I first began seriously considering vocational ministry when I was a junior in high school. I began to sense a calling to student ministry, in part because of the positive influence of both my middle and high school pastors. “I want to do for others what Brandon and Dan did for me,” I thought. By the beginning of my senior year, I was convinced of the path that lay ahead: college at a Christian institution to study the Bible, seminary training, and then the pastorate. Only one pesky detail remained before my “perfect plan”: one more year of high school. The sad truth, as I reflect upon it now, is that my “Sunday to Monday gap” significantly widened upon my decision to pursue pastoral ministry. By “Sunday to Monday gap,” I mean my faith convictions professed on Sunday did not inform my decision about my Monday work. In other words, I was perpetuating what is far too common in the church: the disconnect between my faith and my work, which at the time consisted of history and English classes. As a consequence, I was less motivated during my senior year than before. I developed a dangerous attitude toward my education, thinking “What will I need calculus for when I’m serving God as a youth pastor?” I thought I was honoring God by answering a call to serve him as a pastor, but in the interim, I dishonored God by ignoring my call to serve him as a student.
The reality for students, from kindergarten to grad school and beyond, is that their primary work is school. But often, as evidenced by my personal testimony, Christian students don’t view school this way. Instead, school is at best a utilitarian means to an end, or at worst a mandated sentence to be endured. Thus, as my understanding of a proper theology of work grew, I purposed to make it part of my work with students to help them see value and purpose in their work as students.
I don’t have it all figured out, but here are three simple practices I integrate into my ministry with students:
Celebrate school instead of disparaging it
Students are often quick to complain about school: a difficult subject, a tough teacher, the early mornings, and on and on. In a well intended effort to enter their world (a vital part of student ministries), youth pastors often subtly encourage this negative attitude toward school. Questions such as “What’s your least favorite subject?” or “Show of hands, who has been caught this year texting in class?” can produce short term wins — “my youth pastor gets it, school is the worst” — but ultimately result in the long term loss of the disconnect between the faith of that student and their work. Instead, youth pastors should acknowledge the real and frustrating challenges of school while seeking to convince students of its worthiness through celebrating the parts that are good. To do this, you actually have to know the good parts: Is there a teacher they like and find compelling? A subject they are mastering? An extracurricular activity that is giving them life? Our job as youth pastors is to enter into their lives, ask good questions, and then celebrate those things with our students.
Teach about the idea of school as work
How well does your teaching prepare your students for what they spend the majority of their time doing? Series on different books of the Bible, and even many of the topical series I know are present in youth groups (dating and sex, friendship, relating to your parents, technology, etc.) are worthy and helpful. But the students in your youth group spend more than 40 hours a week engaged in their work of school. Isn’t that worthy, too? Youth pastors can start small with a one-off message from Colossians 3:23 with this driving question: “What if God were your teacher?” Sprinkle in stories from your time as a student, and challenge students to start seeing their schooling as one of the primary places they follow and obey Jesus.
Begin a conversation about future work
While I believe it best that everyone remain a lifelong learner, no one does (or should) remain a lifelong student. So while it is important to convince students of the significance of their current work, it is equally important to begin a conversation about what their future work will be. Engaging in the discussion of future work will help create an environment in your youth group where all work is discussed, and hopefully, celebrated. As you begin this conversation, be careful not to project on your students: not all of them should go to college. While many students will attend college, others will need to know the value of gaining trade skills that help society in invaluable ways. Youth pastors need to seek to come alongside upperclassmen as they discern next steps. Ask them diagnostic questions: What are you curious about? What comes naturally to you that others seem to struggle with? What threads of interest have been most consistent to this point in your life? Then, speak the truth of what you see in your student and offer to pray with them. More broadly, with students of all ages, ask them what they want to do when they finish school. You might be tempted to think this is too “young” of a question for middle or high school students, but you’d be surprised how much they are thinking about this. When I asked this question in the middle of a message in our youth group, it gave me the opportunity to affirm the vocation and work of stay-at-home mothers as one young woman shared that she wants to be a mom.
In many ways, our job as youth pastors is to care about how our students view their education as work. We can help contextualize the wealth of resources available about faith and work in a way that helps our students as they walk through seasons of school, transition, and discovery.