How Student Ministers can Engage Their Community

It can be easy for ministries to focus on what is happening within their environment only, or within the church. But our mission isn’t simply to focus on what is happening within our walls but instead to look outside of them as we seek to reach the world with the Good News.

We may train our students and volunteers to reach others, but unintentionally focus on just the ministry we lead. If we are seeking to lead by example and want to model what we teach, we must step out in faith and engage with our community in proactive ways. But how do we do that? Today I want to share a few ways–some more simplistic and others more encompassing–we can actively engage and reach our communities.

Be a part of the community.

For some leaders this is easier said than done because they live in their community. For others this will be more difficult because they don’t necessarily live in the town where their church is located. That is the case for us. We live about fifteen minutes outside of our church’s community, but that reality shouldn’t stop us from being a part of the community. Instead we have to be more intentional in being a part of it.

Make it a priority to go grocery shopping in your town, go to the local parks, visit the schools, go to National Night Out, go to Christmas tree lightings, visit local corn mazes, and whatever else may happen in your community. The key isn’t to do all of things, but instead to be intentional in engaging with your community at points and venues that matter most. This not only engenders you to the community but allows you to become a part of it. In so doing you have now become a vital and needed part of your community.

Utilize local businesses.

I love to do this because it helps our church reach people, and it also allows us to give back to the community. This can be done in a variety of ways including using a local printer for your bigger projects, having local restaurants or dessert shops cater your events, utilizing local promotional product vendors instead of national agencies, and by engaging with community centers to rent them out. There are other ways you can utilize businesses but the important part is that you are connecting with them and building relational and spiritual bridges that provide opportunities for your church to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Connect with schools.

Schools are a natural place for youth workers to get connected. For some youth workers this is easier to accomplish because they may only have a single school district that is connected to their church. For others, this is pretty difficult because they may draw from multiple school districts. Our church draws from five major districts and that doesn’t include the private schools, Christian schools, and homeschool students. If that is where you find yourself, you may be scratching your head at how to reach out to all of your schools. Let me encourage you to not look at this as something only you can tackle. Work with your team and leaders and share the load.

Regardless of where you find yourself as a youth worker, we all can connect with schools in really simple and meaningful ways. Email the administration to encourage them and let them know you want to be a resource, and drop off donuts for the front office or the teachers. Reach out to the Christian clubs and ask how you can help them out, drop off fresh baked cookies with notes from your church staff team, connect with the athletic director and see if they need a chaplain for their games. Ask your students how you can help them make an impact, and make sure to swing by for See You at the Pole. Even seemingly small things can have a huge impact when it comes to connecting with schools.

Collaborate with parachurch ministries.

If I am being honest, this is not something I am very good at. I often forget to reach out to these ministries in partnership and that is a big misstep. Recently, I was able to connect with our local Young Life chapter, and it was an awesome opportunity to share life with one another and consider how we can work together for the Gospel. As we chatted, I realized just how many of my students were participating in this parachurch ministry and it dawned on me that still other students were probably participating in others. If that is the case, why not come together to have a greater impact and reach?

Many parachurch ministries will reach students we may not have the opportunity or ability to reach, and their desire is to connect students with a local church. It is a perfect discipleship track, and one that churches and ministries can collaborate with and assist. Working with parachurch ministries gives both of the ministries an opportunity to not only reach more students but to have a more profound impact on the community.

Serve in the community.

This is one that probably feels the most burdensome because it adds a lot more onto our shoulders. But the truth of the matter is that it is only burdensome because we view it that way. Service for the kingdom of God is never meant to weigh us down or to feel overwhelming, but instead is a wonderful opportunity to help the Gospel go forth.

Often we may view service as another aspect of our job, and while that may be true to a certain extent, I believe we can leverage it so as to make service outside of our job feel taxing and unfair. But service is a gift and an opportunity. It is a way to put our gifts from God to use and to bless others. It is allowing the Spirit to work in and through us as we seek to love and care for others. So my encouragement first and foremost is to not let service become just another task, but instead let it flow from a heart that has been transformed as you love others. The more that you embody this mentality the more it will be replicated in students as they serve.

