Teaching Students to Love the Church
Most students who come to our student ministry enjoy their time of learning, fellowship, and growth. I find this the case with students who are regular attenders of student ministries across the country. Students enjoy being with other students and spending time with the volunteers who invest time and energy in them. However, in multiple contexts and congregations, I have noticed that students seem disinterested in the broader church.
In 2019, Lifeway Research published a fascinating study about the dropout rate in churches between ages 18 and 22. The research made an alarming discovery, sharing that, “While 69 percent say they were attending at age 17, that fell to 58 percent at age 18 and 40 percent at age 19. Once they reach their 20s, around 1 in 3 say they were attending church regularly.” This decline has been alarming for some time but why hasn’t it changed? Why has the consistent pattern for older teenagers who become young adults continued to be leaving the church for a time?
One main factor that plays into these statistics is that we have failed to teach students how to effectively love the local church. We have taught them to love their fellow students, love the student ministry, and love their schools but in the five or six years that we have the chance to minister to students, we fall short in teaching them to love the church as a whole.
The age of students involved in student ministry (11 to 18 years) means that they are going through two important stages of development - identity and intimacy. During the early years of student ministry, students are figuring out who they are. This is our chance to help them discover their identities in Christ. There are many great articles on this.
However, one thing that is often forgotten is that those who are older (sophomores, juniors, and seniors) begin recognizing the closeness of relationships as an important dynamic in their lives. Those who are becoming young adults desire community with people who care about them and the places they belong. When we miss the opportunity to cultivate this, we see students leave the church in droves. To them, their local church isn’t a body of believers whom they care about and are a member, but rather, it’s merely “their parents’ church”.
As student pastors we should spend more time teaching students to love the local church. There are at least three biblical ways we can help students do this:
Equip other church members to invest more intentional time with students.
“One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.” – Psalm 145:4, ESV
We cannot only teach about the love of the local church in large group settings. We must train church members to show that love through intentional investment. The Psalmist exhorts older generations to share God’s faithfulness with the younger generation.
Generation Z is often referred to as the loneliest generation. However, in my encounters with young adults, those who make up Gen Z also desire intentional relationships. As leaders in our churches, we should help others see the need for intentional investment in youth. Without intentional investment and discipleship, students feel disconnected and are more likely to fly under the radar or leave the church altogether.
With intentional investment, students are more likely to feel loved and understand the church is their family. We should encourage and equip more church members to invest in the lives of our youth, because intentional individual investment prevents isolation and shows what the love of the local church is for them.
Help students understand and use their gifts for the good of the body.
“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” - 1 Peter 4:10-11, ESV (emphasis added)
Another way we can help students love the local church is by teaching them to understand and use their Spiritual Gifts. If we believe students to be regenerate believers, we must acknowledge they have received gifts from the Holy Spirit. These gifts are not for tomorrow but today. They will need a place to cultivate and use their gifts. The primary location for this cultivation is the local church. Minimizing these opportunities can further the disconnect them from the church body as a whole.
Contrary to popular belief, we are not training the “next generation.” Young people are a generation for today and we as the church should equip and engage them to use their Spiritual Gifts for the good of the body. This brings glory to God and greatly benefits the local church. Part of teaching students to love the local church is creating places to use their gifts. If you have someone who has the gift of teaching, find an older, more mature member with the same gifts in the congregation and let them learn from one another. It is time we stop separating students and adults and instead equip them together as one body.
Another attribute of Generation Z is their desire to make a difference. Gen Z is a passionate generation. We should use that passion and their gifts to help grow the body of Christ. This may mean putting unseasoned people in places for a time, but practice is the only way people become better. May we all create spaces for young people to identify, understand, and use their gifts to help the local church so they may love the local church more.
Love the church deeply ourselves
“Never forget that it's a privilege to belong to a local family of faith, and to be part of the larger universal church! Locally, it's a gift to extend Christ's welcome to one another, to gather corporately for worship, to share life together, to give our time, talent, and treasure to further the gospel, and to live on mission together. Globally, it's a gift to stand together with our brothers and sisters around the globe, who confess Jesus as Lord. Eternally, it's a gift to know that we will be joined with all the redeemed from all-time singing "Worthy is the Lamb.” - Love Your Church, Tony Merida
The above quote is from Tony Merida’s recently published book, Love Your Church. He shares this powerful reminder; If students never see their leaders or other church members love the church, they will not either. We must both talk about and show how we love our church, bringing students alongside us to experience the labor and commitment required for the local church.
More than just us as leaders, we should remind parents regularly that children will reflect their parents’ attitudes towards the church. If parents do not express a love for the church in their day-to-day lives, the students will not either. So what does it mean to love the church?
Loving the church means we belong, are committed, unified, and act as one body who cannot go without any part. Loving the church does not mean separating ourselves into generational ministries but rather coming together to worship, grow, teach, train, serve, and lead one another.
Nick Hartman is the Associate Pastor of Students and Discipleship at Mt Carmel Baptist Church in Middle Tennessee. Nick is currently pursuing his Masters of Divinity at Gateway Seminary and loves to write. He contributes regularly to the Youth Pastor Theologian. Follow Nick on Twitter or Instagram at Nick_Hartman1.