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How Can Youth Ministry Be Theologically Driven? Will Standridge

Phoenix Seminary
October 18, 2022

Dr. Arnold interviews Will Standridge about youth ministry.

Topics of conversation include:

  • What is youth ministry?
  • What is the goal of youth ministry?
  • How can youth ministry best prepare students for college and adulthood?
  • Why all of Scripture is relevant and important to teach in youth ministry
  • Resources for faithful youth ministry

Will Standridge serves as the preteen and student pastor at Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. He received a BA from Boyce College and an MDiv from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Will has written numerous blogs and articles on student ministry.


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.


Brian Arnold (00:17):

What do you think of when you hear "youth ministry"? To be honest, I think of ridiculous—and quite frankly, dangerous—games like Chubby Bunny, where you stuff your mouth with as many marshmallows as possible and try to say "chubby bunny". And it's all fun and games until someone splits their lips wide open. Or I think of surface level messages that don't challenge students. But for some reason we want our kids to take AP Chemistry, but then expect they can't understand the book of Romans. But youth ministry can change lives. And it changed my life. When I was 17 years old, and just starting to take my faith seriously, I went to a church called Liberty Heights in Westchester, Ohio, and the youth ministry was called Elevate. And it was an awesome place. It had all the things—like Xboxes, and pool tables, and food—but that wasn't the centerpiece.


Brian Arnold (01:01):

The centerpiece was solid preaching. Eric Geiger was the youth pastor at the time, and I couldn't wait until Sunday night each week to get to church and to hear Eric preach. And I had never heard preaching like that. Every week he would open up the Bible and put Christ on display. And he discipled young men in the Word. He taught me how to memorize Scripture, taught me how to read the Bible, and because of his youth ministry—which was deeply theological and grounded in the Word—I grew as a Christian. And it's unlikely that I'd be in ministry today had it not been for Eric. Will Standridge is with us today, and he's the preteen and student pastor at Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. He received his BA from Boyce College, and MDiv from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to serving as a student pastor, Will has written numerous blogs and articles on student ministry. Will, welcome to the podcast.


Will Standridge (01:52):

It's good to be here.


Brian Arnold (01:53):

So we ask our guests one big question, today the question is this—how can youth ministry be theologically driven? Well, youth ministry—or student ministry—is a relatively recent development in church history. Before we get into how of youth ministry, let's frame the what of youth ministry. So what is youth ministry? Like, this thing is kind of a new phenomenon in church history. How did it come about? Why is it relevant?


Will Standridge (02:19):

Yeah, so youth ministry is—and we want to be really clear about this—a new thing on the surface of church history. When we think about what modern youth ministry is, we really don't see that until post-World War II. So, you know, in the grand landscape of Christian history, that's a blip. This is a fairly new phenomenon. And so when we think about youth ministry, it is what it sounds like—it's ministry to youth. Generally when we say that, we're talking about kind of fifth grade up to senior year of high school. Sometimes people include, say, college students in that, but I think youth ministry's taken on two particular forms since then. There is sort of the parachurch youth ministry world that exists, and has lots of helpful and awesome things that we've seen. You think about things like FCA, Young Life, First Priority—all of those movements that spun out of sort of the birth of youth ministry.


Will Standridge (03:13):

Then you have the more ecclesiological-centered, like church student ministry, which is the ministry of a church that usually has a dedicated director or pastor like me to oversee fifth to 12th grade—like I do—or sixth to 12th grade, or something like that. But in general, when we talk about student ministry, we're talking about the ministry that pertains to middle and high schoolers, which is also a fairly new phenomenon. Middle and high school is not a thing that's been around eternally. Adolescence is not an eternal thing. So it's a new thing, but I think a very needed thing, that we can see God work mightily in.


Brian Arnold (03:47):

Oh, we can. Like I said, in my life that's how God worked. You know, when I was pastoring, one of the things I did was start a youth ministry at a church that really didn't have one. I love getting that up-front seat and watching God move in people's lives. And there's just something so sweet about that age, especially at that 14 to 18, or even like 14 to 22-year-olds, that are really ready to say—is this my faith and not my parents' faith? Asking hard questions, really wondering—what am I going to base my life on? You know, as they're looking down the tunnel, if you will, of the rest of their life and thinking—who am I going to be? What am I going to believe? What am I going to live for? And youth ministers are on the front line of that, know, I told my church—here I am as the senior pastor, who's also doing youth ministry—and they said at one point—maybe we need to bring in a youth minister.


