Building a Student Ministry that Raises Up Giants

During the holidays I look forward to sipping my pumpkin spice latte on a brisk autumn day. I look forward to the peppermint milkshake at Chick-fil-A. It is without question unmatched among milkshakes! I also look forward to going to the mall to face the hustle and bustle. I love the crazies on Black Friday. There is something special about throwing elbows as Christmas music plays in the background. I always make sure to hit the usual spots where you can get a deal! 

At our mall every holiday season there is this one kiosk that I make sure to walk past. This kiosk looks like the rest but instead of selling cheap cell-phone covers they sell bonsai trees. Bonsai trees have always fascinated me. Bonsai trees are adorable. Bonsai trees are cute, tiny, fragile and frail. They are good at resembling the mighty maple or giant oak, but if we are honest, they aren’t. It’s clear they aren’t. 

It was not until recently that I learned that the seed to a Bonsai tree is actually the same seed that would grow into a full size tree. I had always assumed it was some genetically mutated or altered seed. That got me thinking, “What actually makes a bonsai tree a bonsai?” I decided to set out on a quest to discover the answer. The secret of the Bonsai really comes down to two things. First, it is the pot it is placed in. When the seed is placed in a tiny pot, it constricts the root system which ultimately constricts the growth of the tree. Second, Bonsai trees are trimmed and pruned in a specific way. They are shaped to be small. 

Are we raising up Bonsai Christians? 

Is it possible that we have unintentionally given our students Bonsai sized pots for their faith to grow? This Bonsai pot will constrict their growth and ultimately result in Bonsai-type Jesus followers. Bonsai Jesus followers are cute, fragile, frail, and adorable. They are the students that will walk away from the faith when they graduate high school. They are students that will never understand how to integrate their faith with their God given passion, gifts and abilities. Bonsai students will never learn how to have hard conversations that seek resolution rooted in love. Bonsai students will never learn how to impact the people around them with the love of Christ. They are the ones that will leave the church because they don’t like the music. They rely on a thermostat set to 70 degrees year round. Ultimately they will not withstand the storms of life that are sure to come. They won’t be able to keep the faith during the loss of a loved one. They won’t be able to maintain hope in the midst of anxiety and depression. 

God’s vision for the world is anything but Bonsai

We need to find ways to root them in God’s vision. Deeply ingrained in the heart of a Gen Z student is a desire and a hunger to change the world. They are quick to action if given a purpose and a mission. Let’s leverage this! Let’s give them God’s vision for the world. Let’s inspire, equip and empower them to live out God’s vision and mission for this world. We can’t allow them to leave our Wednesday night youth group or our Sunday morning service with an understanding that following Jesus is simply about the program or about the rules. Instead let’s give them Jesus and help them understand how God has wired them for this CRAZY task.

Three things we need to be doing


  • Teach your students to love the word of God 


As youth workers we have a limited time with our students. Some of us work in high school ministry, some of us work with middle schoolers, but at most we get seven years. Let’s teach them to feed themselves. If students have the word of God inside them, when the fire comes they can fall back to the Word of God. 


  • Help them connect with seasoned Jesus followers


Some of the most influential people in my life were people that I would not have initially “chosen” to hangout with. They were people who at points in my life I would have classified as old and boring. These are also the people who poured into me. During hard times they were able to share stories of God’s faithfulness. They shared testimony of seasons where they questioned God’s goodness and even God’s existence and ultimately were able to witness God move. 

We all have students that fit the home-schooled/sheltered stereotype. It usually takes you about ten seconds to identify them. You know who I’m talking about! They know all the answers in Bible Trivia but have never been in a situation where they are put to the test. They need to have “safe” people that they can ask hard questions to whom they can ask hard questions. Students need the freedom to doubt. God is big enough for our doubt and is willing to walk with us through our questions. God used these people in my life to shape me into the man I am today. 


  • Cast a GIANT vision for students


God has designed each of our students specifically and intentionally. Each of them are unique: some more than others! We need to help our students identify the things that God has placed within them. Let’s help each of them craft their abilities into tools they can leverage for the Kingdom. 

Billy McMahan is the student pastor at Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Niwot, CO. He has been working in student ministry for over a decade. He has experience in church ministry, para-church ministry and overseas missions work. Billy’s life is about making Jesus known. He is married to a woman far out of his league. Together, they have three crazy kids. Feel free to reach out to Billy @ [email protected]