I began considering vocational ministry when I was a junior in high school.
Specifically, I sensed a call to student ministry, in part because of the positive influence of both my middle- and high-school pastors. I want to do for others what Brandon and Dan did for me, I thought.
By the beginning of my senior year, I was convinced of the path that lay ahead: college at a Christian institution to study the Bible, seminary training, and then the pastorate. Only one pesky detail remained before my “perfect plan”: another year of high school.
The sad truth, as I reflect on it now, is that my “Sunday to Monday gap” significantly widened upon my decision to pursue pastoral ministry. My faith convictions professed on Sunday didn’t inform my work on Monday. In other words, I was perpetuating what is far too common in the church—the disconnect between my faith and my work, which at the time consisted of history and English classes.
Only one pesky detail remained before my ‘perfect plan’: another year of high school.
Consequently, I was less motivated during my senior year. I developed a dangerous attitude toward my education, thinking, What will I need calculus for when I’m serving God as a youth pastor? I thought I was honoring God by answering a call to serve him as a pastor, but I dishonored him by ignoring his call to serve him as a student.
The reality for students, from kindergarten to grad school and beyond, is that their primary workplace is school. So often, however, Christian students don’t view school as an arena for meaningful and sacred work. Instead, school is at best a utilitarian means to an end, at worst a mandated sentence.
Much time has passed since senior year of high school, and by God’s grace my theology of work has grown in the meantime. Now, in my role as a youth pastor, I’m laboring to help students to help see what I once didn’t: value and purpose in their work.
I don’t have it all figured out, but here are three simple practices I’m integrating into my ministry with students.
1. Celebrate school instead of disparaging it.
Students are often quick to complain about school—the difficult subject, the tough teacher, the early mornings, and on and on. In a well-intended effort to enter their world (a vital part of student ministry), youth pastors often subtly encourage this negative attitude toward school. Questions such as “What’s your least favorite subject?” or “Show of hands, who’s been caught this year texting in class?” can produce short-term wins (“My youth pastor gets it; school is the worst”), but they ultimately result in a long-term disconnect between students’ faith and their work. Instead, youth pastors should acknowledge the real and frustrating challenges of school while seeking to convince students of its value by celebrating the parts that are good.
But to do this, you actually have to know the good parts: Is there a teacher they like and find compelling? A subject they’re mastering? An extracurricular activity that’s giving them life? Our job as youth pastors is to enter into their lives, ask good questions, and then celebrate those things with them.
2. Teach the idea of school as work.
How well does your teaching prepare your students for what they spend the majority of their time doing? A series on different books of the Bible, and even many topical series common in youth groups (dating and sex, friendship, relating to your parents, technology), are worthy and helpful.
But the students in your youth group spend more than 40 hours a week engaged in their work of school. Isn’t that worthy, too? Youth pastor, start small with a message from Colossians 3:23. Ask this driving question: “What if God were your teacher?” Sprinkle in stories from your own time as a student, and challenge students to see their schooling as one of the primary places they follow and obey Jesus.
3. Begin a conversation about future work.
While everyone should remain a lifelong learner, no one remains a lifelong student. So while it is important to convince students of the significance of their current work, it’s equally important to begin a conversation about their future work. This will help create an environment in your youth group where all work is discussed, and hopefully, celebrated.
As you begin this conversation, though, be careful not to project on your students. Not all should go to college. Many will need to know the value of gaining trade skills that help society in invaluable ways. Youth pastors need to seek to come alongside upperclassmen as they discern next steps. Ask diagnostic questions: What are you curious about? What comes naturally to you that others seem to struggle with? What threads of interest have been most consistent in your life? Then, speak the truth of what you see in your student and offer to pray with them. More broadly, with students of all ages, ask what they want to do when they finish school. You might be tempted to think this is too “young” of a question for middle- or high-school students, but you’d be surprised how much they are thinking about this.
Much of our job as youth pastors is to care about how our students view their education as work. Let’s contextualize the wealth of resources about faith and work in a way that aids them as they walk through seasons of school, transition, and discovery.