Student ministry is best when it is embodied. Student ministry is the smell in the basement after you and a dozen teenagers played some active games. It’s the sound of voice cracks as unashamed 15-year-old boys sing to Jesus. It’s taking communion together at the end of a mission trip and laying hands on seniors to pray for them at their last gathering before graduation. It’s dance parties and dodgeball.
At least, that’s what it was until this spring. Now we do student ministry in “Coronatide” (a liturgical neologism for the COVID–19 pandemic). I don’t consider myself an expert when it comes to student ministry in this strange season we find ourselves in, but I want to give voice and language to some of the realities we are all dealing with now. I hope you’ll be encouraged as we do the work of discipling adolescents in this season of isolation.
It’s common to compare student ministry to cross-cultural missions. As tempting as it is to think that I was “the same” as my students when I graduated college (I wasn’t), the realization that they live in a different world than I do (or did at their age) grows with each passing year.
Both cross-cultural missions and student ministry require carefully examining the culture and context of the people we serve in order to best understand how to communicate the gospel.
But now, adults and students alike have been thrown into a new world that none of us fully understand. No one alive has lived through this kind of global quarantine, so everyone is finding out what “new normal” is like. That means that all of us who work to disciple students have to recognize that much of what we previously understood about the culture our students live in has largely changed, and we have to go into investigative mode all over again. Social pressures from school are completely different (or nonexistent). Family relationships that were strong may be strained, or may have grown stronger. Outgoing and energetic extroverts who are cooped up at home may suddenly be reserved with far fewer chances to recharge their batteries. Much of what you knew about teenagers in general––and your teenagers in particular––has changed.
Ask any teachers or professors who have very quickly had to shift to online classrooms, and they’ll tell you that online teaching and in-person teaching are very different beasts. I’m inspired by the teachers I know who have dedicated a great deal of time shifting into this new paradigm, especially those who work with the youngest students. I have a second grader and a preschooler, and their teachers are absolute champions.
Virtual student ministry is the same. I shaped a lot of my own thoughts on ministry around space and embodiment. In fact, I think that is one of the strengths of doing student ministry in an Anglican context––we have all these tools that take advantage of the fact that humans live in space and time. (Shameless plug: I talk about this a lot on the Young Anglicans podcast, which I host with Eric Overholt.)
Now I’m doing ministry over Discord and Zoom calls and Netflix parties. Teenagers are already bad about giving nonverbal cues that they are following along when you’re in the same room. Student ministry in this era feels like shouting into the void and hoping that the void grew closer to Christ because of your noise.
I was talking with my spiritual director about my struggles with a lack of feedback from the people I minister to, and the image that came to my mind was the difference between typing on a keyboard and typing on a touch screen. (I actually compared it to playing video games with a controller, but I figure the keyboard metaphor is more universal.) Ministry is now non-tactile. You are smacking your fingers against a completely smooth glass and looking to see if you pressed the right button. It’s doable, but it’s hard to get the kind of give and take that lets you know what you’re doing is actually working.
Ministry is always ripe for comparison, the thief of joy. I don’t know if you are feeling it, but I find the temptation to measure myself against other ministries to be greater now than it was before. As I wrestle with having to transition into all these new modes, as I wrestle to get a good understanding of how my students are doing, as I take big swings (and make a few big misses), it’s easy to feel like I’m not doing a good enough job. And the promotional materials from other student ministries makes it feel like everyone else has it all together.
Not to mention, there are blog posts and articles coming from experts on how you need to double down on this aspect of ministry, or not forget that one. It might be insecurity speaking, but I receive a lot of those posts as all law and no grace. Imposter syndrome is at an all-time high.
I won’t say that you shouldn’t read and learn about how to grow in your abilities in student ministry, or that you shouldn’t look for wise people you trust in order to find that advice. But the reality is that no one is a veteran of Coronatide student ministry because no one has done this for more than a few months. Everyone is figuring it out as they go. You can cut yourself some slack.
So far, this has been a pretty bleak description of this season, so let me end with some good news: you are still doing the work of student ministry. If you willingly choose to disciple adolescents, you already love and care about them. And the real substance of student ministry hasn’t changed: you still get to love adolescents in their struggles and come alongside them as they become the people they are going to be for the rest of their lives.
And it is encouraging to think about the fact that you still have one of the most useful tools for ministry at your disposal (other than the Holy Spirit, which of course you still have): modeling your own faith. Ruth Haley Barton, who runs the Transforming Center, an organization dedicated to strengthening leaders and transforming communities, often says, “The best thing you bring to leadership is your own transforming self.” You can invite students in and show them how God is working in your life, and offer them what has been given to you.
My go-to metaphor for adolescence is that it’s life’s internship. Adolescents have some idea about what they’re doing with their lives, but they have yet to really try it out and figure out what kind of person they are. Your students have entered into their human internships at a moment when the whole world has been turned upside down. But what they need most is not the most effective teaching tools or best Zoom games. What they need is to see someone a little ahead of them on the journey, who can give them an example of what it looks like to live a life following Jesus. And to help them make sense of how they can follow Jesus in their own lives.
You’re going through some of the same challenges and struggles they are. Show them how God is comforting you. Help them see how the resurrection of Jesus gives you hope beyond economic recovery––“the life of the world to come.” And let them know about your own concerns and worries. They need to know that the life of faith isn’t always 100% confidence and certainty. Model to them what it looks like to bring to God whatever you have, and to allow him to step in and be strong in our weakness.
Even though all of the methods of connecting and teaching and gathering have changed, the substance of our work has not. We are still in the business of discipling these human interns to love and serve Jesus. May God use us to do that work, walking alongside the next generation as they grow into the next generation of Christians.
Father Andrew Unger is the priest in charge and youth pastor at All Souls Anglican Church in Wheaton, IL. He has written pieces for Christianity Today and the Journal for Youth Ministry, and has been working in student ministry since 2005. He and his wife, Deacon Joy Unger, have two double pastor’s kids