Early on as a student pastor, I felt the pressure every week to pull students away from their busy lives and into our Sunday service. At times, I felt like a needy parent begging grown kids to come home for the weekend. Classic guilt trips work well. “You never come to church anymore. Are you forgetting about us?” Or straight-up bribery: “If you come to church, I’ll do your laundry, cook your favorite meal, and give you a hundred dollars.” Well, maybe I never went that far, but I know that many youth leaders share this same struggle.
Coming to church for some students (and adults) is a lot like making a trip back to mom and dad’s house after being out on their own for a while. It can be a refreshing time, even a momentary escape from all of life’s craziness. (Who doesn’t like a hot-cooked meal and a bed with clean sheets, especially when you’re used to microwave dinners and a futon?)
And in one sense, our church gatherings should feel like coming home. It should be an environment of radical hospitality—a place where we always know we belong. Celebrating God alongside brothers and sisters should be energizing and refreshing. However, gathering as the family of God must be more than just a reminiscent stay at mom and dad’s. And youth leaders are called to more than just providing students with a momentary escape from the craziness of life. In many ways, our corporate gatherings should feel like being at the airport. I know that sounds a bit weird, but think with me for a second. An airport is a hub of continuous flights, launching people out to thousands of cities across the world. You don’t go to an airport to hangout or relax. No, you go to the airport to be sent out.
Our student gatherings should be a place where young followers of Jesus are equipped to launch out as the salt of the earth and light of the world. Youth leaders are entrusted with setting direction and empowering their students to shine in their own unique ways.
This was a paradigm shift for me as a youth pastor. I started to see our weekly gatherings as time to empower the next generation to live as salt and light. We began teaching our students about their God-given calling and how he wanted to use their gifts and passions to advance his kingdom. Then to back up what we were teaching, we planned specific events to spark their passions and creativity.
For example, we held our first film festival. Kyle, then a freshman in high school, entered his movie, and, well, it was terrible. He’d be the first one to admit it. But he did capture one shot well enough to grab the attention of one of our staff members who approached him about helping with future production efforts. This was the humble beginning of what Kyle has come to recognize as his God-given calling in film. He has since started his own videography company, and he started studying film as a freshman in college this year.
There are many more stories like Kyle’s. We’ve had students write books, start campus ministries, and launch profitable graphic design companies. We can’t take credit for their successes because their families have played a much larger role in their ventures. But I do believe these stories are the fruit of the larger belief: student ministry leaders are called to empower students to rise and shine in all the world.
So what do you think? Are your weekly services like being at the airport, preparing to launch? Perhaps they’re more like a brief, reminiscent return home? Maybe they don’t feel like either. But I believe they could be like both—a place of radical hospitality and belonging, but also where students are inspired and equipped to serve God with their unique gifts and passions.
Church is a place where we find spiritual community and healing. But it’s also the place where the future business leader is most inspired, the budding artist is most encouraged to create beautifully, and the future politician (or even President–you never know) is most challenged to step up and impact the world in the name of Jesus. As a leader, I’d encourage you to consider the practical ways you’re cultivating a sense of “home” as well as the ways your gatherings resemble an “airport”—preparing students to launch out and offer their gifts and passions as the light of the world.