That was the day. From that day forward, youth ministry was crippled.

Since then we’ve seen America’s young people, the Millennials, turn away from the church in record numbers. This generation has the highest incidence of non-belief. More than a third of Millennials now affiliate with no religious group.

When did this downturn begin? It was a couple of decades ago. At about the same time as that fateful day I mentioned. What happened on that day? Well, it was on that day that a youth pastor in a large, celebrity-driven church decided to rename his ministry. On that day, he changed “youth ministry” to “student ministry.”

Why? I’m not sure. It made no sense from a clarity perspective. The real world knows that “student” refers to anyone from kindergarten through graduate school and beyond. This guy’s youth ministry still encompassed only teenagers. And it included kids who had dropped out of school, and weren’t “students” anywhere.

But he insisted on calling them “students.” Even though they never referred to themselves with that label. No teenager ever said, “Hey, Mom, I’m going to Starbucks to hang out with some other students.”

But because this youth pastor was admired as a bigshot in the church world, hundreds of other youth ministers emulated his “student” labeling move. Now its usage has become widespread.


What’s the big deal, you ask? In addition to “student ministry” being confusing and misleading, it telegraphs a misguided and stifling connotation. Using an academic term–student–defines this ministry as a schoolish routine for young people to come and sit passively while a teacher delivers a monologue. Rather than being a time to explore and develop a real relationship with the living God, it’s just one more classroom lesson.

It’s no wonder that sociologist Christian Smith, in his landmark study on the religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults, found that young people consider local churches merely “elementary schools of morals.” Young people have not only noticed what their church calls its ministry with them, they’ve seen that the centerpiece of this ministry is just another lecture about do’s and don’ts.

This pedantic approach has numbed a generation into conceding Christianity as mere dogma. More evidence of this was found in Group’s new survey of churchgoing teenagers. They were asked about the correctness of this statement: “Being a Christian is really about trying harder to be a better person.” Nearly 84 percent said this statement was always or sometimes true.

So, is that megachurch “student” ministry guy responsible for all these disappointing results? Is the relabeling of youth ministry to blame for setting adrift an entire generation? No, but the pervasive mentality behind the labels has indeed undermined youth ministry’s effectiveness. It has portrayed the Christian faith as an academic drill. It is not.

Our faith is more aptly described as a relationship. After all, we espouse a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” If it really is a relationship, why wouldn’t we set up an environment that looks more like one would use to pursue any friendship?

Christian Smith wrote in Group magazine: “Why should the church embrace the categories and vocabulary of our schooling society, with all its performance-based structures and practices? Calling teenagers students is a travesty that must stop.”

Rather than trying to manufacture more students of religion, it’s time to help the next generation become friends of God.

“So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.” (Romans 5:11 NLT)