Josiah and the Reform of Student Ministry

The statistics vary depending on the study sample, but some estimate that as many as 82% of teens who attend Southern Baptist Churches will leave the church within one year after graduating high school.  There may be many causes of our failure, but I suspect part of the problem is that student ministry has become like most facets of church life. We major on experience rather than expectation.  
What if we approached student ministry with a new set of standards?  What if student ministry moved away from presentation and into exploration?  What if we made less of the party and more of the search?  What if we did not just desire, but actually expected 20 year olds to enter the third decade of their life with maturity, responsibility, and the ability to make a difference?  What if we spent less time and effort on entertaining students and invested more in strategically equipping them?
The Bible says of King Josiah,
For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet a boy (age 16), he began to seek the God of David his father, and in the twelfth year (age 20) he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, and the carved  and the metal images.  (2 Chron. 34:3)
The story of the years of Josiah’s life between 16 and 20 read very differently than what we see happening to most students in American churches.  According to statistics, our students move into their twenties and spiritually fail.  They leave the church not to purge pop culture of the high places, but rather our students are leaving the church for the high places.  The interesting context of this passage is that had Josiah built more high places rather than purge them, it would have been par for the course.  Had he done so, Josiah would have simply been following the path of most of the kings that preceded him.  It is time for us, like Josiah, to change course.  Yet, the statistical trends of American student ministry have become so common, that when a person leaves the church at 20 we no longer mourn it - we expected it.  
In his later teenage years, before he was considered to be a man, Josiah broke the mold and invested four years of his life in a search.  This time in his life equipped Josiah to be a very different king.  Josiah gives us serious cause to think critically about the current state of American youth ministry.
I am not raising a new issue here.  Currently there is great debate about the reformation of student ministry in the American church.  It looks as if we are nearing the end of the youth camp, youth concert, youth movement era that started with Youth for Christ and will probably draw to a close when the Newsboys are invited to be on the next Gaither Homecoming tape.  What is happening now is what happens with every movement and philosophy in the evangelical church.  Someone dares to break the mold and contextualizes the gospel to answer the challenges of the culture.  For some time it actually works with explosive growth.  For the next 30 years everyone else does their own version of the same thing.  The movement then becomes the mold and for those who are born of the mold and not the movement, they are deceived into thinking that “this” is the only way the gospel works.  Fifty years later someone comes along once again daring to break the mold.  Great debate ensues and . . . off we go again into new forms of contextualization.
I am not a movement maker, but I do know that the great debate that eventually breaks the mold, in its initial stages, usually centers on methods.  This is a waste of time and a grave mistake.  Currently, my observation of the great debate surrounding student ministry is that we are indeed wasting time.  We know there is a problem, but we are not talking about the right issue.  My opinion is that our problem in student ministry is that while it may be true that some of the methods are somewhat dated, our greatest problem is with the content, not the method.  Student/youth ministry isn’t bad.  There is nothing inherently wrong with camps, concerts, and the myriad expressions of youth church life.  Yet student/youth ministry without theological weight, Biblical content, purposeful training, and an expectation for Christ-like maturity is heresy, not ministry.
If we are to really break the mold of student ministry and produce twenty-somethings who will not leave the church for the high places, but will instead purge pop culture of the high places, we need to take notes from Josiah.  We need something that calls for us to truly seek the God of David.  What does this mean?
The Bible does not reveal to us the method nor the curriculum for Josiah’s seeking, but we do know that the object we seek determines the nature of the search.  Josiah sought for the God of David; that much is clear.  What if we reoriented student ministry to bring teens to the same destination that Josiah’s search took him?  Josiah’s search for the God of David brought the young king to a place where he:
  1. Took on the responsibilities of leadership earlier rather than later.  Josiah became King when he was 8 years old.  I am not advocating that 2nd graders take the throne, but I do believe we are producing people of low responsibility because we are meeting them with low expectations.  What if we desired more from teens in church than mere attendance?  What if we expected them to contribute?  The principle here is that by the time Josiah was 20, he was not only King, but a highly effective one.  When our 18-20 somethings leave student ministry, how effective are they expected to be?  While our 16 year olds are in student ministry, how much do we expect them to contribute to the greater whole of the Body of Christ?  If we are honest here, the answer, we expect a 16 year old to contribute little to nothing to the rest of us.  I have fallen into this trap and I am ashamed.  It is time to reform student ministry around the idea of equipping teens to make a contribution to the Body of Christ.  It is unnatural and unbiblical for us to do anything else (1 Cor. 12:7).  If we desire for our teens to become young adults, like Josiah, who contribute to the Kingdom, we must invest something in their lives in their late teens that will equip them to be highly effective.  We must also place an expectation on them that indeed they will contribute.
  2. Clearly forsook the immoral trappings of pagan pop-culture.  For too long student ministry, and greater “churchianity” for that matter, has been overly concerned with saying “Don’t” and not very proficient in explaining “Why not.”  Josiah’s search for God showed him that morality was not merely a negative issue of why we should not, but a positive issue of why following God is a better way.  In the end Josiah was so convinced that living for the one true God was a much better way that he saw it as a needed reform that would make a positive impact on his kingdom.  Telling teens the world is “bad” isn’t enough.  We need to equip them.  Josiah did not leave “student ministry” afraid of pop-culture; Josiah left his teens years able to discern, confront, and change pop-culture.  We do not need students who are simply morally constrained, but we need students who are morally convinced.
  3. Restored the Temple of God as the proper place of worship.  The word “worship” over the last 50 years has eroded into describing an event that is little more than a performance based presentation of songs about God.  This same approach has filtered into youth culture. Though we are desperately seeking to escape the trappings of performance based “worship” experiences, we are not willing, nor equipped to forsake what’s wrong and rebuild what’s right.  The restoration of the Temple was not an exercise in architecture, but one of theology.  Rebuilding the Temple forced Josiah to study and to know God.  Building a place to worship God forced Josiah to explore not what pleased man, but what pleased His God.  Worship is not worship if it is not for God, about God, on God’s terms, and according to God’s Word.  Worship is Spirit and truth.  A Temple rebuilt without the Word would simply be a man-made religious castle.  Most of our songs and presentations we mistake for worship are nothing more than the empty castles of man-made religion.  We need students who are theologically astute, who do not merely hear rhythms, but pay attention to words.  We need students who are not only equipped to play good music, but who are equipped to employ their hearts deeply into thinking rightly about what pleases God.
  4. Took seriously the Word of God.  Perhaps Josiah’s greatest discovery is when Hilkiah finds the “Law of the Lord given through Moses (2 Chron. 34:14).”  For a young man who was on a search for the God of David, finding God’s book was the same as hearing God’s voice.  Our students need to hear the voice of God again.  The impact of the Word of God in his life at this moment was unmistakable.  He tore his clothes and then sought to further reform the Kingdom according to God’s Word, eventually re-instituting the liturgical calendar including the Passover (2 Chron. 35).  If we want our students to take God’s Word seriously as young men and young women, we must expect them to take God’s Word seriously as young students.