Brian Arnold (04:38):

I said—maybe you need to bring in a senior pastor, because I'm going with the youth. <laugh> Because every week I get to watch God change lives. And with, you know, the adults, if I can just say this, you know, they would shake my hand at the back of the church every Sunday and say, "nice sermon, Pastor." But you didn't get to see that new life, oftentimes, taking shape with some of them. So a lot of this even then comes down to philosophy of ministry. And I mentioned before, a lot of youth ministries focus on the games, is attractions, it is—let's do whatever we can to be as ridiculous as possible in order to make people come in the door, and then kind of give some surface level things. But what is youth ministry in your perspective, in terms of the goal? I mean, is it evangelism? So we do want to do these really flamboyant things, draw them in, give them a message about Jesus? Do we want to think about discipleship or catechesis? How do you approach youth ministry?


Will Standridge (05:34):

Yeah. So in my particular view, I think one way that most people, just by default assume youth ministry is supposed to work, is that it is somehow the evangelistic arm of the church to young people. And I'm not saying that everything about that view is necessarily wrong, but the way that we do our student ministry here at Paramount, is we actually operate as a student ministry that's primarily a backdoor ministry. It's an equipping ministry of our church. So it is very much sort of situated within the discipleship apparatus of what we do. And so that includes evangelism, right? Much like a Sunday morning service. We love when new believers or unconverted people come in and get to hear the gospel preached and respond to it. But much like a Sunday morning service, what we're doing is primarily about seeing students presented mature in Jesus.


Will Standridge (06:22):

And so that actually prevents us from doing a lot of the ridiculous stuff that you talk about, because our main goal is not to get as big a crowd as we can get. It's not to meet every felt need societally that a student might feel like they need. It's to equip them in the Word, and in community, and teach them how to serve. So that when they leave, like you said, their faith is their own. That they know what it means to be a faithful church member. That they know what it means to love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. That they know what it looks like to find service opportunities, and not be the one catered to. And I think even in just my experience in student ministry, students are so used to a service and a ministry that's just catered to meeting their needs, that they go to the real world and find out—wow, the other solid churches aren't necessarily as interested in that as my youth ministry was, so I'm just going to split. And we want to teach students very much that this is a way and an inroad into deeper life in the local church, not a separate stopping point, or just an entry point.


Brian Arnold (07:23):

Well, I think that's really important, and one of the reasons why youth are not retaining in the church today. So I'm assuming that there's going to be people listening who know of youth—maybe even their own kids, maybe their grandkids, maybe friends of theirs—who were in this, kind of what seemed like a vibrant youth ministry, went off to college, and left the faith. Or were part of this vibrant youth ministry, went off to college, didn't see any relevancy in the local church anymore, and just have abandoned the local church. So part of my other story is when I went to college, I was really involved in Campus Crusade for Christ. And I was leading a Bible study, I was in a Bible study, I was being discipled, I was discipling, I was evangelizing. I mean, it was about as vibrant of a ministry as you can imagine.


Brian Arnold (08:12):

And I was in a town where I wasn't finding many churches that I thought were really faithful in those things. So I said to my Campus Crusade director—we were playing basketball one Friday afternoon—I'd said, "You know, I think this is going to kind of be my local church. You know, I'm getting everything I need out of that." He pulls me off the basketball court and he said, "We are not a replacement for the local church. Jesus didn't die for a Campus Crusade ministry, he died for the church. And you're absolutely...I'm not going to hear that out of your mouth again" kind of thing. And that was a huge moment in my life to be reminded that—no, the local church is this beautiful thing. So how do we get these wonderful youth ministries that both prepare students to face the kind of challenges they're going to have in college? So I would love to hear your thoughts on that. And then also—how do we do it in a way that we just say, "You know what, you might not be in a place that has the kind of local church that you're used to, and that is an easy one for you to assimilate into, but you've got to get involved, you've got to stay." And so how would you approach those two things as a youth minister?