With that said, it is important for us to find ways to engage with our community through serving within it. It could be as a coach for one of the sports teams (and it doesn’t need to just be for students). It could be by volunteering in afterschool programs. Perhaps it is by hosting a lunch for the teachers in the school. Maybe you serve at the local foodbank. Or you could do neighborhood cleanups. The key with serving in the community is doing so of your own accord to help people see Jesus. It allows you to engage with people and to begin building relationships with the ultimate goal of helping them know Jesus.

When It’s Time to Say Goodbye to a Volunteer

Have you ever found yourself in a situation when you knew you needed to tell a volunteer they couldn’t serve anymore? How did it make you feel? Do you think you handled it well? How was it received? Do you still have a relationship with that leader?

As ministry leaders we are in a very unique circumstance in that most of the people who “work” for us are volunteers. That means that when it comes to having to let someone go, the matter is infinitely more complex. How do you fire someone who volunteers their time? Can you actually fire a volunteer?

The reality is that these moments are multifaceted and difficult. They involve complex relationships, multiple layers of emotions, and of course the struggle of figuring out what to do and say when that volunteer is no longer a volunteer. Will you find a suitable replacement? What will students think? How will your relationship be with that leader?

Part of being the leader of a ministry means that we need to step into situations that can be difficult and uncomfortable. But just because they aren’t the easiest of situations doesn’t mean we avoid them. Instead we must face them and do our best to honor and love the other person as we lead. In fact, I would assert that a godly leader has an obligation to have these conversations because it models a Christlike attitude and leadership quality to our people. Jesus didn’t shy away from tough conversations but instead leaned into them and used them to help people grow and flourish. But how do we do that? Today, my hope is to offer you some suggestions on how to best enter into these situations and care well for the other person, yourself, and your ministry.

Let nothing be a surprise to the other person.

A good supervisor should always be intentional with guiding and growing their team members. This applies to both encouragement and critiques. When a person who reports to you needs guidance and refining, you should be seeking to help them grow and improve. That means that if you are letting a volunteer go, they shouldn’t be caught off guard by the reasons you present because they should have been previously approached.

Be honest.

These moments are never fun or easy, but they can often be more convoluted as we try to soften the approach by not being fully honest. I am not saying we lie during this times, but I do think we can be not fully honest and transparent because we still want to care for our people. But lack of honesty can often lead to confusion and more hurt. So in these moments look to be honest and transparent with your volunteer, not to be cutting or to hurt them, but to honor them and give them the dignity of being honest with them.

Be clear and concise.

Often in these moments subtlety and ambiguity are not your friends. I am well aware that we try our best to care for our people and to not cause them hurt or pain, but to not be clear or try to soften the moment without being fully honest isn’t going to help anyone. And I would also assert that not being fully honest or clear will actually do more harm in the long run because that leader may feel unjustly wronged because they don’t know what really occurred.

So when you talk to your leader be clear in what you say and concise. Do not go on and on in your conversation with them, but instead be concise and allow them to seek out more information and clarity if they need it. Now, I think it should also be said that being clear and concise is not an excuse to be hurtful or overtly negative toward your leader. When we are concise and clear, we must also remember that the person we are talking to is one of God’s children and we should still seek to be loving and kind with them. Neither option cancels the other out, but rather should be utilized together.

Remind them of what they are called to.

It is helpful to remind your leader of what the expectations are for leaders in your ministry and to show them where they were not meeting those expectations. In these moments it would be helpful for your leaders to know what they are being held to. That means that as leaders we should have some type of stated or printed set of expectations for our leaders that they have had access to. That way everyone knows what they are being asked to do as leaders and it gives you a place to refer to in these moments. But also use this time to challenge them. It isn’t simply a moment to remind them of what they weren’t doing, but instead a challenge to them to grow and meet the requirements and potentially revisit serving with you at a later time.

Follow up as needed.

This is on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes follow up conversations are warranted and sometimes they aren’t. There will be moments where you and your leader can continue with your friendship and other times when you cannot. Be discerning in what needs to happen after the fact and continue to honor them and their wishes as you move forward.

Pray.

I think most of us are aware that prayer is a vital part of our lives and ministries, and it is kind of implied that we will be praying about these types of moments when they happen. But when I say pray for these moments I mean before, during, and after.

