In today’s age of high-stakes testing and school-safety concerns, more than ever, youth workers have increasing difficulty finding their way onto middle- and high-school campuses to interact with students. Many youth workers serve in a volunteer capacity and still a lucky few may be allowed visitor privileges on school grounds. Those who feel shut out of their students’ daily experience due to time constraints or school policy still can make intentional efforts to close the gap between school and faith.
Youth ministry exists (among other reasons) to prepare students for a life-long journey of Christian formation even after they have moved on from our programs. By teaching, equipping and encouraging students in living out their faith daily in their educational settings, we begin the process of preparing them for a life away from youth ministry. By teaching students how their faith fits into the story of humanity we help them see God’s hand in all they encounter. By equipping youth to lead and serve we enable them to make a positive difference in their world. By encouraging young people to develop a Christ-like attitude in all of their relationships, they will begin to understand their faith as holistic, impacting all arenas of their lives.
Students interact with school curriculum five days a week; effective youth ministries can find ways to integrate this knowledge into regular Bible studies. Take every opportunity to place the stories we teach every week, from Abraham to the apostle Paul, in their historical context. Doing this allows us as teachers to activate students’ prior knowledge. Having students understand the wider context of our faith story also facilitates an integration of their faith into the bigger picture of our world.
I taught several sections of ancient world history for six years. Once, while leading a high-school Bible study on the Book of Esther, I encouraged students to tell me what they knew about King Xerxes and the Persian Empire. I got nothing but blank stares. Then I started jogging their memories of some things they’d learned in ninth-grade history (some of them had been in my class).
Immediately, they started to remember the things they’d learned in class, excitedly making connections to what we were learning about Esther. They expressed that they had no idea that it was all connected. I went on to name other biblical episodes that were tied to their historical studiesâ€”the Hittites, Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Empire. One student said, “I never knew this stuff in the Bible had so much to do with history.”
Christianity and its Judaic roots play a vital role in the development of the modern world and students will learn about it in the secular environment of school. Tying our Christian heritage to its place in history gives it greater credibility in the minds of our youth and affords the opportunity to see God’s hand at work even through the words of a textbook.
Public schools typically represent a microcosm of the larger society. As in society as a whole, we find diverse interests looking for a voice with constitutional protections that provide them an outlet. A few schools have gone the route of stifling all non-curricular voices on campus, but for those that have not, the voice of Christianity has the same right of acceptance as any other. The youth of our ministries should be encouraged to gather with others at their schools through formal organizations, such as the FCA and other Christian fellowship clubs. Likewise, they should be encouraged to take advantage of events or ministry opportunities, such as See You at the Pole or The Souper Bowl of Caring.
These organizations and events provide structure and opportunities for students to plug in and engage in Christian efforts. For students in schools without such organizations, youth ministers can be great resources for helping students initiate local chapters. Even in schools that deny non-curricular clubs the right to meet, we can still equip students to exercise their right to gather by providing spaces and supervision for these clubs that cannot conduct their business on school grounds.
Many young people across the world have set examples of involvement that can inspire our youth. Sharing these stories of teenagers making a difference in their communities and schools can provide students with the motivation to do kingdom work outside of their churches. In our community, a group of students led a drive to collect for Operation Christmas Child, gathering donated shoe boxes and praying over them at the school flagpole before sending them across the world. Most communities will have similar stories, and in our world today, we find many stories from Zach Hunter to the Harris twins that we can hold up to our youth as models.
We also should encourage our students to live among others with a Christ-like attitude, especially within the walls of their schools. Our ministries should provide community in which loving adults can hear the struggles and difficulties our students face and guide them in the proper way. Students should understand the strength of their witness in their relationships with teachers and peers.
By definition, students are in a subservient position, under the authority of others while at school. In this position, it becomes easy to play the role of rebel or victim. As their mentors we must encourage them to stand up for themselves while still practicing Christian submission. Encouraging students to maintain a proper respect for authority balanced with consistent adherence to the principles of their faith will serve them well in school and beyond.
A typical student probably has more opportunities each day than he or she realizes to practice his or her faith and share it with others. As a teacher, I am troubled by the lack of respect students in school give to our daily moment of silence. In our state, students are given time each day for silent reflection. Quieting students who continue to talk can be a burden, especially when those students are professing Christians. I do not doubt their faith, but schools cannot instruct students on how to use this quiet time; unless instruction comes from parents and ministers, many students never make the connection.
With all the talk of taking God out of the schools, we should remember God is present everywhere. As long as Christian teachers and students reflect a Christ-like attitude, God will be known within the schools, as well.
The task of all education, coming from church or school, is to prepare students to navigate life on their own. By preparing students to live out a life of faith in their school environment, away from the comfort of our ministries, we are beginning the process of life-long Christian formation of our charges.