ine years ago I started meeting kids at the local public high school for lunch. I went because a girl from my church asked me to. A couple years later I ended up restarting the campus Christian club after it had shut down. For several years now I’ve been meeting with students of all denominations for lunch every week.
I sometimes ask the students in my group if it’s important for them to have Christian mentors involved in their lives at school. The response is a resounding yes! They say such things as “I would like someone from my church to come and visit me so they can see what goes on in my world.” And “It makes you feel wanted because they came just for you.” And “Adults are more wise at some things.”
High school students want caring Christian adults to be involved in their lives. Especially at school, where they spend most of their waking hours and are faced with some of their most difficult situations and decisions.
The Way We Were
High school years are a challenging and frequently stressful time of life. Is there anyone over the age of 18 who didn’t face struggles in high school? Think back to your high school days—to the long-forgotten (or rather recent) memories of feeling awkward, gangly, sometimes lonely, and insecure about life in general. Pimples may have graced your face, your feet may have been too big for your body, or maybe—if you were one of the lucky few—you actually were the epitome of cool.
Besides the developmental challenges, many students also have to deal with family issues: parents fighting or divorcing; parents losing jobs or getting jobs that keep them too busy to be involved in their children’s lives. Some may suffer various kinds of abuse. Then there is the pressure of being accepted at any cost, including experimentation with anything from drugs and alcohol, to sex and sexuality, to the occult.
I filmed the testimony of a young man named Keoki for my Web-based resource center a few months ago. Keoki was one of the cool kids. He didn’t go to church much as a kid, and he started experimenting with alcohol as a freshman in high school.
By the time Keoki was a senior he couldn’t socialize without drinking. Several years after high school Keoki says that he would go out and have one of the “funnest, most talked about nights” partying at clubs. Then he would go home and cry because of the emptiness he felt inside.
Being the best at everything from surfing to clubbing and always attracting the prettiest girls wasn’t enough to make Keoki feel good about himself. He started to wonder if life was worth living. That’s when Keoki finally realized that he was giving 100 percent to everything in life except Jesus.
Keoki stopped partying and started focusing on Jesus. Now he says that his best day in the world cannot compare to his worst day as a Christian. He has something, actually Someone, to live for—Jesus Christ. (Watch Keoki’s video testimony at www.livingiths.org.)
Another high school student, like Keoki, didn’t show much interest in church or spirituality early on in high school. He wanted nothing to do with God. He is still searching for meaning in life and hasn’t found it yet. He has attempted suicide twice. Failing to find faith in high school can be devastating, sometimes tragic.
A Faith Foundation
High school students are caught in the middle of a struggle to figure out what will make them happy and help them deal effectively with the difficult situations they face. Center stage in that struggle is whether or not they will accept their parents’ faith (or lack thereof), or if they will find a new way to cope with life. One of the keys for students to navigate this difficult time of life successfully is the presence of caring Christian adults to walk beside them and help them learn to live out their faith in the real world.
The Valuegenesis 3 update from January 2012 shows that Adventist students attending Adventist schools experience greater personal spiritual growth because of the Christian environment. A big part of the reason is the presence of caring Christian adults they encounter on a daily basis.1
Academy kids have the opportunity to connect with a variety of Christian faculty and staff every day. It’s almost certain that students will find at least one caring adult they can relate to and connect with in their life at school.
When I asked students in my academy lunch group if they connect spiritually with any faculty or staff, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Our denomination’s investment in Adventist education is certainly worth the effort and expense. We have to celebrate that and do everything we can to help our Adventist schools thrive.
But what about our public school students? What are we doing for the 70 percent of Adventist students who go to school in a non-Christian environment with few (and sometimes no) Christian teachers/staff members to be a part of their lives?
That’s right, only 30 percent (and in many areas far less) of Adventist high school students are fortunate enough to attend Adventist schools. Many of these students wish they could attend an Adventist academy, but it simply can’t happen for them because of finances, geography, or a variety of other reasons. When these students experience Christian mentors only at church and Sabbath school, it’s easy to relegate their spirituality to the weekends and live life much differently during the week at school, especially if their homes are not spiritually structured and supportive.
Because of that, we are losing a greater percentage of public high school students from the church than we do academy students. It’s tragic that we lose so many of these students, many of whom we invested in heavily during their elementary years. Many public high school students have graduated from our Adventist elementary schools, been part of Adventurers or Pathfinders that so many have given so sacrificially to support with their time and finances.
We would be wise to continue investing in the lives of these teens by showing them how to live their faith as they enter a public high school. And frankly, it’s very simple.
Where the Wild Things Grow
Some of us who grew up in the Adventist educational system are intimidated by the thought of setting foot on a public school campus. That’s OK.
