todd szymczak

Recently, I had some trees cut down in my yard. One massive pine tree stood about 50 feet in the air, towering over our house. The tree looked great on the outside. But with one cut the truth was revealed—about a third of its trunk was rotting away on the inside. Bugs had eaten the tree from the inside out.

In Dallas Willard’s book The Great Omission, Willard’s basic message is that the church has moved away from the true meaning of Jesus’ words of the Great Commission. He explains that there are Christians who consume Christian services, but are not becoming disciples. In other words, their lives are not turning towards a life of obedience in Christ, and therefore their lives are not changing, merely staying the same. Willard writes: “Spiritual formation in Christ is the process whereby the inmost being of the individual (the heart, will, or spirit) takes on the quality or character of Jesus himself.”

When I look at students, they look good. They have great smiles, the latest fashions, buff muscles—they appear to have it all together. They have many things and are capable of living quite well. But what does their inmost beings, the secret places of their lives, look like? Are they taking on the quality and character of Jesus? Or are they rotting away?

In order for students to experience renewal and radical transformation in their lives, we must essentially get to the “rot” that eats away at their spiritual lives. As we minister to high school students, this happens in three critical ways:

Personal Journey: We cannot show or take students to a place that is unknown to us; neither can we lead them when our lives are spinning out of control. When we experience transformation in our own lives, it is the very thing we help students change in their lives. You are the road map for them to see life differently than where they are now. They have to see others who are living differently in order to want to desire it on their own. They need to see models of a transformed life.

Deeper Relationships: Ask a student how he is doing as he is walking by you, and he will tell you “Okay.” Ask that same person over a cup of coffee or a soft drink what was the highest and lowest part of his week, and you’ll get his story. Walk with that student, for better or worse, and you will be an influence in his life. This is hard, timely, and requires sacrifice, but Jesus didn’t provide any other way in which to fulfill the purpose of discipleship. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples, teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Part of our personal journey is meant to be in deeper relationship with others (students). This must happen not just in close proximity of students—it must be done in a relational context.

Intentional Shepherding: We are shepherding when we point out biblical truths to students. We are shepherding when we are steering students away from distractions, and towards the path of Jesus. We are shepherding when they are hurting, questioning, when we are praying for them, praying with them, reading the Bible together, asking the tough questions about their lifestyle choices, challenging them, correcting them, and loving them.

I know there are some great looking student ministries out there—great names, logos, web pages, podcasts, and programs. But if many of us were to seriously look at the core of our ministries, we have to ask ourselves the hard question—are we simply providing a service for Christians to consume, or are we helping students become the quality and character of Jesus?