult life” of our church. Or I’d even read things about family ministry which would blow that whole thing up—but even still, the goal was to see these students beyond Graduation Day.
Fast forward to 2017 and I’m a pastor in Southwest Missouri. Our children’s and youth ministry is exploding in numbers. We had over 150 students last week. To put that in perspective, there are just a bit over 700 students in the school district. God is using our church to make a significant impact on the kids in our area. And you know what I heard the other day? You know what I found myself thinking about? The same questions that plagued me as a youth pastor in Northeast Missouri.
“How many of these kids are we going to be able to keep?”
“How do we assimilate these kids into the life of our church so that they are stay?”
“If we aren’t reaching their parents, too, are we actually making a lasting impact?”
And I’d be lying if that old pastoral temptation of big numbers wasn’t also rattling around in my brain. I did a little math. If these kids and even half their parents came to church on a Sunday morning, we’d easily be pushing toward a 400 mark. Imagine what we could do with that?
And then I remembered one of the key statements we are attempting to place into the very DNA of our church. We will be a kingdom-focused church. I remembered that we aren’t meant to hold onto all of these kids. I was in danger of asking the wrong questions. And to do so would have been dangerous for our student ministry. To go down that path would have significantly changed the vision. We would have shaped the ministry around “keeping students.”
I’m convinced that, instead of focusing on keeping students, a truly kingdom-focused church will be passionate about sending students. Sure, graduation will still be a tad bittersweet. That’s the nature of missional heartbreak. But it will also be a celebration. It will be the climax of eighteen years of intentional discipleship and leadership training—equipping students to rock whatever culture they find themselves in with the unchanging gospel of Jesus.
Do you see how this changes the questions and the shape of our student ministries?
If students stay in our community, yes, we want to keep them. If we don’t have future leaders for our church, we won’t be able to continue sending in the future. We want to transform our community in the here-and-now as well. But, we have to make our primary goal about far more than just our little community. We must be kingdom-focused.
We are no longer just asking, “How can we assimilate students into our local body?” We also have to ask, “How can we train them and form them into future leaders—for other churches?”
Instead of wondering how we can grow our church, we have to ask instead, “How can we impact the world?”
This means that we put money and resources into shaping students who may never give a dime to our church. We diligently labor for students who may never serve on a team in our church. We dedicate ourselves to teaching those who may never lead or teach a Sunday school class. (Though, I’d argue the sooner we give these opportunities the better). By the common metrics we use to assess these things, we may never get one bit of “benefit” from these students, but we will still consider our work successful because we have grounded them in the truth and sent them into the world in Jesus’ name.