I recently returned from an area wide denominational high school leadership camp. Besides the actual contact with students that I have, one of the things that I love the most is connecting with colleagues who are in youth ministry. One night as we were wrapping up our “debriefing” time after students had lights out, one of my youth ministry friends asked a question I had never considered before, “What do you think are some of the most important things that I can do as a youth minister to prepare a student for college ministry?” Honestly, I’m never very short on thoughts, but I wanted to answer this question thoughtfully. For several days, I pondered this question and came up with this answer to his question.
First of all, I told my friend, you can focus on teaching spiritual practices to sustain them individually to Christian maturity. So many students enter campus ministry having had some incredible group experiences—mission trips, service projects, group bible studies—but few students have individual spiritual practices such as prayer, fasting, personal bible study, or other spiritual disciplines. The group experiences are so crucial to how we live out our Christian lives, but so are the individual practices. And ministry cannot be sustained unless the personal relationship with God is developed.
Each fall, I require my student leaders to read an article by Henri Nouwen, “Moving From Solitude, to Community, to Ministry.” I also read it myself. The premise of the article is that Jesus’ model for how he went about ministry started from his intimacy with God alone, then spilled out into his closest friends, who couldn’t help but replicate the love from God in ministry to others. The contrast is that we tend to “do” ministry first, get desperate and ask our closest friends to help, and then, when all else fails, we pray. I challenged my friend, even as I am reminded, that the ministry in which I participate must be happening in the right order. Only if I am operating out of the overflow of an intimate and spiritually alive relationship with God can ministry be fruitful. Sure, we can run some great educational programs and even make people feel more connected to one another, but true ministry only takes place out of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Our daily spiritual practices allow us to connect with God in ways that only happens in the silence of solitude.
Secondly, you can give students a vocabulary for their own personal faith, as well as their understanding of community. Several years ago I read Christian Smith’s study on the religious lives of 13-17 year olds that was sponsored by the National Study on Youth and Religion (NSYR).[i] One of their findings was that young people of all faiths are inarticulate about their faith. While they may claim that they have a solid faith, when questioned about some of the more basic and significant tenets of theology, most are unable to come up with an answer. I think that students should be able to answer the questions of why Jesus Christ is central to their Christian faith, not just give a textbook answer (if they can even muster that). Since I read the NSYR study, I’ve paid attention to how students talk about Christianity in general and their faith in particular, and I’ve noticed that Smith was right…many who arrive in my ministry are fairly inarticulate about their faith.
One of the aspects of the ministry which I direct at my campus is a program called Discipleship Southwestern. Each student in the first year of the program, students are asked to write and then share their testimony. Part of it is for them to get to know one another in the program, but part of it is to give them a vocabulary for how they are maturing in their faith. I encouraged my friend to teach a vocabulary of faith to his youth. They will learn something about their own lives in the midst of learning how to converse with others.
Thirdly, you can pray for them. Though this may sound like the most simplistic, I actually think that it is the most difficult to implement and also the very most important. Early in my life and especially since I began in ministry with a paycheck, I’ve always been a pray-er. However, it has only been in recent years that I’ve actually recognized the hard work associated with prayer. My own prayer life has developed from a structured list of things to pray for each day (which I actually still do), to an understanding that prayer can sometimes be a challenging labor of love. I have come to block off more and more time in my day for prayer (and at various points in my day), sometimes inviting others into my prayer time, sometimes not. I recognize that prayer is something that re-orients my thoughts, my plans, and my perspective and gives me the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). I also recognize through the teachings through scripture that I must be persistent in prayer, like the widow (Luke 18), and that God hears our prayers and gives eggs to his children who ask, not scorpions (Luke 11). When I pray for the students entrusted to me, I learn to love them, as God loves them. This is the most important thing that I can do as a campus minister.
When I was in seminary, my preaching professor gave us some advice. “Fall in love with scripture and then fall in love with your congregation. If that happens, then your sermons are bound to be filled with conviction and passion.” I think that the parallel is that when I spend time in prayer for my students, I can’t help but love them more, be more sensitive to how God would have me minister to them, and learn to see them as God sees them. It is in this area that I think my youth minister friend can teach his youth in the most effective way.
The question from my perceptive youth ministry friend was an important one. We only have students for a time and we must be faithful to represent Christ well during the years in which they are entrusted to us. The goal for the Christian life is maturity. We probably won’t see that happen in our span of time in ministry together with our students, but we can be intentional to establish and support some of the most crucial elements as God works in their lives. The youth minister may plant a seed, I may water it, but it is God who makes it grow. Recognizing our own partnership in the gospel allows us to be willing to do our part to build on a firm foundation of Christ. And that is the only thing that is important, after all.
I originally wrote this blog for the Campus Ministry blog, Faith on Campus.
[i] The study was published as a book called, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Incidentally, he has a follow-up study based on 18-23 years olds entitled Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adultsand does a longitudinal study on the same population. It is a significant piece of work for those of us in collegiate ministry.