When I was a college minister, some people thought I was a youth minister. I found that strange, as did my coworker who led our church’s youth ministry. Despite assumptions to the contrary, high school students and college students have different experiences and needs. Youth ministry and college ministry share some similarities but are clearly different ministries.
The differences, however, don’t need to keep the groups apart. Combing high school and college groups is helpful. The groups can join for Bible classes and other activities, including opportunities to serve other groups of the church and service events in the neighboring community.
Such intergroup interaction has many blessings. Let me mention four.
Blessing 1: Intergenerational ministry is biblical and helpful.
The church has been intergenerational for a long time, and intergenerational ministry helps spiritual development and learning (Allen and Ross, Intergenerational Christian Formation.) This intergenerational aspect of faith communities existed long before the birth of Jesus (Deuteronomy 6; Psalm 145:4) and continued into the first-century church, as indicated by Paul’s words about different age groups (1 Timothy 5:1-3). For more on this, see Kara Jenkins’ article, “Biblical Support for Intergenerational Ministry.”
Blessing 2: Age-specific ministries need to be integrated parts of the church.
Providing opportunities for groups to interact helps this integration. While there are reasons to have different classes and activities for different age groups, combining groups for Bible study, service events, and other times of interaction can build understanding, appreciation, and relationships between generations. Keeping age-specific groups always isolated from each other hinders that relational integration. If the church is to be the body of Christ in which each member plays an important and valued role (1 Corinthians 12), the diverse members need to know and influence each other. (To read about the difference between an intergenerational church and a church with intergenerational programs, see Kara Jenkins’ article, “Intergenerational Ministry in the Church.”)
Blessing 3: Friendships with college students can help high school graduates transition.
These relationships can help students be connected and have a place to belong in the church after high school graduation. Teenagers who graduate from high school without relational connections to the next age group of the church are likely to perceive that the church no longer has a place for them. Before high school graduates get to that point, they need to know that the church has room for their gifts and has a desire to continue helping them learn and grow.
Blessing 4: College students need to serve.
Teaching or assisting in intergroup events can offer valuable ministry opportunities for older students to help younger ones. College students are young adults who need to be nurtured, and they need to learn to equip younger friends for faith and ministry. College students in the church are learning and growing, and they benefit from opportunities to share their knowledge and experience.
Fear 1: High school and college students are at different levels of maturity (knowledge, thinking, experiences).
This is a positive aspect of the whole church. As mentioned above, the church is the body of Christ. In that body, all parts are valuable. When we look at the church as a whole, we see members at various levels of maturity. That diversity does not need to be a curse; it can and should be a blessing. We learn from each other.
Also, age stages are fluid. Every group has members at different levels of spiritual, intellectual, and social development. Stereotyping a group of students as being at one maturity level is not helpful. Some high school students have maturity far beyond what we might expect in people of their age, and some people in their 80s are spiritual infants. When it comes to spiritual maturity, there are no accurate age group stereotypes.
Fear 2: High school students aren’t ready for the intellectual and spiritual challenges which college students experience.
With guidance, college students can help high school students with high school experiences. College students have been high school students, and sojourners can benefit from guides who have traveled longer in the right direction. Although we might not want to throw college-age new Christians into teaching roles in a high school Bible class, college students who have intentionally grown through study, service, and mentoring can share what they’ve learned.
Also, high school students need to be prepared for college experiences. When they become college students, they need to already have an idea of some of the challenges they’re about to face. We don’t need to hide those challenges from high school students. They need to be ready. Let’s not protect them from what’s next. Instead, let’s provide opportunities for them to discover what’s next and to do so in contexts of Christian friendship.
In the words of youth minister JD Morris, “both high school and college students need to be called to a much higher standard for spirituality, maturity, and responsibility than what our society is calling them. Kids today are growing up much slower because we are not just allowing, but expecting them to grow up much slower.”
Keeping people in classes and other activities catered to their levels can contribute to the “dumbing down” of the church. When we all walk together in Christ, supporting and strengthening each other on the way, God empowers us to grow beyond whatever ageist expectations our society might place on us.