Institutional Social Status: It’s What’s For Ministry?

This post is the third part of a series that responds to the article/editorial “Don’t Call ‘Em Students” found in Group Magazine’s September/October 2008 issue. To read the article, go here. To read the introductory post to this series, go here. For more info on Group Magazine, go here.


Student ministry subtly (and oddly) singles out teenagers from the whole people of God. No church has an Employed Adult Ministry or a Home-maker Minister or Retired Seniors Minister. So why should the church define its ministry to youth around the institutional social status of student? I think this label subtly isolates youth as a subculture to be treated differently. The church needs to be moving in the exact opposite direction when it comes to teenagers.      ~Christian Smith in Group Magazine

While I will be among the first to admit that applying a label to a ministry automatically segregates it off from the rest of the body (be it men’s ministry, women’s ministry, MOPS, youth, etc.), they have almost become necessary evils to engage in. Churches have come to realize that to best emulate Jesus’ ministry here on earth, they need to minister to people where they were at. He went to the seashore to find many of His disciples, speaking to them in their own language, meeting prostitutes and adulterers on their turf, speaking first of physical and emotional needs before addressing their deeper need for a Savior. He met them on their ground, and while He did not label His ministries (can you imagine it? Jesus leading the PWLG [Prostitutes Who Love God] Bible Study through Ruth?), there is merit in our specializing to certain ages and/or life situations.

Our church employs a pastor whose major responsibility is to spend time with those who are not able to get to the church. He is our Pastor of Visitation, and he may be the only real face that many of the people he visits get to see from our local body. And God truly blesses his ministry, and our church through this.

To make the argument that labeling teenage-directed ministry student ministry will set them apart as a subculture to be treated differently is weak at best. It is a reality of life that many adults (not all but most of us are guilty) will immediately make judgments and look down on younger members of the body. I have worked in many places where teens were looked down upon no matter what they said or did. I even worked with one Senior Pastor who would constantly dismiss all teenagers as “mush heads” who were utterly incapable of making intelligent decisions or stringing together a cogent thought.

The truth is that teenagers do need to be treated differently at times. The same can be said of single mothers, widows, Mothers of Pre-Schoolers, retirees, etc. There are different needs for each group, and no matter the label each one needs to be met on their own level. In my experience, using the label Student actually has contributed to helping bridge the gap between teen and adult, in part because it carries subtle implications of intelligence, study and a desire to grow. Remember, students are students no matter where they are in life.

So does the institutional social status of student really mean teenager? No. Otherwise we would not have adults going back to school in their 40’s to finish or attain a degree. There is more good in using Student language in bridging the gap between adult and teen because it truly does not have to reflect only high school and middle school students. Unless you want it it. And then you have missed the point

Other Posts in this series: