A huge struggle in student ministry is unity. How do we take a group of students who seem to be totally different from one another and make them a unified Christian front? How do we foster a caring community that has residents who are all on the same page and know and care for one another? I have been in student ministry nearly two decades and I have found some fundamental things to be true when thinking of unity in student ministry.
5. Unity comes when there is a leader who is welcoming and loving of all students.
It is important that the primary leader of the student ministry do all he or she can to reach out to all students in the group. As leaders of students, it can be very difficult not to spend most of our time with the outgoing, charismatic leaders and/or the students who are drawn to us. Still, if unity is going to be achieved, the leader has to set the tone. If we are going to preach love and tell students to welcome everyone, we have to be the best example of that. Greet new students. We have to involve the fringe kids. We need to celebrate the lesser-known kids in our groups and get to know who they are and their abilities. For unity to begin, the example of how to show love and find unity has to be us.
4. Unity comes when we encourage student leaders to embrace all students in our ministry.
There is a scene in the movie Never Been Kissed when I think that one of the truest statements about teenagers ever said on film is made. David Arquette says to his sister, played by Drew Barrymore, that all it takes is for one person to think you are cool and you are in. I have seen that time and time again play out in student ministry. It only takes one person.
I think because we are naturally drawn to the outgoing, charismatic leader type students (and often them to us), we need to take advantage of the relationships we have that come easy. We need to encourage those students to do what we are doing in our attempts to build unity. We need to encourage, and sometimes prod, them to be a warm, welcoming force in the group.
Encourage these students to talk with new or fringe students. Challenge them to sit with someone who is not their close friend in student meetings. Challenge them to learn something new about a different person every week. It is a lofty goal, but I am all about raising the bar and watching students consistently fly above it. Students like it when an adult leader makes them feel known but they love it when that comes from their peers.
3. Unity comes when we offer a strong identity of our student ministry that helps students embrace a team attitude.
In most student ministries, we have students coming from so many different places. We have public school students-and many times several, different public schools are represented. We have private school students. We also have homeschool students. Often this diversity only adds to the lack of unity in the group. Two years ago, when we were praying the week before See You At The Pole, we split our group of about 40 kids that night up by their educational similarities. When we counted out of just forty students, we had fourteen different groups represented!
I would like to think that we are rare, but I am somewhat certain that big numbers of various designations are becoming more of the norm. So in order to combat the lack of unity this may bring naturally, we need to offer to students a place where they can come together and have
a common ground.
One of the best ways to make that happen is to have a strong student ministry identity. Make students feel, as soon as they walk in the door, that this is a place that knows who it is and why it exists. Some people look down on naming your ministry, but I think that a strong name and identity that is frequently referenced helps tear down the walls of natural segregation in the group.
My goal for our group is that when we come together, we are no longer students at Parkway North or Lafayette High School, but we are now Get Real Student Ministries. We proudly display our logo on everything from our welcome table to our projection screen and every correspondence and t-shirt that we put out. Having a strong identity helps students feel that they belong to something. That sense of belonging is crucial to teens. Let’s give them that within their student ministry.
2. Unity comes when we intentionally create a unity-fostering atmosphere in our ministry.
Years ago, I stopped letting students pick which van they ride in on trips. Sure I get flack from time to time, but assigning each student to a van before we go somewhere is a way I can intentionally breed unity. I always make sure that every person has someone they are comfortable with to ride along with them, but I also make sure that I break up cliques and disburse them evenly throughout vehicles. Students may groan when they aren’t with their friends, but I have found that there is nothing like a long van ride to force students to get to know people they might not have the opportunity to get acquainted with at a regular student group meeting.
Shared experiences are the crucial element in creating unity. You can have a great identity and encourage people to reach out within the walls of your church to begin the unity building process, but until your students have things that make shared memories, it is often superficial. Things like mission trips and camps go a long way in making shared memories. Inside jokes are created, dreams are shared, guards are down, and hearts are open in these types of environments.
In our ministry we do Monday Mystery Trips in the summer. We take the students in vans to unknown destinations about three hours away. It is a fun filled time, but the underlying reason we do it is to offer time in vans for students to talk to one another and a random shared experience at the end to help establish memories that move us toward unity.
1. Unity comes when we cover it all in prayer.
This may seem clichéd, but it is the very foundation of unity building. You can foster unity in your group but it is the Holy Spirit who breeds that unity. You have to continually seek His guidance as you seek ways to create a unified group. Also, in praying for unity, you are following the
example of Christ. In His prayer in John 17, Jesus takes time to pray for the church. What is His petition to the Father? Make them one. Unity. If Jesus thought it was important enough to pray for us to obtain unity, then I think we should make it a priority in our prayer life as well.
Finally, I am not saying that I have all the answers to the unity issues that we all face in student ministry. I do know, however, that these things have worked together to transform disjointed ministries before my eyes. I also pray that all our ministries would be havens of unity in a world where unity is hard to find.