I know some adults who simply take kids out for lunch. If you’re nervous about going on campus, just pull up in front of the high school, let the kids hop in your car, and cruise to a local fast-food place. Remember, you’re reaching out to kids you already know, not strangers or enemies. Just take them to lunch. Everyone needs to eat, right? You’ll be amazed at how easy and fun it is.
After you’ve gotten to know the kids better, visit them on campus for lunch. It doesn’t have to be right away; wait until you’re comfortable, when the time is right.
All my campus clubs meet at lunch because food breaks down barriers and is a great activity to engage in together. It also makes it easier for kids to bring their friends along. For high school kids bringing a friend is important as a “security blanket”; it makes them feel more secure.
I absolutely love my first visit to any high school. I take a few pizzas, some wristbands and T-shirts from the Living It High School Outreach Web site, and walk on campus with the kids I know. It’s the closest thing to being a rock star! Free stuff makes everyone want to know who you are and be your friend! Just do it; have lunch with the kids. It just might change their lives and yours, too.
At church conversations and prayer requests tend to revolve around church themes, but at school kids are more likely to talk about a side of life you’ve never heard about before. Ask them about their world and let them talk.
Whenever I ask for prayer requests on campus, I get anything from requests for alcoholic parents, to friends on drugs, to relatives with cancer, and every other possible situation that people can experience. Many kids are lonely and desperate for someone to show them that they care.
And when we show them that we care, we’re also showing them that Jesus cares about them and loves them too. I don’t know of anything more rewarding than being used by Jesus to reach out to hurting kids.
Connecting With Christ
I have a friend who grew up in a wonderfully nurturing and spiritual home, went to Adventist schools, and felt connected spiritually. But in his sophomore year of academy his parents’ marriage hit the rocks, he ended up in public high school, and his world—including his faith—fell apart. He started questioning everything he believed in.
A short time later his youth pastor started visiting him at school for lunch. The pastor met him where he was and turned everything around, and that student is a youth pastor today, meeting kids in their worlds.
When we connect kids with Jesus in a personal, meaningful way, we don’t have to say anything eloquent. All we have to do is share what Jesus means to us, how we experience the Christian life, and live lives of devotion, worship, and service.
Reaching out to youth is much more effective when it’s unforced. Just let it flow from a heart that is full of Jesus. When we are connected to Jesus, it’s easy for Him to use us to connect with the people in our world and lead them closer to Him. This is the heart of the gospel commission: leading people to Jesus and making them disciples.2 High school years are challenging ones. We all have our stories to share, our wounds to show, and our photographs of styles that are way out-of-date.
At high school reunions we reminisce about the good times and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies. Now, with the benefits of a little time and experience, we realize the role that faith did play or could have played, and how trusting Jesus would have made it easier.
Ready for Action
Here are five simple ideas for reaching out to high school students. Do them in succession or simply pick one:
1. Start by saying hello to the high school students who attend your church. Learn their names. Take some muffins and juice to share with them at Sabbath school. Put them on your prayer list and pray for them every day.
2. Ask to lead or participate in a youth Sabbath school discussion about living your faith at school. Ask kids what they think is the hardest part about attending a public school. Ask them about their school friends who don’t attend church. Pray together.
3. Ask one or two of the students if it is OK for you to bring them some pizza for lunch at school and choose a date. Ask the students’ parents to call the school and let them know you will be stopping by with food. Tell the students you will bring enough for some of their friends. When you’re there, ask students about their world and what it is like at their school. Pray with them.
4. Set up a time to visit again to get to know them better. Share something from your personal spiritual journey or devotional life and ask for prayer requests. Ask them if they would like to start a Christian club at their school, and get some information from the school office about how to go about it.
5. Check out the North American Division’s Youth and Young Adult Department’s public high school student Discipleship Resource Center at living iths.org for more information and ideas about reaching students in your world.
See how easy that is! Why not try reaching out and walking beside a high school student or two? Just be there to show them some love and attention and help them get to know your friend Jesus a little better. Taking these simple steps can make a huge difference in the crisis of faith high school students go through.
Walking together is how to make disciples. That’s how Jesus did it. What better place to start than with the kids we already know, in the places we already live, and where the need is greater than we ever imagined? Ask a youth leader or pastor from your church or another friend to go with you. Get out there—into all the world—and show them that you care!
1 Valuegenesis 3, January 2012, p. 4. Valuegenesis is a research study sponsored by the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, looking at the faith and values of students who attend Adventist schools.
2 For in-depth help on the devotional life and living your faith, see Authentic, published by Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2012.
Scott R. Ward, author of the book
Authentic: Where True, Life-changing Christianity Begins, serves as youth pastor of the English Oaks Church in Lodi, California; as public high school campus ministries coordinator for the North American Division; and as executive director of Living It High School Outreach Resource Center (livingiths.org). This article was published April 11, 2013.