Thought Factory Podcast #305 || The Risk of Ignoring Students

Are students leaving the church?  In this episode, hosts Jeff Eckart and Jayson Brewer discuss what can happen to a church if the students are ignored.  Ignored in the budget, ignored in their involvement, ignored in allowing their voice to be heard.   Special guest interview with Darren Campbell, a part-time pastor, full-time business owner discusses his approach to his church, Exit 59 Church, by allowing complete amateurs run it.  He also shares the analogy of the Church needs to be more like a kitchen and less like a restaurant. How are we investing in the next generation of church-goers?


Darren, we’re glad you’re here.  Give us a little bit of your background in your relationship with students and ministry.

“I went to Indiana Wesleyan University and studied business and marketing and then God ended up calling me into the ministry.  I ended up following that call and actually ended up becoming a youth pastor for about 7 years and loved youth ministry and then got into church planting.  I  became a bi-vocational pastor where I teach laypeople how to church plant and actually have another full-time job. We do a bi-vocational church planting model.  Our church is called Exit 59.  I’ve actually planted a church between a couple Christian universities – Indiana Wesleyan University and Taylor University – and the idea was to plant a church where laypeople would do the work and laypeople would learn how to plug in their gifts and manage career, family, and we trained up laypeople to go out and church plant.”

(Jeff) One of the things that you talk about a lot is just how you feel that the baton needs to be handed off to young leaders within the church.  Talk about that a little bit –  about your feelings on that and what your you guys are doing.

“When I was a youth pastor, sometimes kids would invite us to come to their school for lunch.  I don’t know how many youth pastors still do this, but back in the 90’s when I was in youth ministry, into 2000, that decade, it was kind of popular to go and have lunch.  Middle school, high school lunch, I’ve never had spaghetti and milk together except at a middle school.  It’s awful lunch, but you’d sit down and some of your leaders would invite you.  Then you might meet some of their friends. Man, oh man, it’s awkward because people are like, ‘what is that adult doing?’  Sometimes these little chairs and this weird meal, you feel like a fish out of water.  I think the intention is, ‘hey we want to connect and meet people.’  There was one school in our neighborhood and they wouldn’t allow me to come.  Evidently, at one time a youth pastor had come in and stood up on a table and started preaching and really disrupted the lunchroom.  They said, ‘okay, we’re not gonna do that anymore.’  So, I couldn’t go to that lunch. 

So the epiphany I had was, youth group for me was, ‘hey, we had some worship, maybe we played a game, we had a teaching time, we had a prayer time, maybe we showed a funny video or there was a sketch or a skit or something.  We would program out different things.  But usually, it was like myself and other adult or college leaders doing all that. And really when youth ministry really took off for me, it was when I started giving the service away to the students.  What I reasoned was, these students are actually in their school every single day and this school administration can’t keep them out.  So, if I could actually teach them more of what I did, I don’t even need to go have school lunch with them, they actually are the hands and feet of Jesus and they’re going to connect with their friends. 

So, we bought a video camera and we bought a Mac and had basically free video editing software and some really creative kids would go around and they would shoot these really funny videos.   Well, they would shoot videos of their friends but then I found that they would invite their friends to come to youth group to see the video.  We had all these new kids coming because they were inviting them to see what they had put on.  I was like, ‘wait a minute, how far can we take this?’  So, we gave students leadership in worship, we gave students leadership in making the videos, and eventually, and I wish I had done this more, but I eventually even let students teach.  Of course, when a student was going to teach, literally 50 of their friends would show up for youth group because they’d want to come and support their friend and hear what they had to say.  When they taught, it was so much more powerful than when I taught because there was an expectation that I was going to share the gospel.  But, when one of their peers was sharing it, it was really powerful. 

So, what we started, we said, ‘okay, well, let’s do a leadership team and let me disciple and develop a team of leaders and then let me give the youth ministry away to them.’  So the actual service, they put that on and I became a behind the scenes coordinator.  And, our youth group just blew up because these kids were inviting their friends to come see them basically do the church.  That happened in youth ministry and that was like a secret that I think the Lord helped me stumble upon. Really the paradigm shift guys was that, why can’t young people do the actual work?  I mean, the shift for me was, I have to do this for them, or to them almost like I have to entertain them, I have to disciple them, and I have to evangelize them.  It shifted to, let me invite them into the work and why don’t they do the work with me?  Then actually, why don’t I get out of the way and just let them do the work?  What would that look like?  The fear is, it’s not going to be very good, right?  Maybe they’re going to say the wrong thing or they’re going to have stage fright, but the reality was just the opposite.  They really leaned into it and it gave me a chance to connect with them one-on-one and help to mentor them.  I wouldn’t say that we hit it out of the park every week, but these were amateurs learning how to do this work and that was on the one end.  The other end, they had so much credibility with their friends and peers, I think it far outweighed their inexperience.”

