FIRST-PERSON: Addressing the four major gaps in student ministry

By Shane Pruitt

There are usually two types of people when it comes to setting the alarm to wake up in the morning. Person number one (this is me) – sets the alarm for the last possible minute to when you actually need to wake up to not be late. Person number two – sets the alarm for about an hour before they actually need to wake up, because they want to be able to hit the snooze button over and over and over again.

In student ministry, there is a massive reality that we need to wake up to. I believe most leaders are aware of it, know it needs to be addressed, but keep “hitting snooze” because they don’t want to deal with it or don’t know how to.

What am I talking about? What is it that we have to wake up to and address? I’m thinking of the four major gaps in student ministry.

There used to be one major gap in student ministry where teens would typically cease being part of a church. It was the gap between student ministry and collegiate ministry. In fact, for decades, we’ve heard stats shared and leaders express the need for fixing this. According to Lifeway Research, two-thirds (66 percent) of American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager say they dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.

This gap remains a serious concern, but in my exposure to hundreds of student ministries and tens of thousands of students every year, I believe there are actually four major gaps now. Fewer and fewer students are making it all the way through student ministry (sixth grade through senior year) before they even have a chance to drop out after graduation.

What are those gaps?

  • The gap between middle school and high school
  • The gap around getting their driver’s license
  • The gap between junior and senior year
  • The gap between youth ministry and college ministry

If the Church is going to be an effective student ministry moving forward, we must wake up to addressing and closing these four gaps.

How do we do this?

Here is a list of things that I believe will help in closing these gaps. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it is a start. Also, these are not in any particular order of importance, because I believe they’re all extremely important and urgent.

  • A love for the Lord and His Word: Our ultimate call is to make disciples (Matthew 28:19). Let’s be honest, some of our teens walk away from our ministries with a Ph.D. in pizza and laser tag and a Pre-K education in doctrine, theology and loving Jesus. Your theology will heavily influence your doxology. A love for Jesus, His Word and living it out has sticking power. Don’t dumb it down; disciple them up.
  • Be a part of the church as a whole: If a student ministry is run like a “church within a church,” then when a teen is navigating through the different transitions within a student ministry or graduating out of it, it feels like they’re having to go join a different church that just meets at the same address. That’s why many leave, because they’re now being a part of something different that they don’t understand and where they do not have relationships. I definitely believe in age-specific ministries, but I also believe that the student ministry should be a part of the whole church. It’s one church that is multi-generational. Find ways to constantly be together instead of always separate.
  • Build relationships: The more relationships a student has, the less likely they are to fall through the gaps. Help cultivate relationships with their peers and at the same time with those in the next phase. For example: if your middle school and high school ministries are separate, then multiple times throughout their eighth-grade year, strategically plan high school events where they’re intentionally being invited so that they’re building relationships. When they already know people in the ministry that they’re about to step into, the transition is less intimidating.
  • Get them serving and living on mission: When students catch the vision for serving, then getting a driver’s license is no longer an excuse to disappear. Instead, it’s actually leveraged to no longer have to depend on rides from others. They become more reliable to serve because they can get themselves there. When juniors and seniors have caught the vision for living on mission, then they no longer feel like they’re too mature for the student ministry. Rather, they’re making the most of being a leader by reaching their spiritually lost peers and discipling younger students to do the same, which points back to point number two. They should be serving and living on mission with the church as a whole, not only in the student ministry. Empower them to be involved in the whole life of the church.

As next gen leaders, if we’re equipping and empowering students to have a love for the Lord and His Word, be a part of the church as a whole, build relationships and to serve and live on mission – then this will be the posture of their lifestyle from now until they see Jesus face to face. They’ll navigate the different stages in their life without falling through the gaps, because they’ll realize worshipping Jesus and being the church isn’t for a period of time but for all of eternity.

“I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in youwill carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 1:6, CSB

Published June 8, 2023

Shane Pruitt

Shane serves as the National Next Gen Director for the North American Mission Board. He and his wife, Kasi, reside in Rockwall, TX with their six children. He has been in ministry for over 18 years as a denominational worker, church planter, lead pastor and student pastor. Shane is the author of several books and co-hosts the Next Gen on Mission podcast with Paul Worcester.