3 Characteristics of a Healthy Student Ministry

By Shane Pruitt

There's more to student ministry than youth camp and foosball tables. Here are the markers of a thriving youth group and how you can steer your congregation towards whole-family discipleship.

Often, when student ministry is mentioned, immediately what comes to mind is 15-passenger vans or charter buses filled with loud, talking teenagers, Axe body spray, and nacho cheese Doritos crumbs. While those things may be involved, a healthy student ministry is so much more than that. If you’re a Christian today, it’s because you’re standing on the shoulders of godly men and women who were faithful to point the next generation to the mighty acts of God.

One of my favorite verses in Scripture is when King David wrote, “One generation will declare your works to the next and will proclaim your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). That is exactly how the kingdom of God is advanced—through one generation pointing the next generation to the mighty acts of God.

So now, friends, it’s our turn to be faithful in this ancient work and story of God to point the next generation to the mighty acts of God, so they will rise up and point the next generation to the mighty acts of God. Here are three characteristics of a healthy student ministry.

1. A healthy student ministry is led by healthy leaders

We’ve all seen those infamous Middle School or High School Cross-Country meets, where a couple of over-ambitious teenagers take off sprinting when the start gun blasts. They’re way out in front of the rest of the pack for about the first 300 yards or so, but they forget that the average Cross-Country race is anywhere between 2 to 3 miles. It’s not long before those runners are on the sidelines upchucking their breakfast. The runners who do well are the ones that account for the whole distance, so they pace themselves.

Ministry can be the same way. Sadly, there are many leaders that will start out by sprinting. They look like they have it all together, they’re getting a lot done, and they look like they’re out sprinting everyone else, but then the fatigue sets in and they end up on the sidelines out of the race all together.

However, we can’t effectively care for others spiritually if we’re not taking care of our own spiritual well-being. Eventually, the pressure, stress, and lack of care for our own souls will catch up to us. We can’t lead others until we can lead ourselves. Healthy leaders are more apt to lead healthy ministries, but unhealthy leaders are more apt to lead unhealthy leaders.

The apostle Paul said, “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8 – 10). The order of these verses is very intentional. God saves you by grace through faith, before He calls you to good works. This means that before God ever gave you a title, a position, put your name on a business card, or on a website – He just called you to follow His Son. In fact, you will always be at your best when you’re leading, ministering, serving, discipling, and teaching out of the overflow of your own worship of Jesus.

2. A healthy student ministry reaches and equips students

One of the most beautiful biblical callings on any believer is the Great Commission. Even for students, it not the Great Suggestion—it’s the Great Commission. They must also go and make disciples. Matthew 28:19 tells us to go to the spiritually lost; it doesn’t tell the spiritually lost to come to us.

Every believer that has been bought by the blood of Jesus, is indwelt with the Holy Spirit, and is called to live on mission and point people to Jesus. Paul told the church in Ephesus that the main job of leaders was “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).  Who are the saints that this verse is describing? Saints are not just a football team in New Orleans or people in old paintings with halos around their heads. According to the New Testament, a saint is the new identity of every follower of Jesus. That means youth ministries have teenagers who are considered saints of God. I know what you’re thinking: Most of my middle school boys don’t even know how to take a shower, but you’re telling me that the Bible calls them a saint?

Yes, they are saints in God’s eyes. And if they are saints, they are called to ministry. Therefore, our job as leaders is to equip those saints for the work of ministry. So, we need to coach our students how to share the gospel boldly, lovingly, and confidently with other people when God gives them the opportunities to do so. We can never assume that the teens in our student ministries know how to share the gospel just because they’ve been coming to church for a while. Often, young people may know how to share pieces of the gospel but struggle to share the gospel in its entirety. Therefore, it’s our job to coach and train them on how to share the whole gospel: creation, sin, Jesus’ life, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, ascension, return and redemption of all things, plus the call on people to repent and believe.

One of the greatest parameters we can evaluate our student ministries on is how many gospel conversations our students are having on a regular basis.

3. A healthy student ministry equips parents

The call to make disciples must be one of the core values of any healthy student ministry. Often, discipleship is only seen as the student pastor and youth leaders discipling the students. Although this is part of it, what we fail to see is the potential in recognizing how important parents are in this discipleship process. Equipping parents is essential to helping students thrive in their walks with Jesus. At best, students are only with their student ministries a couple of hours a week. So, let’s help equip the people our students are spending the vast majority of their time with: their parents.

Consider the kingdom impact of discipling parents alongside their teenagers. The family should be the primary environment for spiritual formation. When parents are actively engaged in their own discipleship journey, it creates the supreme opportunity for students to flourish spiritually.

The main reason some parents don’t disciple their own kids is not because they don’t care or are uninterested; it’s because they’ve never been discipled themselves. It always sounds good from the pulpit or a social media post to say, “Parents should be the primary student pastors in their teens’ lives. You’re supposed to be the primary discipler.” However, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time as churches, we just say that yet don’t actually equip parents on how to do it well.

Healthy student ministries teach parents how to disciple by equipping them. Equip parents to know how to walk intimately with Jesus themselves and to disciple their teens from the overflow of their own worship of Jesus.

For additional student ministry resources, check out gensend.org.

Published December 11, 2023

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Shane Pruitt

Shane serves as the National Next Gen Director for the North American Mission Board (NAMB). He and his wife, Kasi, reside in Rockwall, TX with their children. He has been in ministry for over 20 years as a denominational leader, church planter, lead pastor, and student pastor. Shane is also a traveling communicator, evangelist, and Bible teacher. Every year he speaks to over a hundred thousand people about the good news of Jesus Christ. He has written two books, 9 Common Lies Christians Believe: And Why God’s Truth Is Infinitely Better and Calling Out the Called: Discipling Those Called to Ministry Leadership. He is also one of the host of The GenSend Podcast. Check out additional resources at gensend.org.