Is Your Student Ministry Missional?

Defining a Missional Student Ministry

One of the questions I have been wrestling with lately is this, “Can you have a programmed, missional student ministry?” In other words, can you have a weekly gathering of students who are there to have fun, worship God, hear the Word preached, and engage in a small group while at the same time being characterized as missional?

Sometimes when we think of missional, we picture a small group of people meeting together in someone’s house, praying for hours at a time, and witnessing to everyone they meet. Their rallying cry is “Back to Acts!” as they try to recreate the first-century church. While this is a great goal, what does this mean for already established ministries? Does this mean we need to sell all of our church buildings and stop letting people in after our gatherings get larger than thirty? Can an established youth ministry be characteristically missional in nature?

The short answer: Yes it can.

Missional living is a mindset and our student ministries can, in fact, be missional if we as youth leaders and students purpose to pursue and prioritize those things which characterize missional living. While there are many different behaviors or distinctives we could point to when it comes to missional student ministries, here are four. It is important to remember that these are goals, not benchmarks. These characteristics are the culture for which we should aim to create in our ministries.

Characteristics of a Missional Student Ministry

Gospel Centrality

The gospel is the story that we share. The truth of Christ’s substitute death and overcoming resurrection is good news before and after salvation. It is the foundation upon which the Christian life and our sanctification is built. A missional student ministry will preach the gospel, point to the gospel, help others know the gospel and its impact in their lives. In short, it will hold up the gospel as primary and desire for those who walk through their doors to understand how their story and the gospel story intersects.

Jeff Vanderstelt speaks of gospel fluency which is the ability to see and speak the truths of the gospel into the everyday stuff of life. Our students need to see the gospel as the thread by which the tapestry of life finds its structure. Everything that is done has Kingdom ramifications and purpose, because we as the church are always on mission for the kingdom.

Our students need to understand that the gospel has something to say about the lows, the highs, and everything in between: the difficulty of high school relationships, parents divorcing in middle school, struggles in the home, getting a date for the dance, making varsity this year, earning a driver’s license. All of these things speak to the goodness of God and provide opportunity for us to be salt and light in the world.

Are we helping our students understand the factual truths of the gospel as well as teaching them how to see the gospel working in the everyday stuff of life?

Active Discipleship

A missional student ministry will prioritize discipleship over size. While breadth is a fantastic goal and we should try to reach as many students as we can, discipleship should be primary. Are we being faithful with the students that currently show up on a regular basis?

In our student gatherings we often use the phrase, “Take your next step with Jesus.” This is discipleship on the micro-level: individual students consistently taking small steps toward Jesus. How are we actively helping them further their love for Christ and heighten their desire to live like Him?

Discipleship happens in the context of relationship. Our goal in student ministry is to produce disciples who make disciples. I believe this begins with adults building into the lives of students in small groups. One of the best ways to build relationships with students in pursuit of faith-filled conversations is to have adult small group leaders who will listen to, care for, and guide.

“Discipleship happens in the context of relationship.”

But in what areas are we to help students grow? While this is a broad question, here are four areas of a student’s life in need of growth.

  1. Relationship with Jesus
  2. Relationships in the home
  3. Relationships with God’s Family/Church
  4. Relationships with the world[1]

How are we helping students take their next steps in these four areas of their lives so that they might, as Paul says in Philippians 3:14, “press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus”? Are we producing mature disciples of the students that God has provided us?

A Sent Mentality

A missional student ministry will help produce in their students a Great Commission mindset or a sent mentality. Opposing a “come and see” system, a sent mentality means that students understand that they are on a mission to go to their own spheres of influence, their own schools and friend groups, and be a light in dark places. While there is room for “come and see” events and programming in our yearly and even weekly calendars, missional student ministries will be actively helping disciples understand their role in God’s mission.

“a sent mentality means that students understand that they are on a mission to go to their own spheres of influence, their own schools and friend groups, and be a light in dark places.”

A missional student ministry will help its students understand that God has sent his church on a mission, that students are part of that mission, and that mission is to make disciples as you move through life. Are we teaching our students that they must invite their friends to our gatherings in order for them to share the gospel or are we helping them see that God desires disciples to share the gospel wherever we find ourselves?

Active in Missions

A missional student ministry will be active in service and mission. We need to teach our students that it is not enough to gather, but disciples are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Missions can be as simple as picking up trash at a local park or as complex as helping build churches and running medical clinics in a third world county. Service and missions provides our students an opportunity to step out of their comfort zones and see the world as a place that needs help and needs the gospel.

By encouraging students to be active in service and mission, we help them prioritize their community and those who have not yet heard the gospel. This prioritization and rhythm will help student evangelize on their own as they equate their school and peers to those places and people they helped on mission trips.

Evaluative Questions to Ask of Your Student Ministry

Gospel Centrality

  1. Do I preach the gospel regularly at my student gathering?
  2. If I asked my students to write down the gospel, could they?
  3. Do my students understand that the gospel has value before and after conversion?
  4. Can my student see the gospel’s finger prints in the everyday stuff of life?

Active Discipleship

  1. Do I seek to have more students, while not prioritizing the discipleship of those I already have?
  2. What are practical steps I want middle and high school students to take regarding their spiritual growth?
  3. How am I helping student grow in these four areas: relationship with Jesus, relationships in the home, relationships in the church, and relationship with the world?
  4. Do I help all students on the scale of spiritual maturity take their next step with Jesus?

A Sent Mentality

  1. Is the youth group leader the sole engine of discipleship or do students and small group leaders help?
  2. If I asked my students for an example of a mission field, would they consider their school as one?
  3. Are my students standing up for and sharing the gospel in their own spheres of influence?

Active in Missions

  1. Do I have service opportunities for my students?
  2. Would my youth group be considered as “for the community”?
  3. Do I have a quality mission trip opportunity on the calendar?

[1] Jim Putman, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman, Discipleshift: Five Steps That Help your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 78.


Scott Erwin

Scott is happily married to Bethany and serves as the Director of Campus Life at Bethel Church, Hobart/Portage Campus in Indiana. He has been on staff in local churches directing youth ministry for four years. He loves leading students on short-term mission trips and watching them transition back to their normal rhythms but more fully expressing Jesus in every area of their lives.

Contact Scott at serwin@bethelweb.org

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