Shaping How the Church Sees Teenagers

This post is the fourth 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 lingo passively allows the culture’s dominant institutions to define for the church who youth are and how the church thinks about them. Young people, especially in view of the gospel, are fundamentally persons, not students. Their status as students is only one aspect of some teenagers’ lives, and often a very unhappy one at that!      ~ Christian Smith in Group Magazine

Smith claims that using Student brings up too much negative connotation to it when teens hear it. Also at play here is Smith’s claim that the church is allowing the world to influence how it does ministry. These are both valid claims on Smith’s part, and are things that we should be ever vigilant for (and against). But in my experience, I have yet to see either of these in play with the teens i have worked with.

First, as I stated a couple of posts back, we focus on students as a life-long call in our teens’ and our leaders’ lives. To jettison that in favor of “youth” language would be more detrimental. Many of the older generations I have worked with see youth as a negative thing first (the arrogance, the inability to see things through or think things through, the rudeness, etc.) and only look at it in a positive light when wishing that they could regain their own youth. (Not all older generations, but a lot). Youth is seen as a time when people need to shut up and listen to their elders (remember the pastor I told you about?). Youth has long been looked down upon as a negative, even in the first century (take a minute and read 1 Timothy 4.12 if you don’t believe me).

As to the claim that shifting to “student” language allows the culture’s dominant institutions to define who teens are and how the church thinks, that claim is baseless. Educational systems though a large institution, are not the dominant one in society. Media and entertainment are larger. And what they offer to us is not student, but youth (the youth movement, rocking the youth vote). Teenagers in media and entertainment circles are not referred to as students, but as teens or youth. At least in my perception. To use “student” language in our ministries would actually seem to run counter to what the most dominant institution in American society has to say.

Smith is correct in reminding us that teenagers are indeed fundamentally people, and not students. But this also means that they are fundamentally people, not youth. And as true as it is that a lot of teens are not pleased about their status as school students, should that not challenge us to help change their thinking about being students in anything?

Other Posts in this series: