Fifteen realities of life in a church without students

If our church took the approach of simply transporting a student-church model for training and equipping, we wouldn’t begin to resource our people.


So many of us became Christians in a student setting, or were significantly discipled there, that it left its fingerprints all over us.  That’s where we learnt to read the bible for ourselves, lead a bible study for others, and making a convincing case for Christ to an unbelieving friend.  That all this happened at a critically useful time for learning, means that it has left us a wonderful legacy of learnt ministry skills.

But there’s a problem, which is that most of us who work in churches do not work in a student setting.  Where I am in north London, for instance, there are no students within striking distance, and those that are slightly further away have excellent churches closer to them.  If we took the approach of simply transporting a student-church model for training and equipping, we wouldn’t begin to resource our people. And if I am not careful, I don’t realise how deeply ingrained in me that model is.  So we have to re-think our approach to training, quite self consciously, and the task of apprentices.  What follows work in progress, and thinking aloud, but…

Here are fifteen realities of training people in a non-student church:

1. Student churches receive our best people.  This is the first and in many ways the hardest lesson.  One leader of a student church was asked by another pastor if he could spare any apprentices, and received the mild rebuke ‘Grow your own!’  But of course, that’s the point – we do, and then we give them away at 18.  It might happen that we get their equivalent back in their mid twenties, but as we’ll, see, they are then at a different phase of life, and we have to tackle the task differently.

2. Recruitment works year round, without an annual entry point.  That’s not universally true, of course, because new graduates tend to move to new jobs in the summer, but after that point, they move with great frequency.  We reckon we have people in their twenties for around two years, and they join us and leave us at any point in the cycle. So the Welcome mat is out all the time, and the programme has to be open to new people all year round. It’s there becoming clear that we’ll have to train them much more rapidly in order to be able to use them too.  Rathe than giving a fully-rounded and in-depth training, we have to give what medics call ‘the minimally effective dose’, and then top them up on the way  Then there is much greater fluidity in the membership of our small group structures for young adults. Critically, for the ‘apprentice’ model, they are beyond the option for gap years, and aware of the need to pay off their debts.

3. People stay around.  Conversely, many people stay around for a long time.  They like the area, they want their kids to go to the schools – we are discipling people for the long-haul, over thirty or forty years.  We have to move beyond a three-year curriculum if we are to help them keep growing for life.

4. Therefore they get older, and the demands of discipleship change over that time: ‘Honour your father and mother’ looks very different in your twenties to when you are in your fifties, and we have to equip people to re-learn how to be caring children.  That is a predictable process, and one we need to address.

5. As they get older their life-stage changes, and each one brings new discipleship demands.  Single, going, out, engaged and married – but parenting, childlessness, bereavement and serious illness are also predictable issues which have to be central.

6. Their week changes, because  they no longer have the relative freedom of a student timetable.  The realities of 9-5 (and beyond), commutes, and permanently ‘on’ email are new realities it takes them time to adjust to.  Not everyone enjoys the cool reality of working for themselves out of a coffee shop!  Over the years, of course, that settles down – but it makes different demands on me as a pastor.  They re simply not free for a 1:1 bible study, midweek, mid-morning.  So I have to recalibrate my expectations of my ministry too.

7. Increasingly, what they do with their week has to be understood biblically.  What does it mean to be a Christian shop-assistant, or lawyer, or bartender?  Is their work simply to feed their faces? And what about the tasks they have to engage in? I remember having to help a mature Christian man, who was trying to make sense of one week where he had to make half his staff redundant, in painful face-to-face meetings.  That, too, is a discipling moment.

8. The time available changes shape as well.  I never know what different people mean by being ‘busy’, and anyway they all have different capacities, but the free time available certainly comes in smaller chunks, and therefore feels more valuable to them.  Early morning Quiet Times, which are an excellent discipline to drill into people, feel very different when you are a parent of young twins.

9. The influences they are open to open up, and have long-term impact.  We have yet to realise the effect of the long term absorption of the values of a secular media on our people.  Years of the normalisation of sex outside a heterosexual marriage within the mainstream media has subtly prepared Christians to cave in to our culture.  We need deep, thoughtful, continual and plausible responses to these trends.  Leave aside the shock impact of ‘Fifty Shades’ – what has East Enders done to our people’s values?

10. Over the years they become very familiar with how we present the gospel.  They do know the basics, and here lies a fatal trap.  Because if they become wearily familiar with how we present the gospel, they will think they are becoming wearily familiar with the gospel itself, which is highly dangerous.  because they will wander off to find a novel version. So my task as a preacher is to remind people, freshly.  I need to find new ways to present old truths. I can’t keep using the bible passing from one hand to the other as an illustration of the cross.