(Jeff) Amateur is the word I know you use a lot in a positive way.  Talk about the culture that you’ve seen in a lot of churches and what you have done to tackle that head-on with the larger body.  We’re talking about adults, your a senior pastor, talk about that.

“I don’t know if it was Barna or someone had a statistic that said that 50% of all Christian college graduates were not attending a local church upon graduation and that was shocking to me.  I was just like, how could that be?   You’ve spent all of this money and you had four years or maybe five of intense focus at an evangelical college or university and then you’re not even going to church.  There’s probably a number of reasons, but I think one of them was that when they returned to their existing church, the adults in the congregation didn’t see them as peers or didn’t see them as adults. They still see them as kids.

An analogy I use is, it’s like driver’s ed.   When you take driver’s ed, the goal is to drive a car.  You want to actually drive a car.  That’s why you take driver’s ed.  No one takes driver’s ed just for the intellectual exercise or for the fun of it.  I mean, they intend to get the driver’s license and they actually intend to drive a car.  I remember the first day I got my license, I almost hit a car.  I pulled out on a stop sign too early and there was a car coming and they had to slam on the brakes.  I was like, ‘oh my gosh I was almost in an accident day one.’  I’m sure many people, they do have an accident day one.  But the reality is, you’re never gonna be a good driver unless you get behind the wheel and actually drive the car.  You’re gonna start fairly mediocre and then you’re going to improve over time. 

I think the problem with churches today, in part, when it comes to young people when they return, they’ve been told in college and universities that they’re going to drive the car.  And when they get back to the church, the pastors, the elders, even their parents, they’re trying to put them back in the backseat.  Sometimes they’re trying to put them back in the car seat.  They’re glad that they’re there.  They’re glad that they’re at church.  They’re glad that they’re back but they’re not giving them any meaningful tasks or ministry experience.  They’re not making the ‘A-team’ if you will.  I think they get bored and they get disenfranchised. 

So when we started our church plant, we said, ‘man, what if we let amateurs do everything?  What if we let college students preach?  What if we let them lead worship?  What if we let them serve on the board of elders?  What if we let them in children’s ministry, youth ministry?  What if they did the outreach?  What if we created almost like an experimental church if you will where amateurs could come in and they would actually do the work of the church?’  And our thinking was if you don’t fall in love with the local church while you’re in those formative years of, let’s say high school through college, why do we think that you’re going to all of a sudden get excited about it later on in life?  So the way to fall in love with the local church is the way the rest of us have, is we plug our gifts in and we use them.  There’s got to be an element of grace and tolerance for a level of amateurs. 

I think as we have raced towards these really amazing worship services, with really timed out schedules, with really professional bands and really amazing speakers, and we really chased this awesome production, we’ve left a lot of amateurs on the sidelines.  I just think about, if Jesus really wanted it done really, really professionally, he would have just done it himself.  He started out using a bunch of knucklehead amateurs.  It was his pleasure to invite his children into his work.  I don’t think he’s afraid of amateurs.  I think, in fact, he wants more of them.  I think the church, we’ve raced towards a really professional, polished service or worship experience. 

At our church, we’re just the opposite.  We want to bring amateurs up.  We want to help them discover their gifting and then we want to throw them behind the wheel of the car and we want to let them drive.  Sometimes they drive in the ditch but our congregation has tolerance for that and we love them and we gently curate this opportunity for them to figure out their gifting and figure out their place in the church.  And then guys, they fall in love.  They fall in love with the local church.  Once you’re in love, you’ll never leave.” 

(Jeff) One of the analogies that I really love that you use is talking about the restaurant, talk about that.

I think the church if I went into a typical church, it feels like a really great restaurant.  I think that’s maybe the ambition of the church.  They want to come in and feed people the Word.  They want to feed people the gospel.  They want to do discipleship really well.  They want to do evangelism.  They want to mentor young people children’s ministry, everything.  So many churches they go to, they’re great.  I mean, they’re just on point and it’s just a really great restaurant.  Then other people say, ‘hey, you should come to this restaurant, eat.’  It’s created this consumer relationship between the church and the congregation.  I just don’t like it.  I don’t like it.

