Well, it happened. You didn’t want it to happen, but it did. A student who was in your ministry has now wandered away from God—maybe even far away. If you’ve been in student ministry for any amount of time, you’ve likely witnessed some pretty surprising downward slides—often through the lens of social media. It brings a wide variety of feelings—from disbelief to skepticism to discouragement.
I don’t know about you, but whenever this happens with one of my former students, it hits home. So what do you do when a student wanders from their faith? Well, I’m no expert (as if anyone wants to be on this subject), but over the years I’ve learned three key lessons about this, and maybe they can help you as well.
1. THEIR CHOICES ARE NOT YOUR FAULT.
Any good counselor will tell you that. God has given each of us free will to make decisions. And throughout the Bible, we’re exhorted to do so:
- ‘But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.’ Joshua 24:15
- ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ 1 Kings 18:21
- How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver! Proverbs 16:16
And the list goes on, because choices are part of life and making good ones is a learning process. That’s why I named our first student ministry CHOICES. It was an acronym that stood for: Consider How Our Input Changes Every Situation. We all must own the choices we make for ourselves, which means, as youth leaders, we can’t take responsibility for the ones students make. But that doesn’t mean we stop caring for them.
2. NEVER GIVE UP ON PEOPLE.
God never gives up on us, and we should have that same attitude—70 times 7, and then some! Re-read the parable of the lost son in Luke 15:11-32. The younger son totally walked away from everything he was taught. He disrespected his dad and family, lived promiscuously, and blew through his inheritance.
But when his dad saw him from a distance, his heart broke, and he took off running to hug him and welcome him back. This was before he even knew the son repented. Wow, what a demonstration of a forgiving and loving Father—and that is how we are to be! Why? Because love has no limits, and students do wander back.
Five years ago, I got a call from a student who was in my first student ministry, 25 years ago. We’ll call him Sean. He said: “Hey, Mr. Bill, this is Sean.” I responded: “Sean, man, so awesome to hear from you. What are you up to?!”
He replied: “I know I was a turd when I was in your student ministry [and he was], but I wanted to let you know that I’m walking with the Lord now, and I want you to know why. Every week when I was forced to come to CHOICES, you came up to me and were always excited I was there, even though I often disrupted things. Even after high school, you checked up on me, even though you had moved out of Texas. You never gave up on me, and it reminded me that God hadn’t either, so I recently turned back to Him and rededicated my life to Him. So, thank you!” Yeah, I’m crying again as I write this.
Never, never give up on people. Proverbs 22:6 says:
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
I know that the time between when they’re a “child” and when they get older may almost kill ya, but not giving up on someone is so God-like and so worth it!
3. CONTINUE TO SHEPHERD.
The enemy would like to distract, deceive, discourage, depress, and a lot of other bad D words—don’t allow him to! He knows he can’t have your soul, so he’ll work at making you ineffective, or worse: remove you from ministry. Many of my youth pastor friends have left student ministry because of discouragement, and I certainly have been tempted to do so as well.
Pray, and seek God and His call on your life. If He’s calling you to something else, then answer that calling. Just don’t leave student ministry because students have wandered or the enemy got you to believe a lie about your value as a youth pastor.
God is worth it. Students are worth it. Eternity is worth it.
Remember, God has called you to be a shepherd, not a rancher. Shepherds lead (showing the way to go), while ranchers drive (using force). Lead students as a loving shepherd—by example, by serving, and by the Holy Spirit’s influence—and I believe we’ll see fewer students wander, more students wander back, and everyone experience God’s presence in their lives!