    My experience with student ministry has been that we are more concerned with convincing our teens that the Bible is cool than we are with helping them to become good students of it.  Our teenage years, especially the later ones, are some of the most inquisitive seasons of our life.  It is here that we really begin to question what is real.  Where we have failed in youth ministry is that we are following the lead of public education and we are “dumbing it down.”  If we are no longer calling it youth ministry but rather “student ministry” why don’t we actually help our youth become the students we claim that they are?  Why don’t we spend more time helping students find the answers they seek in the Bible rather than merely telling them great stories?  Why aren’t students challenged to memorize Scripture, explore historical backgrounds, or dig deep into the text?  I will tell you why.  We don’t think they can.  Yet, when Josiah finally encountered the Word the reformation of his life was complete.  Until our students are sufficiently introduced to the Word the reformation of their souls has yet to even begin.
The end result of student ministry in America will not change until it moves from experience to expectation.  We are in desperate need of reform.  It is time to move the debate from methodology to one of content.  No matter how we change the approach, we need our students to do more than simply get excited about God, they need to encounter Him.  Josiah did what all teens do.  He searched.  But unlike what most teens are finding in the American church, Josiah’s search led him to real truth and radical life change.  If anything Josiah proves to us is that teens can do what we expect they can’t, this is why we now have a method of youth ministry desperately void of meaningful content.  Yet students can be challenged.  They can be theological.  They can be serious students.  They can take on responsibility.  They can search hard for the God of David and find Him.  They can enter their 20’s well equipped to confront pop-culture and make a positive impact on the kingdom.


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