Knowing your youth and the landscape in which they roam is so essential when leading a student ministry. How well do you know the cultural context within which your students find themselves interacting each day? I believe that a knowledge of the students in your church's community can positively impact how you do student ministry.
How do you go about understanding your specific student ministry landscape? There are three basic components to consider:
- What is my church context?
- Who are the student groups in my ministry?
- How do I fit in?
What is my church context?
It's important to define, or identify, your church's specific context. What are the considerations that go into this? There are a few things to consider, actually, things such as Denominational affiliation, tradition, as well as any demographic considerations (Family based? Elderly based? Young Married? Singles?). Identifying the unique distinctives of your church body is just one aspect of defining your church context. You have to also identify the make-up of your community. Is your church located in an urban environment? Suburban community? Or does your church serve a rural population? Do you have a high population of immigrants, or ethnic-natives? What is the economic picture of the community? Are you in a highly populated area, or a sparsely populated one? Is there a strong presence of local business? How many and what type of schools are in your community? Once you have gathered this info, consider writing a paragraph specifically describing your church and community location, demographic, and ethnic make-up. This is your church context.
Who Are the Student Groups?
Identify the major student clusters that are attending your church and that are in your community. In his book Hurt, Chap Clark describes clusters as groups of 5-10 students who all share the same values and style. Typically a student cluster is a homogeneous group of students who act, behave, talk, and dress the same. What type of student groups gather at your church? How many different student groups come to your church? How different are they? What students groups will you initially target? Write a paragraph specifically identifying the student clusters that attend church. Clearly define their values and culture. It may be very helpful to conduct a student survey asking what type of music, movies, TV shows, food, clothes, stores they like. It's imperative to find out exactly who attends your youth group and what are they into.
Where does the student pastor fit in?
By this point in the process you've identified what specific student groups you have within your unique church context. This is the time to determine how those student groups are best being served. A great question every student pastor needs to ask is, "Am I best equipped to reach the specific student groups that exist within my church/community context?" Being comfortable with your student groups' cultural sensitivities is a must; speaking their heart language is essential. If the student pastor finds that he or she is able to speak into the lives of the majority of the student groups represented, then there is a greater chance for buy-in; students will be more inclined to trust and respect what the student pastor is about . . . which ultimately should be Jesus! In the case where there are barriers that inhibit a student pastor from reaching a student group, it's important for the student pastor to recruit other youth workers that can more effectively reach any student clusters the student pastor doesn't fit with. This is so essential! Youth groups need diversity and cannot solely rely on the student pastor's personality, background, and giftings to shape the identity of the group.
After assessing the land of our student ministries, we need to remember that Jesus was about creating contrast with the secular world around us. Our student ministries must be very different than any other student group in the community. The danger to learning about the land and adapting to its values and themes is that your ministry can very easily become just like the world around you. Sometimes we when try to fit in too much, we compromise the teachings of Jesus. Youth groups need to be about love, grace, acceptance, truth, compassion, forgiveness, and justice, and not gossip, lying, cheating, popularity, favoritism, and elitism. Our student ministries need to be a "resident alien" type of group. Our student ministries are in and belong in the community, but don't participate in all it's values, behaviors, and culture.