Why the Church Needs Student-Led Ministries

By Doug Franklin March 2, 2020

Youth ministry is facing many challenges today. Declining numbers of students are coming to youth group, students are apathetic toward church, and students are questioning if the church has the answers for their lives. 

We must respond to these challenges. Sadly, some have decided that the way to respond is to just continue to do what we’ve been doing and complain about students. Others have looked for new and innovative ways to attract students to youth group. Some youth workers have tried less programming, more focus on worship, and more activities focused on social justice issues

One idea that has been out there for a while and is starting to get some momentum is allowing students to lead the youth ministry. From planning to execution, more youth ministries are discovering the power of letting students own the ministry. 

The problems with student-led ministries

Student leadership is actually the opposite of a coach; it allows students to learn through experience.

Youth workers are hired to do a job, not to get students to do their job for them. For student-led ministries to work, church leadership will need to change their whole thinking on what a youth worker does. Read this blog on how to get your church on board with student leadership.

If the church gets on board, the next obstacle will be parents. Read more about partnering with parents. These days, parents want a youth ministry to be the spiritual coach for their student. The coach needs to transform the student and make sure the student does things right. Student leadership is actually the opposite of a coach; it allows students to learn through experience. Mistakes become the teacher, and life lessons go deep into a student’s mind because they have felt the pain of error. Parents will need to change their mindset about how their student learns for them to be on board with youth ministry being student led. 

Now the hardest part: students will need to be motivated to take the wheel. Students love the concept of leading but not the pain of making decisions and trying to get others to move. They quit very quickly and will need tons of mentoring in order for them to stay engaged. This can be done, but it takes a youth worker with lots of patience and the ability to equip students.

Why would a student-led ministry help our church?

youth ministry is not the church's ministry to students, youth ministry is students' ministry to their world

I believe the answer to “Why” is found in what students identify with. Do your students see themselves as members of a youth group or of a church? Or more importantly, do they see their youth group as a ministry of the church to students or as the students’ ministry to the world?

The question is an important one because it’s the difference between students being attendees and students being owners. Owners don’t walk away. They have an investment, a stake in the goal, and that doesn’t change just because they have graduated from high school. Attendees buy a ticket and hope for a fun event. The problem for the attendees is they don’t see anything for themselves after graduation, so they walk away.

For a long time now, youth ministry has been pushing to entertain students thinking that if they’re having fun, they will like the youth pastor, and if they like the youth pastor then they will come. This short-sighted thinking has gotten us into trouble—entertaining students just communicates to them that they’re attendees not owners. I am excited these days to see so many youth groups moving away from the entertainment model and heading toward student leadership. Smaller and mid-size churches are leading the way for a movement of student-led ministries, while some of the larger churches with student conferences still don’t get it.


student leadership team

Student ministries need to make owners of students, and one way to do this is to start a student leadership team. With a student-led ministry, students will set goals, resource projects, cast vision, rally the troops, lead ministries, and be responsible for the success or failure of the group. Leadership teams have the potential to transform students’ thinking. Before, they thought of themselves as participants in the plans of the youth worker, but now they can see themselves as the leaders of the ministry, or in other words, owners. This change in thinking has more power to capture hearts of students than any video game or small group ever could.

When a student leadership team is run well, it will:

  1. Not be for every student in your youth group
  2. Require students to meet a standard of behavior for application
  3. Meet on a regular basis
  4. Study leadership principles
  5. Have students in real and important leadership roles
  6. Allow students to make decisions without direction from adults
  7. Allow students to face consequences for their decisions
  8. Enable students to see themselves as the owners of their youth group
  9. Have adult facilitators who are passionate about student leaders
  10. Challenge students to do the impossible

Another way to do this: leadership lab

youth ministry leadership lab

I believe that Leadership Labs are a great way to do student leadership because they take advantage of what’s already going on in your youth ministry and church as a whole. They use the adult volunteer leaders you already have and tweak their role to include apprentices. Based on your students and how busy they are, you’ll have to decide what Leadership Labs are the best for your youth ministry circumstances. 

A leadership lab is you (or any adult who is focused on developing students as leaders) and a few students. Through this relationship, the adult is taking the time to mentor, disciple, and develop students as leaders by taking advantage of the life experience or project in front of them. As your time with these students goes on, you will give away more and more of the leadership responsibilities. 

I have found that one of the best ways to tell a student that they have leadership ability is to invite them into a Leadership Lab. Try and stay clear of an application process. Instead, point out the leadership potential you see in them and invite them to develop that ability with you over the next few weeks or months. 

As you are inviting students into a Leadership Lab, develop a covenant that lays out parameters and gets the students’ parents involved from the beginning. If you are inviting two students into the leadership lab of running the soundboard for Wednesday night youth group, a covenant may include things like committing to arriving 30 minutes early and staying 20 minutes late for the next eight Wednesday nights. A Lab that involves students helping to plan and run the fall retreat might include ten meetings for the five weeks leading up to the retreat (one training and one planning meeting per week), as well as going on the retreat. This way, everyone knows what will be happening during the Leadership Lab, and everyone involved can know that growth is taking place. 

reimagine student leadership lab ebook

Last thoughts

I started LeaderTreks because I believe that student leadership development is the key to seeing transformational change in students. I have only seen a few things in ministry that make transformational change in students, but leadership was by far the most powerful!

About the Author

Doug Franklin

Doug Franklin is the president of LeaderTreks, an innovative leadership development organization focusing on students and youth workers. Doug and his wife, Angie, live in West Chicago, Illinois. They don’t have any kids, but they have 2 dogs that think they are children. Diesel and Penelope are Weimaraners  who never leave their side. Doug grew up in…  Read More