Of all the ministries of the church, student ministry is more likely than any other to find resistance from stakeholders in becoming missional.
The reason for this is rather simple. More than anything, Christian parents want to protect their children, and pastors/elders want to keep parents happy. However, hyper-protection leads to separatism or what Reinhold Niebuhr described as a “Christ against culture” mindset.1
If we are called to be missional, we must engage cultural contexts, and this requires a significant investment in educating stakeholders of its importance amid the risks of engaging in the culture.
Engaging with God’s Redemptive Activity
There’s no question that our fallen world is a dangerous place. As the apostle Paul suggested, we continue to live in a “crooked and perverse generation”—but not only does he exhort us to lives that are blameless and innocent, he also exhorts us to “shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15). This resonates with Niebuhr’s thesis of “Christ and culture in paradox.”2 This is a messy paradigm, and most parents would prefer a clean separation of good and evil. Yet, engaging in God’s redemptive activity requires us to engage in the messiness of our culture. When we reject a missional mindset and attempt to shelter student ministry in a strategy of safety and protection, we fall short of God’s intended purpose of redemption. The fallen world in which we live is the very object of God’s love. As theologian William Dyrness writes, “God’s commitment is a continuing personal activity that supports the created order.”3 God never has abandoned creation and remains committed to its redemption. As human beings created in God’s image, we are called to be partners with God in this mission of redemption.
The world is not absent of God’s presence, and our investment in the worldly culture is theologically meaningful. Dyrness puts it this way:
“Because of God’s presence and action, our involvement in culture has real theological significance. We are called to reflect God’s own commitment to the world.”4
Our reflection of God’s commitment calls us to a ministry that touches the world beyond the safety of our faith community. “God’s hands are already upon everything that our hands touch. His mind already sustains everything that our minds address. The world is not a place from which he is absent, however much it may grieve him. The work of God in Christ brings redemption into his creation-sustaining activity.”5
If student ministry solely protects adolescents from the secular world, then we are in danger of becoming theologically indifferent to God’s redemptive purpose.6 Such indifference results in a hollow ministry marked by inward self-satisfaction that is not fully immersed in God’s story of redemption. We fully connect with God’s story when we find ourselves deeply immersed in the world God created, filled with a passion to redeem what is not yet reflecting God’s divine glory.
Creation of an Alternative World
The culture of our world, thanks in part to technology, is so pervasive that the alternative world comprising Christian schools, churches and student ministries actually offers little, if any, protection from the dominant culture. Quiz any homeschooled teenagers on his or her knowledge of pop culture, and he or she is likely to ace your test. No Christian environment automatically guarantees safety. Even separatists such as the Amish struggle with the influences of the surrounding dominant culture. The Corinthians employed this strategy after Paul instructed them not to associate with sexually sinful people. Believing Paul wanted them to disassociate from all sinful unbelievers, they abandoned their pagan neighbors. Paul corrected their actions concerning this earlier advice by explaining: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world” (1 Cor. 5:9-10).
We are enmeshed in a fallen world, yet called to be in the world, but not of it. Before Paul admonished the Corinthians, Jesus taught this lesson through His intercessory prayer: “My prayer is not that You take them out of the world but that You protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15-18).
Parents are often highly selective when it comes to the particular features of the world from which they want their children protected. They may desire to protect their children from drugs, sex, movies or violent video games but have little concern for protecting them from consumerism or individualism, which may be equally detrimental to spiritual health.7
Short of becoming a cloistered nun or monk, everyone eventually must learn to navigate the world in which we live. Creating an alternative world for students throughout their teenage years only prolongs the inevitable; we offer parents and students a much greater gift when we teach adolescents to make wise decisions when they encounter all the world has to offer them.8 When Esau sold his birthright to his brother, Jacob, for a bowl of stew, he was consumed with his immediate desire and ignored the long-term consequences of his actions (Gen. 25:19-34). Teaching students to invest in something that will last—at the expense of instant gratification—is a gift that lasts a lifetime.
