If you’ve turned on the news any time during the past year, it’s been hard to miss the wave of young social activism sweeping our nation. Teenagers like David Hogg and Emma González are becoming household names like Malala Yousafzai or the Little Rock Nine before them. More and more, teens are demanding their place in society and that’s a good thing.

When God called the prophet Jeremiah to service, Jeremiah cited his youth as a reason he was ill equipped. God reminds him that leading His people isn’t just for adults, but to any He calls. What Graduation Sunday hasn’t come with a message on Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to resist being shortchanged because of his youth, or Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples to become like the young in their faith?

Like with most of the lessons we teach our students, the world is sending them messages on those same subjects, too. And oft times those messages are contradictory. Social justice is no exception. As our student’s voices are being culturally uplifted and celebrated, it’s imperative we instill in them a biblical frame for taking action in their homes, schools, and communities. Here’s three reasons why it’s critical we do so and three ways to help your students become socially active with a biblical framework.

  1. It’s a Mandate. We can’t teach our students a gospel of Jesus that is devoid of a call to social justice. True social justice isn’t joining that newest online outrage, it’s the care for the poor, widow, and orphans– essentially, those most disregarded among us. As Matthew 25:1-6 and James 1:27 among other scriptures show us that justice is central to God’s movement in today’s world.
  2. It Produces Christ Followers, Not Just Churchgoers. Gathering together is a call of Scripture, but just showing up to a church on Sunday makes our teens about as Christian as showing up to a football game makes them an athlete. It can be tempting to center our ministry around our youth centers which can raise students with a habit of going to church on Sunday mornings and not necessarily living surrendered lives to Christ. Putting our students in situations that requires exercising their faith and serving others helps them experience what it means to join God in the renewal of all things.
  3. It Makes the Gospel Real for Those in and Outside the Church. When we lead our students into the world and show them how to serve the disregarded and stand up to injustice, they begin to fully understand the call Jesus gave to his disciples. And as they live lives of sacrificial love, their peers and those they serve become witness to the transformative power of the gospel in their lives. Seeking purpose is a fundamental human drive and helping our students find that in living out their faith serves as a testimony for those not following Jesus of what can be found in the gospel.

So how do you get started? What does investing in the social justice aspect of your student ministry look like? Here’s three steps to place your ministry in a framework of making justice not just something talked about, but an indwelled part of your student’s and leader’s spiritual journey.

  1. Assess the Needs. When we examine the gospels, rarely does Jesus hunt out his next miraculous healing or provision. Instead, he maintained a practice of listening to the needs around him. Our students don’t have to raise money and travel around the world to find problems they can tackle. The harvest is plentiful in their own backyard. Encourage your students to take notice of the problems of others they encounter throughout their day.

Provide space for your students to share with one another the burdens they are carrying amongst themselves. Go to a local mall or park and setup a listening area where people can come and leave a prayer request, attend local government and community meetings. These are just a few ways to get your students in the habit of listening to the world around them.

  1. Pray and Plan. By far the most important, and countercultural, step; it’s important we teach our student the cornerstone of biblical social activism is prayer. Like Moses striking the rock in Numbers 20, if we seek to help the needs around us while ignoring God’s leading and instruction, we can bring ruin upon ourselves. Study the life of David and how he continually sought God’s counsel in the problems he wanted to resolve. Prayer journals can be a great way to encourage our students to seek the Lord in how to best address the issues they face. Find other creative ways to illustrate how they can first seek the Lord in all that they do.
  2. Move Into Action. The Bible is pretty clear that once we seek the Lord and His wisdom, He does not hold back. And while God has the ability to supernaturally solve problems around us, more often than not, He uses his willing followers to achieve His plans and purposes. This means once our students have a prayerfully considered, individually and/or corporately, how to tackle the injustices around them, they can get to work! The life of the disciples after Jesus’ ascension shows us that joining God is his work in the world will be difficult, and at times even dangerous, but we can take heart because Jesus has overcome the world.

Once you’ve listened to your community and prayerfully identified some issues your students can tackle, lead them in executing your plans and make space for them to share the fears and failures that may come. This provides plenty of teachable moments where we can show our students that living out an authentic faith is tough, but is worth the difficulty.

When we start taking social justice serious as student ministries, we will start to see more engaged youth develop an authentic faith focused on loving God and loving others. The gospel is for every culture, in every time, in every place and as our culture shifts from generation to generation, it’s important to help our youth connect the good news to the world they are living in. Increasingly, today’s young people are becoming more and more socially active and justice conscious, it’s our job to help provide them a biblical framework for living out their faith in such a time as this.