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Rethinking Student Ministry, Part 1: The Definition of Insanity

Guest Post by Gary McCabe, Pastor of Family Ministries & Mobilization, Oak Ridge Baptist Church

In recent months I have noticed a lot of buzz—blog posts, articles, etc.—lamenting the exodus of younger generations from our churches in their older teenage years. These concerns are valid. According to Lifeway Research, there is a 69% chance that these students will leave the church, never to return.

I grew up in church, attended our church’s youth group, and as a college student interned in a local church youth ministry. After graduating, I spent two years in West Africa as a missionary and spent time investing in MKs and other students there.

Upon returning to the States, I married and began my first full-time ministry role as a youth pastor. Back then, I believed student ministry was what I would do for the entirety of my ministry career. At that time, the average tenure of a student pastor in a church was three years. I made it four before falling victim to the statistics.

In the 12 years since, I have been engaged in other full-time ministry roles, always watching, and interacting with the younger student pastors who passed through our church like a revolving door. It was not a surprise to me when I discovered articles claiming the average tenure of a student pastor today is just 18 months. I have watched that stat play itself out in gut-wrenching detail.

With all the fallout of this turnover, I was asked to return to student ministry and breathe new life into our floundering program.

This is how I found myself back ministering to students at the hopelessly uncool age of 43 …and loving it!

Why do we need to rethink the attractional model?

The challenge presented to me was to get a different result than what the average attractional model of student ministry has been getting.

The attractional model results in student ministry being a “crowd program.” Put on the best show, do the most exciting things, draw the largest crowd possible, and then win for Christ as many of those students as you can. In other words, “Wow ‘em to win ‘em.”

I suspect that most churches have been using this model, in one form or another, for the last 20 years. I also suspect that it’s time for that to change for two reasons.

1. We can see the results of this model over time now. While some exciting decisions may be getting made by some students in these high-energy, entertaining programs, it’s not resulting in lasting life change and continued involvement in the life of the church for most.

2. With access to any kind of content that they desire, at the tips of nearly every student’s finger (read “smartphone”), the effectiveness of the “wow” is wearing off. In other words, we can’t compete with “Mr. Beast.”


Students looking at smartphones


Before we talk about the new student ministry experiment that we’ve started, let’s look at what the attractional model of student ministry got us.

1. Siloed Ministries.

Most often, to be big and shiny enough, a separate room or building is needed for the specially crafted student service to attract a large crowd of students. Since these services would run concurrently with adult services, volunteers who served there would often gradually fall out of alignment with the rest of the church, seeing as it didn’t have anything to do with “their thing.”

Also, since they had their own building and their own service that they had designed to reach their own target—and structurally they could do all this without having to interact with the broader adult church—some younger student pastors would unwittingly begin to “build their own kingdom” within the church (read “church within a church”).

2. Inoculation against “Big Church.” 

Since the nature of the crowd program was to cater to the whims of the target, students raised up within this program inadvertently received the message, “church is for me.” Everything about this service is tailored to be just the way they like it.

This unintentionally created a culture of anemic self-centered faith.

Once they graduate, heading over to the adult services just doesn’t seem like much fun, no matter how high-quality the adult services are, because those services are not “for them.”

3. Ministry Leader Turnover.

As mentioned above, for many different reasons, we experienced the heartache of watching our students say goodbye to student pastor after student pastor in a shockingly short period of time. This resulted in instability and feelings of abandonment.

Since everyone knows that to continue doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting a different result, is the definition of insanity, we began to think of a new way to do student ministry. That’s what we’ll dig into next week — Rethinking Student Ministry, Part 2: The New Experiment.

  • Jeanette Hazel
    Posted at 00:06h, 25 March Reply

    Hello, Gary!

    I love your article! Wayne Rice was one of the founders of youth ministry. Around 2010, he realized the “silo” which separated the teens from the rest of the church wasn’t working long-term, for the reasons you give. He recommended that we “reinvent” youth ministry. So Oak Ridge looked for ways that would include high schoolers in with the adults both in worship and in ministry. I can’t wait to read Part Two…

  • Pat M Robinson
    Posted at 04:08h, 26 March Reply

    I enjoyed reading your article, Gary. Although I don’t get to the church service, I am happy to still feel like a part of it.

    I think it’s wonderful that the youth are becoming so active in volunteering in adult services. I will be looking forward to your next article on this topic.

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