The evangelical world has been rocked over the past few weeks with news of Joshua Harris and Hillsong writer Marty Sampson’s decision to renounce their Christian faith. Call it what you will whether that be apostasy, Jesus purifying the Church, or false teachers and prophets among us. For those who have been impacted by the Joshua Harris “I-Kissed-Dating-Goodbye” spectrum or have been moved to tears by the worship of Hillsong there are strong opinions on the matter ranging from seething rage, bitter sadness, or even utter confusion. These responses have even prompted Skillet front man to pen one of the most humbling and necessary responses to these events calling for believers to root their faith in truth of The Word and not, “20 year old worship singers.”
The response of those who have been impacted by the works of Harris and Sampson has been well documented throughout the social media landscape over the past few weeks. There could be a thousand blog posts and how-to lists regarding this series of unfortunate events. And every student pastor certainly ought to take the time to evaluate if they are leading students in the truth of The Word or building disciples after themselves, their facilities, their programs, etc. But as student ministers let’s evaluate our response on the other side as spiritual leaders for our students by examining our response to one question: How should we respond when our students leave the faith?
The statistics have been abundantly clear that after the age of 18 students are leaving the church. Some might be taking a break through college to return once again, some leave the church yet still profess a certain cultural Christianity affiliation, and even then some leave the church and the Christian faith altogether. Every one of us in student ministry probably has a story of a faithful student who was there every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, actively serving their student ministry and church, volunteering for mission trips and service days only to get out of high school and turn to a different way of life that is not devoted to Christ.
I’ve basically served in student ministry for the past six years in part-time, volunteer, and full-time capacities. I’ve worked with a lot of students. I’ve also been a part of the camp world working with Fuge and Crossings Camps. I’ve worked with a lot of students. I’ve spoken for DNows, lock-ins, and youth revival services. I’ve worked with a lot of students. By far the most depressing part of my ministry is when I see students who were devoted to Christ fall away from the faith. I’ve had students who profess alternative lifestyles. I’ve had students bear children out of wedlock. I’ve scrolled through Facebook at night and seen students involved in drugs and alcohol. In some ways I’ve experienced as a student minister the pain that goes with seeing students I’ve poured into and invested in backslide or turn away from God. It’s a miserable feeling. (I’d also like to note the euphoria that is coupled with seeing students so lost who are vibrantly serving the Lord. There are two ends of this spectrum).
I feel like Samuel provides a textbook observation of how we can respond to the heartache of seeing our students fall away or backslide from the faith. One of Samuel’s most notable tasks while serving Israel as a prophet was ushering in the monarchy. Samuel was used as God’s mouthpiece and the mediator between God and man in the events that ended the period of judges and brought forth the kings and kingdom of Israel.
Israel wanted a king so that they could be like the rest of the world around them (1 Sam. 8:5). God, on the other hand, never designed His people to be in need of a physical king when they served the King of Kings. God originally planned for His people to be free but when the people desired to be like everybody else God finally granted their request. God used Samuel His prophet to establish the first king in Israel’s monarchy, Saul. Anyone with basic knowledge of the Old Testament knows this did not end well. But Samuel’s relationship to Saul provides a textbook example of how we ought to minister and respond to students who have renounced their faith.
1. Continue to Minister
The relationship between student pastor and student is a powerful one. For many students we might serve as the only voice truly speaking Gospel truth to them throughout their life. We stand as pastor, shepherd, spiritual mentor, friend, confidant, father figure, mother figure, etc. This is what makes it that much more painful when students fall away. But even in the midst of Saul’s rebellion and foolish decisions Samuel remained to teach and provide a steady presence. In 1 Samuel 13:8-15 we see Saul violate the commands of God and offer an unlawful sacrifice after a great victory over the Philistines. Samuel arrived on the scene to speak some hard truths to Saul. Even later in 1 Samuel 15 Samuel arrives and finishes the job of slaying all of the Amalekites when God commanded Saul to devote them to destruction (1 Sam. 15:3). Even in the midst of Saul’s blatant disregard and insurrection there was still a steady, God-fearing response to all of his insubordination in Samuel. Samuel speaks hard truths to Saul when Saul desperately needed guidance. Samuel practiced the ministry of presence by remaining a fixture in Saul’s life even when Saul deliberately disobeyed God.
Our students who fall away from the faith desperately need a Godly presence and a Godly word. As stated above, the relationship of a student pastor is strong in the lives of students and we have the potential to remain a Godly fixture even when students have pushed the rest of the Church away.
2. It’s Okay to Mourn
After the events of Samuel slaying king Agag at the end of 1 Samuel 15 we next see a conversation between God and Samuel where God asks Samuel, “how long will you grieve over Saul?” Here’s something interesting to note: God does not command Samuel not to grieve but does ask how long Samuel will allow himself to grieve. It’s amazing to think that we serve a mighty, infinite God who still remains so personal to every one of us that He sees and validates emotions. God is not angry that Samuel is grieving He is simply questioning if grief is going to rule Samuel’s life and ministry.
It’s okay to mourn when the senior in high school we disciple goes off to college and declares their an atheist. It’s okay to grieve when the student we baptized decides that Christianity is not important to them anymore. It’s okay to grieve but we cannot allow grief to supersede the ministry and students God has called us to.
3. Minister to the Flock Entrusted
Shortly after Samuel was called to snap back to reality God commanded him to go and prepare the next king. In a sense we are called to do the same. Hear me out. By no means am I saying forget about this one and worry about the next student that comes your way. I feel like that completely defeats the purpose of leaving the 99 in search of the 1. But the reality is that we have been entrusted with many students around us that we are called to disciple. What I am trying to say here is that we cannot allow the devastation of one student renouncing their faith to prevent us from reaching those in the flock God has entrusted to us. There is still potential in this generation. There are still students that need the love of God. There are still future ministers, missionaries, leaders in the midst of the students God has currently entrusted us to that need to be molded and discipled. One individual defeat cannot spell defeat for the Kingdom.
Seeing a student renounce the Kingdom of God and instead live for the world is heartbreaking and troubling. There is still potential for restoration and rehabilitation and that starts with us as well. The Bible is full of stories of lost and hopelessness that is turned around by the power of God. Continue to pray for these students. Continue to love these students. And continue to pursue making disciples in this generation with a passion.
Hunter Smith serves as Minister of Students, FBC Water Valley Miss. He has an MDiv from NOBTS and lives in Water Valley with his wife Sarah.