The past is always iconically cool. In my life this has been consistently true. We always look back to previous eras as if things were better then. Truly, some things might have been, but of course many things were worse too. This is definitely true of one’s own childhood experiences.

the way things used to be

We often romantically and nostalgically immortalize the way things were. Whether that be our childhood birthday parties, our Sunday School experience, or the way we played outside, unsupervised, with abandon.

I have rarely come across a person who didn’t think the methods of their formative years were the best way to do things. In my teen years, I was a part of a thriving youth group averaging 200 to 300 teens most weeks.

Growing up with a slight pentecostal flair we had extended worship times followed by a lengthy message; capped off with a weekly trip to our local Whataburger or Chilis to hang with our friends. That was the only way I knew.

We didn’t play crazy gross youth group games and the focus was not on having fun. The focus was on having an experience with God, and connecting with people. That was it. We of course did insanely fun and crazy things at camp and on trips, but only on special occasions.

more than one way

I didn’t actually know there were multiple approaches to student ministry until I was employed on staff at a church full-time. Up to that point, I thought there was one way that students were wooed to attend youth group or student ministry. Naturally, I thought the best way was the way I had experienced.

When I started working at a church, I found out our student ministry didn’t have live worship, and to my horror I was shocked. Having attended larger churches, I honestly at the time didn’t even know that was something smaller student ministries struggled with.

I had visited tons of churches with friends and had never experienced anything else, and then it happened, the iconic nostalgia of comparison. I started to immediately think my experiences were better. I had to ask myself, were my experiences better because they are mine, or were they better because they were actually better?

the only way

The one and only way I knew to grow a youth group was through the way I had experienced. The way modeled for me was relationships. As it turns out, I got pretty lucky because I truly believe that is still the correct and proper way.

There is A LOT of pressure on student ministry leaders to have the coolest, hippest, trendiest, most in touch with the real world student ministry, more so now than in time’s past.

a lot of student ministry leaders ‘to do’ lists probably look similar to this

make sure Instagram game is on point

put together monthly event that’s cooler than any other event

make graphic of our worship songs and post online

create trendy and timely sermon title

play the newest game on Jimmy Fallon and tweak for student ministry fun

have band play one cover song

these things aren’t bad…

these things are good, but they are only good when every other line is intermixed with one of these type items

take a student out to lunch this week
attend multiple extracurricular activities of students
have coffee with a small group leader and go over this week’s material
meet with students at Daniel’s house for small group
take another student out to lunch this week
spend time with students before and after student ministry events
pick up kids from school and take them to student ministry
have a prayer time before student ministry for students who are looking for prayer

There is a lot of pressure to look cool, to do cool things, and have cool events, but NONE of these things can even begin to take the place of building relationships.

Students won’t even want to attend your cool event or do cool things with you if they don’t know you. You will not have any students to woo if you haven’t started the process of building a relationship with them.

It’s really easy to put the emphasis on achieving things, because things are easy to cross off your to do list. Building a relationship takes a lot more work than making a graphic, but that’s where the emphasis should be.

it’s not easy to build relationships

In every area of ministry when you make people the focus, especially students, you take the risk that they will let you down or leave your ministry. These fears are real for ministry leaders because they happen often.

Everyone can benefit from being encouraged to keep people as the focus. The reason you are in student ministry is for students. If that’s not the reason, then you might be called to a different area of ministry.

Students are looking for relationships, but not just with you, the leader. When kids come to your student ministry or youth group they are looking for connection in a lot of areas.

they are looking for a relationship with an adult

They are looking for a relationship with an adult that can add clarity and value to their life, and point them to truth. If you are a student pastor or director this is you, but if you are a small group leader or worship leader in student ministry, this is also you.

The ages of 12-18 are a really hard time in life, when your hormones are out of control and you feel like no-one understands you, especially your parents.

Even if you are just a few years older than the students in your ministry, they are looking for you to cue them on what to do next. They want to know how to live life without failing, so point them towards truth in the best ways you know how.

they are looking for relationships with other students

they are looking for relationships with other students who have a similar worldview and values to their own. It’s really easy to come in contact with people that are different from you and want different things out of life.

It’s difficult to come in contact with people who are actually on the same journey as you and aren’t trying to drag you down. Students want to feel cool and accepted, like they have a place to go where a friend truly understands them.

they are looking for a relationship with god

This point is actually really easy to forget. If students came to your church and had an amazing time with their friends and got dropped off at home by their small group leader after grabbing a Frappucino, but didn’t encounter God, then you failed.

The relationships and support systems that a student ministry can provide are invaluable, but when prioritizing relationships in your student ministry, a relationship with God is key.

They need to know they can pray to a God that is always listening. They need to know they can turn to a God who desires their best. They need to know there is no place they can run to that they can’t come back to God. The God who sent his Son to die for them. When your student comes to know God it adds more value to their life then you ever could.

It’s really easy to confuse the breakdown of how much time should be spent on cool stuff, compared to events, compared to relationships, but it shouldn’t be confusing. Let me tell you now relationships should win by a land slide.

In this week’s podcast we talk about these breakdowns and what this means for leaders in student ministry. You can check out the podcast below, but first check out this simple table below, so you can clearly see where all your time should be going.

the breakdown

The only way we improve is by changing. Sometimes we need to take the practices shown to us as kids and teens, and throw them completely out the window. We need to put nostalgia aside and look at facts. “Does this work?” “Is my ministry growing?”

We need to put some data science to work on our behalf so that we can thrive. We need to be honest about what is working and what’s not working. We need to stop guessing what’s good. However, sometimes, like in my story, what has always worked will continue to work, because it actually works.

Students want to be loved and known, and that only happens via one route, relationships. No amount of Instagram likes and cool events can even begin to substitute for a real person connecting with another real person and sharing their lives together.

So, what are you still doing reading this article? Get out your phone and text some students, if you ask them to go, basically anywhere, they are going to say yes. Oh and while you’re waiting for those students to text you back, you can listen to the podcast. Have fun!

the podcast

In this episode, TK and Stacia ask the very timely question of whether or not your student ministry is too cool?

In a society where everyone is desperate to connect with digital natives, they discuss whether stage lights, Instagram posts, epic worship experiences, and high-energy games compare to the one thing that really matters; relationships.

Getting down to the nitty gritty of their own experiences they talk about the schedule breakdown of how student ministry leaders should be spending their time. If you work with Next Gen students and kids, this is one podcast you can’t miss.

is your student ministry too cool?
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Stacia Stall

Stacia Stall

Chief Creative Officer

Stacia has over a decade of ministry experience, with the majority of that time leading next generation change. She has experience leading almost one hundred volunteers, and developing curriculum for kids and students. Stacia has a B.S. in Church Ministries and Biblical Studies, as well as experience educating in an elementary public school environment. She is also immensely creative and accomplished in teaching children about the wonder of God.