I first began seriously considering vocational ministry when I was a junior in high school. I began to sense a calling to student ministries, in part because of the positive influence of both my middle and high school pastors. “I want to do for others what Brandon and Dan did for me,” I thought.
By the beginning of my senior year, I was convinced of the path that lay ahead: college at a Christian institution to study the Bible, seminary training, and then the pastorate. Only one pesky detail remained before my “perfect plan:” one more year of high school.
The sad truth, as I reflect upon it now, is that my “Sunday to Monday gap” significantly widened upon my decision to pursue pastoral ministry. By “Sunday to Monday gap,” I mean my faith convictions professed on Sunday did not inform or influence my decisions or actions on Monday, or the rest of the week.
In other words, I was perpetuating what is far too common in the church: the disconnect between my faith and my work, which at the time consisted of history and English classes. As a consequence, I was less motivated during my senior year than before. I developed a dangerous attitude toward my education, thinking, “What will I need calculus for when I’m serving God as a youth pastor?” I thought I was honoring God by answering a call to serve him as a pastor, but in the interim, I was dishonoring God by ignoring my call to serve him in my current vocation as a student.
The reality for students, from kindergarten to grad school and beyond, is that their primary work is school. All activity, paid or unpaid, apart from leisure or rest is meaningful and sacred work. But often, as evidenced by my personal testimony, Christian students don’t view school this way. Instead, school is at best viewed as a utilitarian means to an end, or at worst a mandated sentence to be endured.
Thus, as my understanding of a proper theology of work grew, I purposed to make it part of my work with students to help them see value and purpose in their work as students. I don’t have it all figured out, but here are three simple practices I integrate into my ministry with students that I encourage parents and anyone who interacts with youth to embrace:
- Celebrate school instead of disparaging it
Students are often workquick to complain about school: a difficult subject, a tough teacher, the early mornings, and on and on. In a well intended effort to enter their world, youth leaders and parents often subtly encourage this negative attitude toward school.
Questions such as “What’s your least favorite subject?” or “Have you been caught this year texting in class?” can produce short-term wins—“they get it, school is the worst”—but ultimately result in the long-term loss of the disconnect between the faith of that student and their work in the classroom.
Instead, we should acknowledge the real and frustrating challenges of school while seeking to convince students of its worthiness through celebrating the parts that are good.
To do this, you actually have to know the good parts: Is there a teacher they like and find compelling? A subject they are mastering? An extracurricular activity that is giving them life? Our job as a mentor, parent, and leader is to enter into their lives, ask good questions, and then celebrate those things with our students.
- Teach about the idea of school as work
How well does your instruction or teaching to the students in your life prepare them for what they spend the majority of their time doing? Important issues such as dating and sex, friendship, technology, etc. are worthy and helpful. But students spend more than 40 hours a week engaged in their work of school. Isn’t that worthy, too?
Point them to Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,” with this driving question: “What if God were your teacher?” Sprinkle in stories from your time as a student, and challenge the students in your life to start seeing their schooling as one of the primary places they follow and obey Jesus.
- Begin a conversation about future work
While I believe it best that everyone remain a lifelong learner, no one does (or should) remain a lifelong student. So while it is important to convince students of the significance of their current work, it is equally important to begin a conversation about what their future work will be. Engaging in the discussion of future work will help create an environment where all work is discussed, and hopefully, celebrated.
As you begin this conversation, remember not all high school students should go to college. While many students will attend college, others will need to know the value of gaining trade skills that help society in invaluable ways. And, there are other worthy paths beyond college and trade school, too, such as the armed forces, or entering the workforce immediately after high school. It won’t be one-size fits all, and that’s a good thing.
Be a mentor for upperclassmen as they discern next steps. Ask them diagnostic questions: What are you curious about? What comes naturally to you that others seem to struggle with? What threads of interest have been most consistent to this point in your life? Then, speak the truth of what you see in your student and offer to pray with them.
More broadly, with students of all ages, ask them what they want to do when they finish school. You might be tempted to think this is too “young” of a question for middle or high school students, but you’d be surprised how much they are thinking about this. When I asked this question in the middle of a message in our youth group, it gave me the opportunity to affirm the vocation and work of stay-at-home mothers as one young woman shared that she wants to be a mom when she grows up.
As parents, student ministries leaders, and anyone who interacts with youth, one of our jobs is to care about how our students view their education as work. We can help contextualize the wealth of resources available about faith and work in a way that helps our students as they walk through seasons of school, transition, and discovery. Let’s work at implementing these three practices and continue to explore how to best help students connect their Sunday faith to their Monday (home)work.