I don’t think the church is a restaurant.  I think the world is the restaurant.  I think the church is the kitchen.  I think we’re not teaching people how to cook, we’re just feeding them.  Then they’re going out in the world and they don’t know what to do.  So the whole goal has been to bring people back into this building so that we can tell them things in this building.  I think if our goal is to get people back into the building, we’re spending so much resource A) on the building and B) on bringing people to the building when C) people are just living life amongst their neighbors at work, on the athletic field, in their neighborhood.

If we put the emphasis on the church as being a kitchen, where we teach people how to cook and if the restaurant was actually the world, the cooking happens Monday through Friday, not on Sunday or Wednesday night.  The most of the feeding should happen out in the workplace, out in the world, out in the high school, in the middle school.  That’s where the ministry happens, not in the walls of the building.  It’s not like there’s a sacred and secular thing, it’s all sacred man. The church should be a place where we’re teaching people and of course don’t get me wrong, I want to evangelize within the walls of the church, but I want 95% of the work to be happening outside of that service time on Sunday morning.  I want it to be happening the rest of the week.

CS Lewis had a quote, he said, ‘every encounter I have with a person, I have the opportunity to bring them closer or farther away from Jesus Christ.’  If you think about it, we’re all pastors, we’re all missionaries, we’re all on a mission.  Most of the prep and most of the ministry happens outside of the walls of the church.  And frankly, it happens with laypeople.  How many people come to faith from a coach or from a Sunday-school teacher or from a co-worker or from a parent or from a camp counselor?  And then how many come from a professional pastor or missionary?  When I asked that question in a large room, 90-95% of the people have come to faith through laypeople, through amateurs, and it’s happened outside of the church.

I don’t think God’s unhappy with that, I think actually that he’s really pleased with that.  It seems like the last 20-25 years we have thrown most of the resources at programming the daylights out of a building and trying to draw people in from our communities into that building.  What if we just flipped that and what if we just trained laypeople to be out in their place of work or their school or whatever and we gave them the tools to actually share their faith outside of the building? 

(Jayson) I think that’s a striking perspective because you are relying on the “chef” when you go to church to provide exactly what you need and instead of becoming the chef or becoming the cook for other people to feed, to bring the good news outside of that “restaurant.”  But many times when we have the perspective of the church being a restaurant, where we’re looking at going, “well, I don’t know how to cook, I don’t know how to make this meal for somebody else.  In my interaction with my neighbor, I don’t know how to bring them to a conversation that even relates to faith so I need to invite them to this place so that the pastor, the professional, can do it.”  They’ll come to that restaurant and then they’ll listen to the pastor and go, “that was great but I don’t have any relationship with that pastor” so it’s not going to change their life.  The interaction that we have with our neighbors, our friends, our family on a day-to-day basis, that’s what’s going to change other people’s lives.  Not necessarily listening to a good sermon.

“So let’s just play this out because you’re absolutely right, I think most people, even pastors are afraid that their people aren’t properly prepared for the kind of questions they’re going to be asked. First of all, the Great Commission says, ‘go make disciples’ right?  So let’s talk about discipleship.

So, I’m a layperson and I go to Jeff’s church and Jeff calls me and says, ‘hey, listen, don’t be afraid to tell your story’ and I show up at work and I tell my story to a co-worker over lunch.  I’m talking just about how I came to faith and what I believe.  Then my coworker asked me a question and I don’t know the answer.   Do you know what I say?  I say, ‘that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer,’  But then I go back to the person that’s discipling me, my spiritual father, my spiritual mother, my mentor.  I say, ‘hey, Tuesday at work, my friend asked me this question and I don’t know the answer.’  Let’s say, Jeff says, ‘you know what?  That’s a really great question, I don’t know the answer.’  Then Jeff goes to his wife, Arianna, and Ariana says, ‘Jeff, let me tell you the answer’ because of course, Arianna knows more than Jeff.  So Arianna gives Jeff the answer.  Jeff gives me the answer.  I go back to work and I give my co-worker the answer.  Guess what?  Three people got discipled in that process. 