Will Standridge (09:13):

Yeah, so first off, I think one of the reasons that students get so sidetracked when they go to college so often, is because even good churches just have their priorities messed up with what student ministry should look like. I can't even recount the number of great, solid, Bible-preaching, Bible-believing churches I know of, that when it comes to their student ministry, they treat it just like the world treats student ministry. It's driven by a desire for numbers, a desire for sort of students' affirmation of its funness, and they cave to that for whatever reason. And I think a lot of times it's because even really theologically-sound people love their children and want them to be happy. And so they cave in the area of student ministry and its solidity. And what ends up happening is those students go to college, and they don't know how to be a Christian.


Will Standridge (10:04):

They don't know how to find a local church. They haven't been discipled. So I think when it comes, specifically to preparing students for college, that takes a couple different forms. One, I think it takes them being able to understand what good preaching is, but also them understanding that a great speaker and good preaching isn't necessarily the same thing. So I had a seminary professor who told me—the mature Christian is easily edified. So I'm actually working through with a student right now, who's recently graduated from our ministry.


Will Standridge (10:35):

She's struggling to find a church that sort of matches the quality of what she feels like she received growing up. And I had to remind her—like, what you're looking for is faithfulness. And so similar to you, I think the temptation is to go to the BSM, or Cru, or Navigators, or RUF, and just find good preaching and good fellowship. But encouraging students, and actually teaching them through our student ministries what the church is, why the church matters—and it's more than just good preaching and good fellowship. It's about understanding kind of the theology behind who Jesus died for, why Jesus uses the church, what the church's real purpose is. And so, you know, we want to be able to teach students, sort of...we want them to be ecclesialogically centered. We want them to understand the purpose of the local church. Which actually means in our student ministries not acting like we're the only game in town when we do our programming.


Will Standridge (11:34):

So my Wednesday night or my Sunday night is not the end-all, be-all of their discipleship. If they're coming to Wednesdays, but missing Sunday mornings where the church gathers together, participates in the ordinances, and does all of the things that the local church does, they're actually not being fully equipped. And so we actually have a constant reminder of—this is supposed to feed you into the life of the church, not be a replacement for the church. Even within the church. And so I think that's been even a learning curve for me and my ministry. But also, it's really essential that we teach students the purpose and the place of the local church in their life. And we do that over and over and over, until they're sick of hearing about it. But every parent, you know, every student—they're not going to be a basketball player in 60 years. They're not going to be a math star in 60 years. We do still hope they're a member of a local church. And we want to instill that in them.


Brian Arnold (12:29):

Yeah. And you don't want the youth group to be just this island off on its own. This island of fun, or something like that, right? know, 17-year-olds and 15-year-olds—they need 80-year-olds sitting next to them in church. I mean, there's a reason why the church is multi-generational. And we've, in some ways, put too much emphasis on youth ministry, and then not enough emphasis on youth ministry, right? And keeping it within its lanes of the whole body of Christ. Like, it is a unique period in life. It's a very important period to engage in life. But I know one of the things that helped me was when I was introduced by a pastor to this 80-year-old African American saint in our church—who was just one of the sweetest, godliest men I think I've ever met in my entire life—and just seeing the joy of Christ in his life. I mean, that was deeply impactful for me as a 20-year-old guy who was really spending a lot of time in Campus Crusade, right?


Brian Arnold (13:26):

To remember—okay, this is what I need. I need more than just 18 to 22-year-olds in my life. I need some people who have walked with Christ for decades, and can instill some of that to me and to others. Right? So let me ask you, just in terms of like content even—so if a pastor is listening, he's thinking, you know, maybe I do need to spend more time thinking about youth ministry in my church. Or it's just somebody who's got a teenager or a grandchild who's in youth ministry right now. What are some of these things that they're hoping to see, that they can be encouraging in a local church for a youth pastor to be giving the students?


