An event recently took place that caused me to question what we in youth ministry are communicating (in our silence) to students in our youth ministry. The ‘normal’ ones, the young people who don’t want to go into vocational ministry. I caught myself teaching and talking in a way that made vocational ministry the ultimate level of obedience. And the silent inference was that those who didn’t aspire to that weren’t living up to their highest potential.
When we talk about discipleship, how do we describe it? How do those in youth ministry talk about what it means to follow Jesus faithfully? We often elevate the apostles’ stories and draw some analogy to the vocational minister or missionary as the ‘ideal’ to follow. And many of our students may feel they don’t measure up. We champion the short-term mission trip as the ‘ultimate’ thing we do each year.
The problem is: We’re often silent when it comes to encouraging students toward following Jesus faithfully in a non-ministry vocation. And some pastors haven’t learned how to relate to, connect with, or even minister to men and women who want to live a ‘normal life’ for Jesus. In fact, the most frequent question I receive about what’s happening at Bethel College, besides how much tuition will be the coming year, is if we have any future pastors or youth workers graduating. Which we always do. However, when I share about the college’s growing and dynamic pre-med, international business, theater, nursing or art programs, I find that we pastors don’t know how to respond. And I’m not sure why. I recently heard Dr. Jay Kesler, former President of Taylor University and Youth for Christ/USA, introduce a college donor and remark that “we relegate Christian business leaders to the back row of our congregations” even though they are the driving force behind much of our work.
As I listen and read what many of us youth workers share with students, I think many of us in youth ministry also don’ t know what to do with a student who wants to be a businessperson or skilled worker, who is a Christian. Do we encourage that or try to get them to be a missionary or youth worker like us? For us, perhaps the call of God into ministry was so strong and important, a move away from ‘secular’ work that we may see business as a vocation less God-honoring?
What do we do in our churches with the guy who has a plumbing business and enjoys his work? Is he being faithful to God? Do we encourage our teens to find something they enjoy and do it to the fullest? Some of the most in-demand jobs in our country are skilled labor jobs. And, to keep it biblical, the New Testament is full of non-apostolic people (in fact most of the early church weren’t apostles or martyrs) who lived faithfully for Christ in their hometown doing regular jobs. To drive the point home even further, for 18 years of his ‘adult’ life, Jesus looked and acted like a regular carpenter (except that no one could accuse him of sin. THAT’s pretty irregular).
So, there may be quite a few students in your youth ministry group who feel like they don’t ‘measure up’ to some standard that’s been set. Even though we don’t mean to do this, it’s just part of the hidden curriculum learned by what we choose to focus on and champion in our teaching. And it may contribute to why so many students fall away from church once they’re out on their own.
As you shape your youth ministry curriculum for the upcoming year, be sure to encourage all students equally well, no matter their desired future work.