We’re not looking for efficiency here.  We’re not looking for the fastest way to do it.  We’re not looking for one chef and we build a really big restaurant to bring them all in. That person puts a big target on their back.  The enemy says, ‘if I take that person out, the whole thing crumbles.’  We want inefficiency.  God said, ‘let there be light’ and there was light.  That was efficient.  Jesus curses the fig tree and it withers.  That’s efficient.  If Jesus wanted efficiency, he would say, ‘let the world be restored’ and we would.  He’s actually taking the slowest route by using his church to actually fulfill the Great Commission.  If you think about it, he’s taking the slowest possible way by using us.  It’s almost like he intentionally wants amateurs in the work. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still want ordained professionals leading this thing.  But what I want to do, I want to engage people outside of the church where they’re not really thinking about it, where we can have real conversations about faith, create space for people to ask questions, and I want laypeople to not be afraid of the questions.  I want to have a network where they can connect back to people that are discipling them.  Then they can actually get real questions answered and then that will flow back and forth into the population.  It’s flipping the switch in a layperson’s mind to say, ‘I am capable.  I’m allowed to actually do this work.’ 

What I find with young people even middle school and high school, but college age, and then adults, a lot of times they have an expectation that this is the pastor’s work.  This is his or her work to do. My goal is to just bring people to the feet of the pastor.  When we actually give them permission to do the work, they get really jazzed about it and they get really excited.  When they actually have a breakthrough and then the Holy Spirit actually works through them, they’re actually able to share and people respond.  They get lit up.  Church, the value of it goes up in in their life.” 

(Jeff) That’s the way I perceived to lead was from more of a behind-the-scenes role.  When you saw the energy like you’re talking about in the passion of these students and adults as well, begin to really flourish and light up because they were able to get involved.  There’s something really unique that happens.  I can tell you in my travels when I go and I visit youth ministries, I can tell you if they’re more “professionally” led or led by amateurs.  When they’re led by amateurs, there’s so much more life and vibrancy and passion and excitement.  When I see them led by the professionals, it’s much more of a laid-back atmosphere, people aren’t nearly as engaged because it’s being done for them.  When we’re talking about students in the church, that’s so critical for us to understand.  That when we’re working with students, we got to begin that process now of getting them involved and understanding that. 

So practically, if I was a youth pastor today I would say, let’s say our service is on Sunday night. I would take a group of leaders that I’d identified and on Wednesday I would sit down and I would give them roles for the Sunday night service.  Obviously, you want to select gifting, you want to recognize gifting in people.  But I would let a person teach and then I would personally disciple that person and work with them on their sermon during the week.  Then I would let them teach.  I would let students lead worship.  If it wasn’t me, I would have a worship leader work with them during the week so there’s the discipleship happening.  Then the prime time service where they invite all their friends to come watch them, I would stand back and watch it happen.  The next week, I would then tweak it.  I would give them good feedback because you don’t just want to throw them into the deep end of the pool and say ‘swim.’  I mean, you want to actually disciple them in this and help them walk in their gifting.  You want to be in the passenger seat while they’re driving the car.  But if we do that, if we’re willing to give the wheel away, if we throw the keys to this next generation in our local churches, they will be mediocre at first but they will rise up and they will grow and they will learn and they’ll be the next generation of church leaders.  If we don’t, what’s going to happen to the church?  I’m afraid of what’s going to happen.  We have overworked pastors that are burning out and we have not properly prepared the next generation.  We need to get on it.”

Has something changed with local churches since the Great Recession?  How have churches’ budgets shifted since then?

The trend has been to shift their budgets and give fewer resources to the youth ministries.  There is less hiring of youth ministry staff at churches, a lot fewer resources in their annual budgets that have affected things other than their meetings, but trips and scholarships.  That can have a ripple effect on the church.

Dave Ramsey once said he was at his local church annual meeting and they talked about their emphasis on children and youth and he piped up in that meeting, in public.  He said, “well that’s not the case.  I’m looking at your budget numbers and you’re not investing much in your students and in your children.”

If we go to the budget numbers, what are we spending per student?  What is spent on adults?  Compare those two numbers and see what the difference is.

Churches that don’t invest in students are going to die.  When churches don’t invest in children and youth, they are losing congregates and families.

Where you find a healthy church, you’ll find a church that puts a good amount of resources in the next generation in children and in students.  When you don’t see that, that church eventually dries up.

Is this a concern for you if you lead at a church?

What can you do to help your church understand the importance of investing in the students?

We’re talking about budget and we really do think that’s where the rubber meets the road.  If churches are investing in students, it shows that they care.

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