11. We also have to cater for a much wider range of people.  Our church on Sunday always includes both adults with learning difficulties, and postdoctoral researchers.  Explaining and applying the bible in that context, with helps for everyone available, is a constant battle.  Not everyone reads at an undergraduate level, and our bookshop has to reflect that.  In fact, of course, not everyone reads.  One of my fears is that evangelical churches tend to pitch our communication at the intellectual top 10%, and the rest of the population simply doesn’t get what we’re on about.  (Footnote: huge credit to Mez McConnell, Andy Prime and the folks planting on the housing schemes in Scotland – they are really working to change the game on this.)

12. As people mature in their careers, so they gain seniority, and their questions have a sharper edge.  For instance, imagine that over coffee after church you are asked about the issue of genocide, and the conquest of the land in the book of Joshua. Do you have your stock answer ready?  Ok, now imagine that the person asking you is senior within the civil service, dealing with issues related to war crimes; does that change how you respond?

13. And as they mature so they know more, which means they will answer back.  They want to debate, reason, discuss, drill down,  They are not so impressionable, and while they may listen to you with respect, you can expect them to go online and find some alternative views to make up their own mind.

14. And so the cracks in their discipleship show, over time.  2 Timothy 2:2, which is my watchword verse, shows this well: ‘The things you have heard me say, in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable people who will be able to teach others.’  In that verse, three key elements are synchronised:  Knowledge (’the things you have heard me say’), Character (‘reliable people’) and Skills (‘able to teach others’).  When the people we are looking after are younger Christians, the last two are largely unknown, and it’s the first element, ‘Knowledge’, that we address.  But twenty years down the track, it is mature Christian Character which keeps a difficult marriage together.

15. That long exposure which means they will also get to know me.  They begin to be aware of the gaps in my Knowledge, Character and Skills.  They get to know my irritating habits, consistent problems, and battles with sin.  I met a friend recently who had pastored the same three village churches for twenty-two years.  He said that people probably thought he had a dead-end ministry, which had gone nowhere.  On the contrary, I said, he showed remarkable grit and resilience.  Good on him.  And not a student to be seen.

Does that mean we don’t have Apprentices?  Certainly not – we are recruiting hard (we call them Interns), and they will get hands-on ministry experience, work with our team, and get training as well.  But they’ll have to be willing to discover a different pattern for what long-term ministry looks like.

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7 comments on “Fifteen realities of life in a church without students”

  1. Thanks Chris – I’m glad that you’ve raised these points. One thing I want to disagree with (quite strongly) is your first point that student churches receive our best people. They don’t – they receive people with particular skills and gifts -but “our best” -is a particular outlook on what constitutes best. It’s fair to say that Universities have received quite a lot of our people over the years since University became the majority option for 18 plus. So we have a bit of a joke here because our Anglican bishop has set up a “resource church” – but actually that church is resourced by lots of other churches! Some of those patterns are changing – we have seen a number of young people stay locally whilst studying over the past few years. I think as wekk we want to give people who do move away to University a vision for why they might consider coming back at the end of their studies.

    Re “grow your own apprentices” -sadly I’ve heard of other incidents of rudeness -including churches effectively deciding to take someone as an apprentice without any genuine engagement with the church that had “grown” them and maybe knew a little more about their gifts, weaknesses etc.

    Also – I think your comments about relying on one model are pertinent to church planting. /It’s great to see so much church planting but we may need different methods and models outside of student and graduate areas.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree!
    We have the added issue that we struggle to even recruit an intern/ministry apprentice because they would most likely be the only person in their age range, in a small, working class village in the north.

  3. Thanks for this Chris – I wonder if there are a myriad of experiences on point 3. I pastor a church in a stepping stone area. People may move here to start married life together or to get on the property ladder, but they will be looking to move in 5-10 years precisely because they don’t like the schools are the area that much! This provides its own challenges to discipleship – just when things seem to be stabilising, change comes again and the congregation is churned up, without a steady stream coming in! Certainly keeps us on our evangelistic toes!

    1. Do they move far? I think some careful thinking is needed around the question of local church. Our own tradition has tended to see local as being “on the doorstep” 10 mins walk. even though some older church has members have moved to about a ten minute drive away. The result was that at times as soon as someone moved, people talked as though this meant they would need to move church. However, if you have people moving sometimes quite a bit around the Birmingham area the a. The drive/bus ride to church may be no longer than the daily commute to work and their church gathering may be the one point of constant stability

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