Editor’s Note: In the two decades I’ve been editor of group, I’ve only given over my column space one time. Make this #2. I’ve known Christian Smith a long time—he’s the brilliant director of the National Study of Youth and Religion, and is now a professor of sociology at Notre Dame.
I got to know him when he invited me to join the study’s advisory team seven years ago. A few years ago I had Chris come out to our offices in Colorado to lead a summit for a small group of invited youth pastors. There, he first expressed his astonishment that student had become the prevailing way to refer to teenagers. I’d never heard anyone, besides me, rail against defining teenagers by what they do, rather than who they are. Over the years I’ve perpetually (but not completely) excised the word student from group’s pages. And I’ve had to explain to many, including my own staffers, why I feel so strongly about this.
Today, out of the blue, Chris sent me what you’re about to read—he does a better job explaining my eccentric, totally unreasonable anti-student ravings than I could…
In 2001, when I began to ramp-up my work on the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR, youthandreligion.org) by immersing myself in the world of U.S. ministry to teenagers, I was shocked to learn that the terms youth, youth ministry, and youth minister had been replaced by student, student ministry, and student minister. I don’t know how or why the terminology changed—I suspect it has something to do with an undercurrent desire to increase youth ministry’s respectability in comparison to other church ministries.
In any case, calling teenagers students is a travesty that must stop. Please, please change the language back to youth and teenagers. Here’s why:
- A lot of teenagers are, in fact, not students. Many are school dropouts. Are they not worthy of Christian youth ministry? Do we want to systematically exclude them through our labels? Also, some teenagers are home-educated. Do they not belong in the youth group because they’re not students like their peers who attend traditional schools? Jesus is for all teenagers. Why adopt the constrictive student ministry when not all youth are students?
- Student ministry subtly (and oddly) singles out teenagers from the whole people of God. No church has an Employed Adult Ministry or a Home-maker Minister or Retired Seniors Minister. So why should the church define its ministry to youth around the institutional social status of student? I think this label subtly isolates youth as a subculture to be treated differently. The church needs to be moving in the exact opposite direction when it comes to teenagers.
- 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!
Why should the church embrace the categories and vocabulary of our schooling society, with all its performance-based structures and practices? We should, instead, push back on society’s labels by insisting that teenagers are referenced by the full depth, richness, and complexity of their personhood. They should be hearing from us: “Unlike most of the rest of society, we understand and value you in the fullness of who you are. Here among God’s people we know you as real human persons—you don’t have to perform to be accepted here. Please be your real selves.”
When I talk to youth ministers about this, most tell me they’ve never reflected on the implications of tagging teenagers with a student label. Well, I think it’s time to think about it. There’s no good reason to define youth through the lens of a single social role. Our terms shape what we assume and how we think. I’m asking Christian youth workers all over the country (you!) to change your “shaping” language—to use language that honors teenagers as whole human persons in God’s kingdom. Please stop calling teenagers students, and ask everyone around you to do the same.
Chris is the director of the National Study of Youth and Religion, co-author of the resulting book Soul Searching, William R. Kenan, Jr. professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society. He lives in Indiana.
Rick Lawrence has been editor of group Magazine for 20 years. You can contact him at email@example.com. And you can get a copy of his book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry or his 10-week curriculum In Pursuit of Jesus: Stepping Off the Beaten Path at youthmindev.wpengine.com.