The Changing Landscape of Student Ministry



When we go to our Pittsburgh Kids Foundation meetings for youth pastors people may look to us and may assume we are killing it. We are the perhaps one of the larger youth ministry who attends those meetings. We are somewhat the PKF equivalent to the Yankees at our camp retreats, destroying other small churches who don’t have the depth we do to select from runners at huge schools in the Pittsburgh area. Our leaders are cool, decent looking humans and relational. Our budget is large in comparison to our church friends. This all seems to be success. 

But are we really crushing it? And if so, what does that mean? If we consider attendance and what our peers say, yes, sometimes we are “crushing it.” But this always trails off. Every spring it declines and the motivation of our leaders has a tendency to as well. We understand as schedules thicken. Perhaps our peers look at how gifted our staff is. We are blessed to have faithful, loyal, people who love Jesus. 

If doing well means drawing a crowd and bringing students in, we have done so successfully. But the means to do this are seemingly less and less effective. Consulting our nearest car-dealership, we get a junk car and smash it with a hammer. That draws a crowd. Most likely consisting of boys, but that is still a win. But do they show up again, and if so, how do we keep them there? The only reason they came was a friend invited them and something super cool was happening. And usually what gets them there we must sustain in order to maintain their “attendance.” There are only so many cars to destroy. 

The past few years have been the same. Most of our students show up in the fall and they trail off in the spring. And this isn’t because we decide to stop doing fun things. It is natural, and we expect it. So we have to adapt. And even if we do what does that mean?  

We may have said in the 90’s and early 2000’s church was not a cool place to be. They lacked relevance and some level of amusement. It was dry. So we adapted with soul patches, electric guitars, pizza, and dodgeball. The audible worked, and students had come in droves simply on the “invite your friends” pitch. People could hear about Jesus simply because they wanted a slice of pizza. That’s not too bad of a deal. 

In an age of cell-phones, Netflix dropping an original series (like every 25 minutes), and Fortnite, it is increasingly difficult to maintain this style of ministry. The interest for amusement is not the same. It is not absent, but it isn’t the main voice. As a church family we shouldn’t be in the business of entertainment anyways.  

We are always asking the question of “what do we have to offer”? Treating the students as a consumer in some way. This is not bad, but it creates a very vending machine approach in our kids. Our efforts and time is spent into the vehicles that get the students there: the programs. And this has been our approach for a long time. This type of ministry as “outreach” is reaching its expiration date.  

Programs are not necessarily replaceable. They are still a vehicle, but the life-blood of the gospel doesn’t run through programs; it runs through its people. 

If students don’t ultimately desire amusement, what do they desire? We know the need to be known and valued are huge. In fact those desires are bigger now more likely than they ever have been. And in a day and age where eye-contact alone is valuable, how more relevant is the message of the gospel that is passionate about community and authenticity in a culture that is deprived of it?

This is how we have to reach students today. The soul-patch of today is relational warmth and authenticity. Outreach has to be what it literally means: reaching out to students. We limit ourselves by allowing outreach to be something that happens in our church building. 

When Jesus refers to outreach He is always sending. Not once does a shepherd use a beautiful cube-blend of grass and clover to lure in sheep. Nor does he yell from his post in the field in hope the sheep returns. Even when Jesus uses the illustration of inviting weddings guests he sends others to invite people to the party. The Lord pursues us.  

Programs can’t pursue people. They won’t follow up with someone when life is hard, nor will they be the thing a student references as a great influence their life during commencement. Yet this is where most of our energies can be spent for outreach. 

But what they will reference is Jesus and you. Crushing it is pursuing students where they are and inviting them into a gospel-centered community. And this all because greatest thing you have to offer is Jesus in you.