Editor’s Note: This guest post is by Tim Totten. Tim is the Associate/Youth Pastor at Gibson City Bible Church in Gibson City, Illinois.
It was nine years ago when I first set foot in in that little church in Smolensk, Russia, a city about 250 miles west of Moscow. There could not have been more than fifty people in the building where we met, including our team of 15 or 20 Americans. Aside from the expected cultural and linguistic differences, I saw a group of followers of Christ “doing church” in ways unfamiliar to me. They did music differently. Sunday school had a different structure, and so did their worship service as a whole. As a 17 year old kid who grew up attending an Atlanta area megachurch, God was beginning to open up my eyes to something that would radically change the way I view life and ministry.
Over the years God has blessed me with many opportunities like this one – opportunities to see, experience, and serve in churches and student ministries both in the United States and abroad, in churches both large and small, in small towns and in big cities.
Through years of ministry in different contexts, there are a number of things that God has shown me in regards to student ministry. Here are three biggies:
- Students across the globe have one thing in common – their spiritual need.
After transitioning from the Bahamas to East Central Illinois a little over a year ago, it didn’t take long to realize that students in the Marsh Harbour have a different way of life than students in the Gibson City. They talk differently, they eat different foods, play different games, have different hobbies, and simply live different lives. However, just as quickly as I noticed the lifestyle differences between the two groups and cultures, I also noticed a glaring commonality – one that I’d seen before in Europe and in Latin America, too.
Regardless of their language or culture, regardless of the continent they live on or country they are in, regardless of the color of their skin, students are searching. Searching for love and compassion in the midst of brokenness. Searching for truth in the midst of deceit. Searching for peace in the midst of chaos. Searching for purpose in the midst of the unknown.
Students across the globe fail to measure up to God’s standards. They miss the mark. They are inadequate, just like the rest of us.
Ultimately, whether they realize it or not young people are on a search for Christ and the hope and redemption that comes through Him.
The problem: all too often they are searching in the all the wrong places.
- There are more ways than one to “do church”.
A full band, loud music, flashing lights, fun games, and a brief sermon characterized much of what I grew up knowing “church” or “youth group” to be. Are these things bad? Not by any means. Are they the norm? I don’t think so.
As a result of the church culture in which I grew up I became accustomed to a way of doing church and student ministry that for a while I thought was either the right way or the best way. The more time I’ve spent in different cultures and churches, the more I have found that the way church is done looks different in many places. Lights and loud music aren’t necessary. Games don’t have to be played every week. Food doesn’t always have to be provided. Youth groups are structured differently in different places. It’s a good thing.
The challenge for me and you – figure out what works best when it comes to reaching students in your cultural context and run with it.
- Ministry is ministry regardless of race, language, or culture.
The reality is that more ministry happens (or should happen) outside of youth group than happens in it. Ministry happens when relationships are built. For me to be effective in ministering to students, I must know them. I must know their likes and dislikes, their passions and desires, what drives them and makes them tick. This is true regardless of race, language, culture, social status, academic history, hobbies, etc. I am not sure who said it, but you have likely heard it, “Students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” This was true in Russia. It was true in Costa Rica. It was true in the Bahamas. And it is certainly true here in the Midwest.
What are some things you have learned through ministering to students in different cultures?