The summer is filled with many emotions in student ministry. There’s the hustle and bustle of getting trips and camps planned and accomplished. There’s the physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion after those trips are over. There’s the freedom to be able to run and gun, go and do with students who are out of school.
Then there’s also the bittersweet moments of seeing seniors graduate and advance in life. There’s a special kind of joyful hurt as students you’ve poured into over the course of the past few years graduate from school and the student ministry.
The hurt of losing students to the next phase of life is coupled with the excitement of welcoming a brand new batch of incoming students with whom the process begins all over again.
Student ministry is unlike any other in the local church when you consider the vast amount of life change students experience. Teenagers grow and mature at an accelerated rate. They learn to drive. They wrestle with the existential crisis of what to do after high school is complete. Many will experience their first dating relationship and their first heartbreak.
The need to integrate incoming students (sixth or seventh graders) quickly and effectively into the mission and vision of the student ministry is vitally important in laying the foundation to build the next generation of student leaders and world changers for Christ.
But the question remains: “How can I do this effectively and practically?” Consider these steps as you prepare to welcome new students into the ministry:
- Begin the process early. I had a coach in college who would say, in jest, “If you’re 10 minutes early, then you’re 15 minutes late.” After unpacking the strange turn of phrase, we discovered he wanted us to get to the field early so that when practice began we were ready to go without wasting time. I believe a similar approach should apply to integrating new students. Don’t wait until promotion Sunday or their first Wednesday night gathering to welcome or get to know incoming students. Build those relationships early. Take them breakfast during Sunday School. Begin conversations in the hallways before worship. Create your own inside jokes, nicknames or quirks. Allow these students the opportunity to know you and your personality as well. Currently, you stand as a figure, but with relationships you can progress to something so much more.
- Meet and inform parents and students. This proposal goes hand in hand with step one. You exist as a figure. They know where they’re sending their students to next year, but do they know anything about you? You’re the one to whom they are entrusting their students. You are the one who will be responsible for their children on trips. You will be the one they call in times of crisis. Build strong, effective relationships with parents early so that a bridge of trust can be built. The more informed the parents are, the more likely they are to support the vision. Consider making a rule that any major announcement will be communicated to them from their student privately, from you personally, and from the church publicly.
For a lot of these students, they have been looking forward to entering the student ministry for several years. Let them know what they’re entering into. Let them know the lingo and locations of where you’re going to do ministry. For example, what’s going to be more likely for ministry success? “Hey, don’t forget Greenhouse in the chapel.” Or “Hey guys our Wednesday night worship time is called ‘Greenhouse’, and we have worship, games, snacks, you name it. And we meet each night in the chapel. That’s the giant room with the blue chairs where you guys did rec for VBS.” It might be overkill, but students and parents are far more likely to be involved when they are well informed. Don’t just present to them what and where but why we do ministry in this way. If there is a holy purpose behind going to Taco Bell on Sunday nights, let it be known. If there is a ministry philosophy or mission statement, let it be known.
- Exclusive event/trip for new students. Feel free to plan something specifically for your incoming students. The same way a senior trip is a monumental moment in their lives, so is welcoming new students. We have a banquet for seventh graders and their families to present the student ministry and welcome them. We have a joint trip with the children’s ministry to a water park as a baton handoff. The options are limitless. Nothing reinforces relationships better than shared experiences. Spending meaningful time together will strengthen bonds and continue to prime the pump of excitement in their lives. A weeklong beach trip to Florida might not be reasonable, but a trip to a trampoline park or something equivalent could work great.
- Student mentorship. In the same way we hope to encourage intergenerational ministry within the church through incorporating parents and senior adults into our student ministry, we can do the same thing from within. Encouraging older students to invest in younger students is a challenging yet rewarding step to encourage new students to feel welcomed. It’s challenging in the sense that it requires older students to sacrifice time with friends. Yet it’s rewarding because there is nothing more satisfying as a young person to know that the “cool” senior, who is the captain of the football team, knows my name and knows about my life. Suddenly, the fear and worry about what the older students think is replaced with senses of calm because the big older kids have my back. I thank God for the likes of Stephen Lew and Cruse Ash who were seniors when I entered student ministry. I thank God for the times they wanted to sit with me at Taco Bell and hear about my day. My life is forever changed by those relationships and your student ministry can be changed by encouraging those relationships as well.
Whatever steps you take when integrating incoming students, the overall goal is to build relationships, keeping in mind all that God will do through their lives. We live in a day where the nations can be reached through a seventh grader. The world can and will be changed through the lives of junior high students. I truly believe that.
Pray for them. Grow them. Walk with them. Instruct them. And, in a few years, tearfully say, “Goodbye” to this group and cheerfully say, “Welcome” to the next.
Hunter Smith is the student minister at Mount Zion Baptist Church, Huntsville.