Will Standridge (14:01):

Yeah, I mean, I think that so many youth pastors and youth directors and youth workers try so hard to reinvent a wheel that doesn't need reinventing. We have a Bible that's been given to us. We have 66 books of the Old and New Testament. And just the ability for us to open up and go through, verse by verse, paragraph by paragraph, thought by thought, what God has given us is one of the most essential things we can do with students. I know a lot of churches that place a huge value in expository preaching in other aspects of the church that seem to forget about it in student ministry. There is honestly no better place—if you have a youth group, and a youth pastor who's capable of getting students just invested in God's Word—more than them going book by book through the Bible. I mean, in our student ministry right now, we're actually this coming Wednesday finishing up a six month series on Mark. Before we did that, we did a three month series on Judges. Now Judges is a tough book, even for Sunday morning. A lot of the stories in there are fairly graphic and brutal and difficult.


Brian Arnold (15:10):

So that makes it perfect for youth ministry—"and then this tent peg went through the skull." Right?


Will Standridge (15:15):

Right. Well, and then you get into the end of the book, and you get into some pretty salacious content, too. And you know, one of the things that we learned really quickly is that students are hungry for the Bible. Students who have had their hearts made alive by Jesus generally want more Bible. And one of the things that has been so encouraging to me is to see our students just fall in love with the text. My favorite time after my Wednesday night sermon right now is we tell our students ahead of time what we're going to be preaching on. Every week I have students come to me—"I read ahead this week, and I saw that thing that you talked about." Or—"I actually caught that connection," or "I saw this too, what do you think about it?" Or—"I was reading in this other book and I thought it sounded similar. Is this the same idea?"


Will Standridge (15:59):

And I mean, what better place to get students excited about the text than youth ministry? I mean, the gates of hell tremble at a bunch of 16-year-olds who really love their Bible. And there's lots of topics you could talk about. I mean, youth ministries are going know, you see youth ministries all the time do, you know, a sex series, or a dating series, or a creation versus evolution series, or whatever it might be. And there's value in that kind of stuff. But I would just rather let those things come up in the text and get them the whole counsel of God for the 5, 6, 7 years I have them.


Brian Arnold (16:34):

There is probably...the attitude of a lot of churches is they think that kids will find it boring. They're not going to want to go if that's what you're doing. But that says a lot about how you view Scripture, right? Is if they think it's boring—and I mentioned this at the beginning, but it's one of my pet peeves—that these are the same parents who all want their kids to get into Stanford or Harvard or something, and they're taking AP calculus and AP chemistry, and they're studying five hours a night, and they're trying to do all these sports. They're doing everything they can to get a leg up at the university they go to, so they can have a leg up in life. And they just think—well, the Bible just isn't going to engage them. Or the Bible's too complicated for them to understand.


Brian Arnold (17:16):

So we need to do another round of four weeks on "Finding the Right Dating Partner," whatever it is that happens to be going on. And I'm going to say this as a guy with a PhD in this field. Like I think it was substantial and significant, but it's also not astrophysics. Right? The Bible is meant to be understood. God is wanting to be understood by his people. And we even see that example played out in the life of younger people in Scripture. I mean, Paul tells Timothy—"don't let people look down on you because of your age." Timothy had learned these things from childhood, we read in 2 Timothy chapter three. So the Bible was not meant to be something that only a few, small, handful of religious leaders understood, but it was meant to be, as Deuteronomy six says, something that dads are going to pass on to their kids while they're walking on the way, over the door posts in their house, around the dinner table at night. That God has a desire for a younger generation to know him, and he's given us his Word so that we might know him. And for you to do, as you mentioned from Acts 20, preaching the whole counsel of God, and as you teach and preach the Bible faithfully, you're going to hit those issues that—you know, I hate to say this—but are relevant, if you will, for the teenager, or how people will conceive of that. What are some of the pushback you receive for that?


Will Standridge (18:33):

So some of the pushback I've received is actually the relevancy question quite often. Which again, I think, is, like you said, betrays more about their view of Scripture than it does about what we're doing. But some of the pushback I got one time was when we were in the book of Mark. This time around we had to, as we were going verse by verse through the Bible, talk about Jesus' teaching on divorce. And some of the pushback I got when I sent out my newsletter ahead of time is—well, none of my students are divorced. And none of our students in the student ministry are even thinking about that. And one, it's just not true. We have broken families in the student ministry. We have students that will be divorced someday, some students who might think back to that message when their marriage is struggling, as marriages will, and remember what God's design for marriage was.