A missional mindset doesn’t view the world as black and white, resorting to the extremes of either fleeing the culture or embracing it. Missional leaders engage the culture with wisdom and strength, teaching students to do the same, so we all might become creators of culture.
Belief that ‘Those People’ Threaten Us
When singer Landau Eugene Murphy stepped onto the stage of “America’s Got Talent,” the judges did not expect much. They knew his type, and they had seen it time and time again. Based on his appearance and mannerisms, the judges and audience thought this audition was going to be a waste of time. Then he began to sing, and three months later won the whole thing. Rather than seeing Landau for what he could be, the judges sized him up according to preconceived stereotypes of how good singers look and act. Likewise, most adults prejudge teenagers they do not know based solely on an ingrained stereotype of adolescents. Because of this stereotype, adults often feel threatened by and fearful of teenagers they do not know.
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaks about the dangers of the single story. At 19, she left Nigeria to attend an American university. Her roommate was shocked that Adichie spoke English so well and was surprised to learn English is the official language of Nigeria. When she asked Adichie to listen to some of her tribal music, she was stunned when Adichie cued up Mariah Carey. Adichie’s roommate possessed only a single story of the African continent and applied this singular mindset to all Africans.
Single stories of people are created when the same story is continuously repeated. Eventually we come to believe this single story is true of all the people we associate with the story. “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity,” Adichie writes. “It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”9 The story of the American teenager culture is often a single story of confusion, bad behavior, immorality, poor decision making, and raging hormones. Chap Clark argues, “most adults fear and in many cases are basically repulsed by what they see in the adolescent world.”10 Ann Duffett revealed that seven in 10 adults describe teenagers as rude, irresponsible and wild.11 Adults have a single story of teenagers outside of their homes and churches.
Pete Ward writes, “The problem with church-based youth fellowship is that unchurched young people can easily be seen as a significant threat.”12 When we engage a missional mindset, we may fear these teenagers will corrupt the lives of our Christian teenagers, yet they have the greatest need of hearing the transforming message of God’s grace. Too often we have determined a missional student ministry is too risky and focusing on the discipleship of teenager within the walls of the church is good enough for the major stakeholders in a typical church. Hence, it is essential to engage stakeholders about what it means to become missional before attempting to actually become missional.
Becoming a Faithful Expression of God
Who will rise up and speak on behalf of those students who are far from God? Most often the parents of such students are not in the church. Student ministries that understand faith formation and create a context in which students are able to grow in their faith need not fear engaging unchurched students. As students share their faith with others, they grow in their walk with Christ. As a community of believers reaches out to those far from God, the community becomes a more faithful expression of the triune God. This is a steep learning curve for Christian parents—and often pastors and elders.
When we understand our identity in Christ and the mission of the church, we no longer fear the messiness that accompanies our engagement with people outside the fellowship. In fact, we come to understand that without such messiness, our faithfulness to the gospel is hollow. Embracing others requires us to move, in faith, from a position of concern about how others might affect our Christian students to a position of embracing others as we view them as God created them to be.
This article is adapted with permission from Teenager’s Matter: Making Student Ministry a Priority in the Church, published by Baker Academic. Copyright © 2013 by Mark Cannister.
1 Niebuhr, H. Richard, Christ and Culture. New York: HaprerPerennial, 2001.
3 Dyrness, William. The Earth Is God’s: A Theology of American Culture. Eugene, OR: Wipf Stock, 2004. p. 36.
4 Ibid., 69.
5 Cray, Graham. Postmodern Culture and Youth Discipleship: Commitment or Looking Cool? Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd., 1998. p. 20.
8 Read Walt Mueller’s 3(D) Guide to Making Responsible Media Choices to learn how to help student make wise choices. Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.
9 Adichie, Chimamanda. The Danger of a Single Story. TED Global Conference, 2009.
10 Clark, Hurt: Insider the World of Today’s Teenagers. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2004. p.58.
11 Duffet, Ann, Jean Johnson, and Steve Farkas. Kids These Days ’99: What Americans Really Think about the Next Generation. New York: Public Agenda, 1999. p. 3.
12 Ward, Pete. Growing Up Evangelical. London: SPCK, 1996. p. 185.