When it comes to having these conversations with a leader, it typically shouldn’t take us by surprise. We know it is coming and should be covering the conversation in prayer. Pray for your heart and theirs. Pray for clarity, wisdom, and discernment. Pray for patience and the ability to hear one another. Pray that this conversation doesn’t affect their view of God and the church. And then continue to pray this way during and after the conversation. Do not let your prayer for this leader stop simply because the meeting ended.

The Importance of Discipleship

This past weekend I had the privilege of baptizing a former student who had become a leader in our youth group. This is a young man whose life has been radically transformed by the Gospel and someone I have witnessed grow and mature into the godly young man he is today. As we were walking out into the bay to prepare for his baptism, I asked him how he was feeling. “A little nervous because everyone is here, but excited because I know what this means.” I was, and am, so proud of this guy and how he faithfully and unashamedly follows Jesus.

As I reflected on this momentous occasion in his life, I couldn’t help but think about all the moments that led up to this one. Many people have continually poured into his life and helped guide him through some deep valleys and celebrated with him on the mountain tops. But as I thought about how people poured into his life, I had to ask this question: what would have happened if no one poured into his life? If no one poured into his life, I don’t know if he would be where he is today. It was through constant discipleship that this young man became such a strong follower of Jesus.

You see, this young man was not a bad kid but he could struggle to behave and he could push around other students due to his size when he was younger. It would have been easy to dismiss him as a “bad kid” or to find a “better” student to walk with. But, for myself and his leaders, we saw him as one of God’s children who He loved dearly and as such, someone we should love and care for. Because of that truth, this student was loved and discipled for many years and we saw great fruit come from that. He began to show up early to youth group to help set up, he began to talk about his faith in school, he led Bible studies and small groups, he mentored younger students, and he ended up coming back as a leader in our youth program. Discipleship works and it is a beautiful representation of what Christ did for His people years ago.

Our ministry is fully focused on discipleship. We spend forty-five to sixty minutes in small group each week. Our Sunday mornings are focused on table discussion groups that dig into our Sunday lesson. We encourage our leaders to meet with students throughout the week and to be actively engaged with their students and all that they have going on. Our vision statement is all about making disciples who impact this world by making disciples. Our ministry meets in smaller groups once a month in homes. It is why we are seeing more and more students have their lives changed by the power of the Gospel. Discipleship matters. This is why Jesus intentionally focused on a smaller group within the masses. It is because personal relationships, and intentional life-on-life moments that guide a student to Jesus, bring about change.

But what exactly is discipleship? Discipleship is defined as “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another” by Merriam-Webster. When it comes to Christian discipleship, it is more than just having someone live the way we do, or espouse what we want them to. It is about them modeling their lives, hearts, and minds after Jesus. It is helping students see that the way of Christ is the way of life. It involves allowing them to see how Jesus works within our lives in order for them to see the reality of faith in action. Discipleship helps students surrender their lives to Jesus and place their full identity in Him and Him alone.

As we seek to engage in discipleship there are some metrics we can look at in the lives of those we disciple:

  1. They put Jesus first no matter the cost (Mark 8:34-35, Luke 14:25-35).
  2. They follow Jesus’ teachings (John 8:31-32).
  3. They love God and love others (Mark 12:30-31, John 13:34-35).
  4. They honor and seek to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).
  5. They commit to building up the body (Ephesians 4:11-17).

It should be noted that it isn’t about doing all the right things or about focusing on works-based righteousness. We will all fall and mess up, and that is why it is about allowing the transformative power of the Gospel to impact the lives of the students we lead. These metrics help to differentiate between making disciples and mentoring. While both are good things, discipleship helps to create followers of Jesus who are passionate about His mission. As disciple-makers we should be highlighting these characteristics to our students and helping them to grow in them and reflect them outward. Discipleship is all about inward transformation that is reflected outwardly. Our inward transformation is reflected in how we act, speak, and engage with others because of the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts.

When we allow for discipleship to be the heart of what we do in student ministry we will see a radical change begin to take hold of our students. They will grow and make their faith their own, which will result in them beginning to disciple others in their faith. Discipleship is a replicating model that will allow your students to grow and mature as followers of Jesus, and we will bear witness to them growing as leaders of our faith.