Student Ministry as a Subversive Activity
What can two authors from the 1960s, writing about the problems of public education, teach student ministers today about practical ministry? In the case of Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, the answer is, surprisingly, quite a lot. Although their solutions were meant to address problems outside the Church, and also came before most student pastors today were even born, their work presents two particularly helpful questions – questions intended to subvert the subtle influences of a student’s surrounding culture – that both student pastors and parents alike would be wise to consider:
1) What is the potential of your student?
2) How do we practically unlock his or her potential?
Understanding the Student’s Potential
The first question is meant to address a root problem for many teachers: How does the way you view your student impact the way you approach your student? As Postman and Weingartner say,
“Suppose you could convince yourself that your students are the smartest children in the school; or, if that seems unrealistic, that they have the greatest potential of any class in the school…What do you imagine would happen? What would you do differently if you acted as if your students were capable of great achievements?” (page 201)
Again, the authors here are attempting to address common failures of public educators. But these failures can be found within ministry, as well. Every student minister understands the temptation to prematurely judge those who sit under their teaching. The student who sits at the back of the room in youth group and routinely falls asleep during lessons is, we assume, uninterested in what is being taught. Naturally, that lack of interest in our teaching is often interpreted as a lack of interest in the faith. Conversely, the student who sits attentively through lessons and who attends all of our events is the student we assume to be mature and growing in his or her faith. In both cases, how we approach these students is shaped by those assumptions.
While at times our assumptions may be accurate, at other times they may also be the result of overlooking our own weaknesses which need to be addressed. Although it may not always be easy to remember or obvious at first glance, every student who sits under our teaching has incredible potential.
Their potential is not, of course, the result of their own intellect or present maturity (nor is it the result of your impressive teaching ability). Rather, their potential lies in the fact that they are a beloved child of God, whose unique gifts can be used by the Holy Spirit. In an article taken from his book Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, Russell Moore speaks of this potential that every individual possesses.
He says, “The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now…the next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic today. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addict porn star this week…But the Spirit of God can turn all that around. And seems to delight to do so.”
The student who currently falls asleep every time you speak might very well be preaching to students in a few years. The student currently involved in an endless string of unwise and unrighteous relationships may soon be a powerful witness to the life-changing power of the Spirit in his or her life.
Regardless of their current theological prowess, or the consistency of their presence in Sunday School, teenagers hold the same level of potential as every other individual when saved by Christ. We must, therefore, be careful to approach every student with this conviction and confidence. If we lose that confidence, we will surely fail to minister to them in the way we are called.
How can we as leaders and teachers help unlock that potential? In answering this question, the authors turn their attention to the specific content that is being taught, and a key practice often ignored: asking questions (lots and lots of questions).
The Importance of Asking Questions
According to Postman and Weingartner one of the most important changes needed in the typical classroom is in the establishment of the “inquiry method.” This method uses questions as the primary means to open engaged minds and to activate different senses, attitudes, and perceptions that are often missed in the traditional lecture.
The goal of this method is less concerned with the memorization of a list of predetermined facts and more concerned with helping the student become a “good learner.” According to the authors, good learners, among other things, enjoy solving problems, are not fearful of being wrong, are not fast answerers, and they are flexible. To help produce these types of characteristics, teachers are encouraged to limit their time of presenting facts and to focus more energy on encouraging group discussion. Within those discussions, teachers must be careful to not simply look for one right answer but to encourage students to think through a variety of answers and ways to back up those answers. In this method, teachers are not looking for an ability to parrot back proper responses but in transformation of character. This is a result we can all appreciate. But its method is, to put it lightly, intimidating.
Asking open-ended questions to students can be a scary process for any student pastor. It doesn’t take long for 7th graders to venture into heretical territory if given enough time to speak. Furthermore, the fact remains that these students need to learn the truths contained in Scripture. But neither of those facts negates the critical role of discussion. Consider the importance placed on discussion in this exchange between Jesus and his disciples in Matthew 16:13-15:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who you say that I am?’”
In this exchange and in many others like it, Jesus gives his disciples the opportunity to answer challenging questions. In this passage, Jesus first asks a question of how outside observers are interpreting the ministry of Jesus, and then directly asks how they have interpreted the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. While these questions are easy for many of us to answer today, consider how big of a question this would have been in its initial context! Even today many students in a Sunday School class would be hesitant to offer an answer to such a big a question, fearing they might not phrase it as articulately as their youth pastor. Regardless of the difficulty of the question, if students are made to feel ashamed because of their current lack of biblical understanding, discussions can never happen. But this was not the case with the disciples.
Although the disciples came through with a correct response in this case, the Gospels are full of examples where they demonstrated a less than impressive theological intellect. Despite their struggles, however, Jesus continually used questions as a means to not only present divine truths, but also to expose the hearts of those around him. Did Jesus also provide teaching in what we might call a lecture format? Yes. But while he retained his role as a teacher, he also never overlooked the role of the student.
Jesus’ approach to his disciples was shaped not simply by their initial spiritual maturity but by their future role. Knowing that future, Jesus patiently taught his disciples, questioned his disciples, and worked alongside them even in the midst of their most offensive failures and misunderstandings.
Although this process can be frustrating for any student minister, it is vitally important to the students we serve. In working through that frustration we must remember that our end goal of student ministry is not to simply produce students who can quote a few Bible verses or present a convincing argument for the authenticity of the resurrection (although those things are, of course, valuable). The goal is to help our students truly grasp the Gospel and what it means to our everyday lives. In order to attain that goal, we must be willing to honestly consider how we can better approach them in a way that digs beneath the surface, asks difficult questions, and stops at nothing for the purpose of unlocking their potential in Christ. Regardless of their current state, we can do the work of Gospel ministry with the full confidence in Christ’s power to subvert the influence of sin, save, sanctify, and use his saints for his glory.