By Ben Trueblood
How do I know if I’m teaching my students the right things?
This is a frequent and important question for student ministry leaders as they consider topics students want to hear about as well as topics they deem important as leaders.
Sometimes these are in agreement, and at other times there’s a clear tension student ministry leaders have wrestled with for years.
In a recent study by OneHope and the Youthscape Centre for research called “Losing Heart” we get a look into what teenagers want to talk about in student ministry and what the church is actually discussing.
Spoiler alert: There’s a difference.
Before I highlight some of the specific differences, I want to make clear that the goal of teaching a group of teenagers is not to teach them only what they want to discuss. I’ve lived this truth as both a student pastor and as a parent of teenagers.
In a physical sense, if we only give our kids the food they want to eat they won’t be left with a healthy diet. This simple principle is also true from a spiritual perspective.
Having said that, it’s easy for student ministry leaders to get into a pattern of teaching only what they deem important without considering the needs of teenagers in our culture.
In the church—and in student ministry specifically—we absolutely must address topics our teenagers want to discuss in order to teach them how Scripture comes to bear on the issues closest to them.
The “Losing Heart” research study provides a list of topics teenagers are interested in discussing matched up against how often the church is covering those topics.
While there are several topics listed in the study, I’d like to focus on three of the significant gaps between teenagers and the church.
1. Mental health and self-esteem
Eighty percent of the teens surveyed indicated mental health and self-esteem are important to them, while only 11.7% of churches reported it was a topic they often talked about.
As ministry leaders, we know that when a person understands their identity in Christ it has massive implications in all areas of life.
To understand who we are in Christ requires growing in our knowledge of and love for God resulting in life transformation.
It’s a significant issue for all those who follow Jesus, but even more critical for young believers as they’re in the early stages of life and in forming a belief system.
Beyond this is the need for the church to discuss issues of mental health including anxiety and depression, especially among teenagers.
The church has long been silent on issues of mental health and the positive role therapy can play in the life of a believer.
This data from “Losing Heart” should be a wake-up call that demands our attention in beginning to address these issues within our student ministries.
2. Sex and relationships
This category is a surprise to me, because student ministry has a reputation of only talking about having a quiet time, sex, and the book of Revelation.
But 72% of the teens surveyed said they’d be interested in having dialogue on sex and relationships, yet 8.9% of the churches said they address the subject.
Clearly that’s not the case here as there’s another significant gap between what teenagers want to hear and how often the church delivers on this topic.
It’s important to note here that if you include pornography and same-sex attraction in this category the gap widens even further.
Church leaders, we simply cannot allow this to be so. These are significant issues in our culture and ones that our teenagers engage with on a consistent basis.
Are these things sometimes difficult to talk about? Yes, they are, but I don’t think they’re avoided for this reason.
The Holy Spirit and the atonement could also be described as difficult topics, yet we approach them with courage and excitement.
The reason we avoid topics like sex, pornography, and same-sex attraction is because many times we’ve not done enough study on our own to be able to lead this kind of discussion.
By sticking to what we know and avoiding this topic the unintended consequence is that it becomes taboo within church culture.
Here’s the reality: The teenagers in your ministry are going to look somewhere to ask their questions and to form their beliefs in this area, and one of those places must be the church.
That will only be true if our student ministries are environments where open and honest questions can be asked without fear of judgment or label.
3. How to prepare for college/future
Lastly, 59% of teenagers said they needed to discuss how to prepare for college or university, and 12.9% of churches covered it.
From our own research here at Lifeway in the “Within Reach” study, we found 66% of students who were active in the church during high school dropped out of church while in their college years.
We also saw this wasn’t specifically a college issue. It wasn’t an atheist professor or the party scene that was causing this dropout rate to happen.
Rather, it was a phase-of-life issue further pointing to the fact that student ministries in general are doing a good job at helping teenagers to live during their high school years and a poor job of preparing them for the next phase of life.
For churches that train parents well to be spiritual influences in their homes, this issue is much easier to face. The transition out of high school is a significant one for parents, for the student ministry, and for the teenager.
Take some time evaluating not just what you do on the traditional “Graduate Sunday,” but what your plan is throughout a student’s senior year to make sure they’re ready to launch.
According to the research from “Losing Heart” there are key topics we’re missing in our student ministries that we can take in one of two ways.
First, there can be a shame response where we get down on ourselves for missing the mark. Or second, we can use this information to our advantage and begin to close the gap on these issues.
Consider an impromptu survey in your own student ministry to find out the issues that are prevalent in your context.
Let’s choose together to own where we’ve missed and begin to take steps toward the issues that teenagers are saying they need to talk about the most.
Ben is the author of three books: A Different College Experience, Within Reach, and Student Ministry That Matters, is the host of the Lifeway Student Ministry Podcast and the YouTube channel, Student Ministry That Matters.