That Model Student

What do we do with the “model student” in youth ministries? It’s very common for youth pastors to use phrases like “Sarah is an unbelievable student. If only I could have a dozen just like her.” Students like Sarah show up for every event, have a great attitude, and  I have definitely said these kinds of things during my years in youth ministry.

Have you seen youth ministries that focus too much on the model students? Ignore the hidden students? What can be done to minister to both?

But in the chapter in The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry entitled “God’s Hiddenness, Absence, and Doubt,” Andrew Root makes this statement: “…On the one hand we want to hold up and celebrate those youth who are role models of good citizenship, those seen as engaged students and successful leaders. But in truth they are not necessarily role models of faith, for our faith calls us to search for God between possibility and nothingness, between hope and despair…. In this theological perspective, the supposed loser young people—those invisible adolescents—are the ones where, in fact, God is at work, up against their brokenness and yearning. The incarnate and crucified God calls us to search for God not in the fullness of success but in the emptiness of honest yearning.”

I don’t think we have to choose one or the other. Students who set a good example should be praised for their faithfulness, and God is surely present in their lives as well. But students who struggle and who even despair shouldn’t be tossed to the margins. As Root says in a later chapter, “the best theologians ask the most disturbing questions.”

Do you feel churches know what to do with young people in particular (or church congregants in general) who aren’t the role models, who struggle and doubt and don’t behave all the time? Have we created an environment where outward success is rewarded and failure is shunned?


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  • Jason

    This seems fairly entwined with he discussion of an earlier post on extravertedness in the church and leadership in particular. Good shepherding involves evaluating everyone on various levels and while it is important to invest in leaders one must also leave the 99 for the 1. There are no little people, as Francis Schaeffer said, and understanding each person’s worth and God at work in the lives of the individual and group alike is a first step. As for how to ‘handle it’, I would think there is no substitute for time: in prayer and with the person or people. Listen and they will tell you. Listen and God will show you. That’s what I’ve come to settle on in my mind of late as I prepare for full time vocational ministry.

  • Sue B.

    Actually, the title caught my attention because I’ve known far too many of these “model students” who are actually hiding a great deal of pain, doubt, abuse, etc. We can’t afford to evaluate any of our students based on the outward appearances and behaviors. If we make a set of behaviors the standard of Christian maturity and example we fall right back into the error of the pharisees.

  • JoeyS

    I was a youth pastor for four years and probably focused too much on the hidden students. I’m not sure you can focus on both. The model students need attention too. If I’m honest I just didn’t put a lot of energy into those relationships. It is not the well who need a doctor. Our youth group was a raucous crowd, and for some students wasn’t a safe place (I had to break up a lot of fist fights) but there was a lot of passion to be harnessed for good. Any “model student” that may have come through didn’t stay long.

  • DRT

    JoeyS, your description of the physical dynamics leads me to believe that some of the less-than-model students were not exactly hidden, yet you said you focused on the hidden ones. I am just curious how you handled this situation since it sounds terribly difficult.

  • As people who care about the next generation it’s our job to accept every student where they are and encourage them to move forward on their spiritual journey. Of course students have various gifts and personality profiles. Of course some students have a better understanding of truth than others. Some students are going to be more mature in their faith.

    Our environments must be dominated by grace, love and acceptance. Students should be encouraged over and over again to share doubts and allow the light to penetrate the dark places. “Model students”, struggling students and those just starting their journey (and adults) desperately need the gospel equally.

  • JoeyS

    Many of them were hidden when I met them but as we learned to trust one another they opened up. A few others hid behind a veneer of extroversion – overcompensating for their insecurities by being boisterous. Probably to my chagrin (as in, it didn’t help “grow” the youth ministry in the traditional sense), I refused to give up on the kids who others told me weren’t worth my time. