Canceled. Socially Distance. Quarantine. Virtual. Shelter-in-place.
If you’re like me, these are words you are tired of hearing. The past five months in student ministry have been some of the most challenging.
As student pastors, we’ve had to transition from a ministry format we were comfortable with to one we were totally unfamiliar with. We’ve had to change our plans on a dime and formulate new ones on the fly.
In March, I listened to a podcast by Andy Crouch[i], a theological voice for Praxis and former editor of Christianity Today. Crouch makes the point that our ministries will be fundamentally changed for years to come by the pandemic. He states, “This is not just something for leaders to ‘get through’ for a few weeks. Instead, we need to treat COVID-19 as a cultural blizzard and beginning of a ‘little ice age’ — a once-in-a-lifetime change that is likely to affect our lives and organizations for years.”
I remember listening to that statement and rolling my eyes. “This virus is going to last months? No way. We’ll be back to normal in a couple of weeks.” Yet, five months later, the situation hasn’t improved, and there still seems to be no end in sight.
Whether or not our ministries look extremely different from a year ago to a year from now remains to be seen, but the truth is – at least for the next few months – our ministries will be drastically different from the status quo.
As our sprint becomes a marathon, it’s easy to grow tired, fatigued, and disappointed. How can we manage this season? What do we as student pastors need to do to minister to our students? How can we transition our ministry plans well?
Consider these tips when rethinking your student ministry:
- Be Flexible. It’s easy to focus on all we cannot do. Many of our youth groups still aren’t meeting in person. Zoom meetings are growing stale and are poorly attended. The time we spent earlier this year planning a great summer feels like a waste. Those plans went out the window weeks ago: no camps, no mission trips, no gatherings, no activities. It’s fine to be let down by those losses, but if we only focus on what we cannot do, it will only depress us. Instead, we must move forward. We must think about what we can do. We must adapt and adjust to the circumstances. It might not be the most ideal situation, it might not be our first choice, but be versatile and make plans based on what you’re able to do.
- Be Innovative. If we don’t adapt to what’s ahead, we will be left behind. Now is not the time to sit and wait for this season to be over. We have to think of new ways to disciple the students God has entrusted us with. Think outside of the box. For example, our student ministry at FBC Haleyville adapted our Wednesday worship services to a drive-in format for a time. Our senior recognition turned into an outdoor dinner. Our mission camp became a stay-at-home camp. Your church may have conducted a virtual VBS, discipleship meetings through Google Hangouts, or tried other imaginative ideas. Fellow workers, our students will be discipled by something. Currently, they’re discipled by sports, video games, social media, and Netflix. Don’t stop ministry. Be creative. Even if it seems unsuccessful, your students will be grateful for your attempt.
- Be Available. For many of us, the majority of the communication with our students happens at church. With socially-distanced services and many families still uncomfortable attending, it’s easy to lose contact. Fight against this drift. Reach out to your students by calling or texting them weekly. Ask how you can pray for them. Inquire how they are growing in their walk with Jesus. Be invested in their lives. Order a pizza, and eat with a few of them in a park. Meet for milkshakes. My current ministry leaders delivered gift bags to our students. It was an easy way to see students and let them know we were still here for them. Stay accessible to your students.
- Be Constant. Let’s be honest. The last few months have not been fun. It’s been difficult and discouraging. Many of the aspects we love about student ministry have been unable to happen. There have been times I have felt like giving up. There have been moments I walked through the motions. Although it’s easy to lose heart, don’t grow weary. Our students feel the same way we do. They have been robbed of many of the things they have looked forward to. School, sports, and events have been canceled for them. Be a constant presence in their life. Continue leading them in worship weekly. Maintain their small groups. Teenagers need structure to thrive. In an unpredictable time, be a predictable constant in their lives. Become something they know they can consistently count on each week.
- Be Mindful. Quarantine has exacerbated your students’ struggles with depression, anxiety, drinking, nicotine, porn, body image, and other temptations. Humans, especially teenagers, are social creatures. The lockdowns have negatively affected many teenagers’ mental health worse than their physical health. One study found that social isolation and loneliness increased the risk of depression as well as anxiety.[ii] It found young people were as much as three times more likely to develop depression due to social isolation with the impact of loneliness on mental health possibly lasting many years in the future. Another study found that more high schoolers could commit suicide from the shutdowns than will ever die from the disease itself.[iii] Be aware of your students’ mental health. Prepare yourself to minister to their needs.
- Be Collaborative. It’s easy to feel alone in this season. I would argue the enemy wants student pastors to feel like we’re on an island. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Sin demands to have a man by himself, the more isolated a person is, the more destructive the power of sin is over him.”[iv] In the time of physical isolation, don’t be spiritually isolated. Communicate with other pastors and ministers. They are going through the same season you are. Share ideas with them. Collaborate. Lean on each other, pray for each other, and support each other. Most of all, don’t neglect your time with the Lord. Lean in, don’t lean back. You are not alone.
- Be Evangelistic. With mission trips canceled, mission projects almost impossible to perform, and social distancing in place, it would be easy to neglect evangelism. How are we supposed to share the Gospel if we can’t be around others? Do not disregard the Great Commission. Do not lose sight of our ultimate purpose in this world. There is one disease to fear most, and it’s not COVID-19. It’s not heart disease, AIDS, Ebola, or cancer. It is sin! The solution is not isolation from the world but reconciliation with the Father. Look to Jesus, trust in Jesus, and share Jesus. Our students and the world need Him.
*Jon Lamarque serves as student pastor at First Baptist Church, Haleyville.
[iv] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich: Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community