Will Standridge (19:19):

But one of the things that I've told them is—it's relevant because God says it's relevant. And if we're going to be a church that stands on the authority of God's Word, and is going to believe that it is what God says it is, then that means that every word of it is as essential for your 14-year-old as it is for you. And we've also gotten the pushback, too, of I'll give you like in our student ministry, our student service is, in a lot of ways, modeled after our Sunday morning service. We're not looking to drive a wedge between Wednesday nights and Sunday morning. So we sing the same type of songs, pray the same type of prayers, preach the same length of sermon. And we've actually seen students get more excited about Sunday morning because of that. My conviction is, actually—most students who find that boring, it's for two reasons.


Will Standridge (20:06):

One, it's because they don't yet know Jesus. Which is okay. Unbelievers are going to find the Bible boring sometimes, and we just have to be okay with that. But two, they find it boring because mom and dad tell them they're supposed to find it boring. And mom and dad have this conception in their head that student ministry is supposed to be this high-energy, hyped-up, fun thing, with maybe some Jesus sprinkled in. But they tell their student that. They set up that expectation for 6, 7, 8, 9 years. And then when student ministry is not that, well then their student is bored. But we found, even in just a couple years, the ability for our students to—last night, at our student ministry service, be like yell-singing songs like Crown Him With Many Crowns, and to be sitting there taking notes as we talked through a theology of worship, and sitting there for an hour after, talking about it—students will get excited about what the adults in their life model is important and essential. And so if that's the Bible and theology, then they're going to be jazzed about it. If it's fun and hype and the non-essential things, well then we shouldn't be surprised when they're bored with it. Because that's what they're told to do.


Brian Arnold (21:10):

And I saw the opposite when I was helping to lead our youth as a pastor. When students got excited about the Bible, unchurched parents started coming in, they're like—what are you doing to my kid that makes the Bible interesting to them? And then they're getting saved. And then they're, you know, given a hunger and an appetite to know God through his Word. It sounds like you have just an amazing, vibrant youth ministry happening. I imagine you're going to have some students in 15, 20, 30 years from now, saying that they've been in ministry faithfully for decades because of the impact you're making in their life. What are some resources you'd point people to that help you think through faithful youth ministry?


Will Standridge (21:49):

Yeah, so when I think about some of the books that have really helped me think through faithful youth ministry—Mike McGarry has a little book called A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry. I think within our more evangelical camp, there are still some questions about whether youth ministry is actually a biblical thing to do or not. And Mike McGarry's book A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry actually just lays out a very helpful view of how the Bible talks about next-generation ministry. So that's been one that's been very essential to me. There's another one that Mike McGarry also wrote called A Handbook for Youth Workers that just walks through a basic philosophy of student ministry. If you're looking for more of a sort of college textbook type, but really solid book on student ministry, I think that Tim McKnight has a new book called Navigating Student Ministry that just walks through even the granular stuff of what it looks like to create an intergenerational volunteer team, what it looks like to plan a mission trip with purpose, what it looks like to even plan your schedule, or your budget, which are all really essential things that we have to steward well if we're going to have good, theologically driven student ministries.


Will Standridge (22:56):

But finally, I think my recommendation, more than any of those, would be—read a good book on preaching. Tim Keller's book on preaching is a great start. You should hire guys to be your youth pastor who you would trust with your pulpit. And you should train them and expect of them the same things that you would expect of any other pastor, because chances are your church's next pastor is in youth ministry right now. And your next group of Sunday school teachers are in student ministry right now. And your next group of missionaries are in student ministry right now. And so you best put someone with the ability and the capability to teach the Bible well in front of them, because that's going to shape them for 15, 20, 30, 40 years to come. So those are some of the resources that I would definitely start with.


Brian Arnold (23:44):

Will, that is an excellent set of resources you've given, but also a challenge and a charge you've given to the church. Folks, we all have a stake in youth ministry, as Will said—these are those who are the next generation of faith. Not just Christians who are going to be going out to the world with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in their lives through lots of different vocations—they're also going to be our next pastors, and our next elders, and leaders in the church. And so we should have high expectation that the Lord can move mightily through his Word, through faithful ministry. Will, thank you so much for the conversation today.


Will Standridge (24:16):

Absolutely. It's been a pleasure to be here.


Outro (24:18):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at

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