This summer I was honored to serve as camp pastor at Fuge Camps for a week. Fuge is one of our summer events for students and student ministries, alongside Student Life, World Changers, and P2 Missions. We are grateful for the opportunity to serve student ministries in their mission of making disciples. Student ministry is still in my blood, and seeing the Lord work on the hearts of students is a deep joy. Serving as camp pastor reminded me about these three things:
1) Many students want the truth
They don’t need talks completely designed around funny illustrations. They don’t need sermonettes that presume they can only handle truth in small doses. They can understand the Bible and the deep truths discovered in God’s Word. They respond well when someone respects them and their minds enough not to pamper them and talk to them like children. Several of the student pastors I interacted with that week shared their belief that “many student ministries and churches underestimate students.” I sat in on a church group time after one of the worship services, and the students were discussing and applying the Word in their context.
2) Students are searching for an identity
The students in my first youth ministry are in or approaching their thirties now, but though time is passing, I see a lot of the same struggles/searching in students. There are still kids trying to impress others, still hurting students who cut themselves, still students who seek an identity in a relationship, and others in an accomplishment like what they can do on a field or court. Some are rejoicing in Christ and enjoying the identity found in Him.
In the 1960s, a social psychologist named Erik Erikson developed a theory of human development. While not a theologian, he did study one aspect of God’s general revelation: humanity, God’s crowning work of creation. In Erikson’s model, teenagers reach a point of developmental crisis called “role confusion versus identity.” Teenagers are searching for an identity, a reputation. They experiment with their dress, music, friends, and hobbies to help form the version of who they are, the person they want to be.
Jesus provides students with the greatest identity one can ever find. They are His, loved by God, forgiven and free. Erikson believed that if teenagers did not leave adolescence with a deep sense of their identity, they would struggle throughout adulthood with issues related to their identity. Erikson’s theory confirms the conviction that a student’s identity must be grounded in Christ. Belonging to God, because of the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus, is the only identity that is secure. All the other identities discovered in middle school (athlete, honor student, boyfriend, in-crowd, etc.) will quickly fade. No identity other than the identity found in Christ will last.
3) Students are deeply relational
The wrestling with identity, for students, is a relational wrestling. Student ministry author Richard Dunn stated that for students “the question of ‘Who am I?’ is most often answered ‘Whose am I?’” meaning students will search out their identities in relationship, seeking to understand where they belong. Because students are so relational, effective student ministry is relational. Thus, the Christ-centered college students, moms and dads, young couples, and older adults who invest relationally in students, who are there for teenagers, who lead student small groups, who open their homes for hang-out times—all to point them to Jesus—these people are absolute heroes. It takes a team, a community of leaders, to lead effective youth ministry…not a sole youth pastor feverishly attempting to reach every student.
May God continue to raise up churches and student ministries that teach students the truth of God, point them to their ultimate identity in Christ, and invest in them relationally through a community of leaders who love Jesus.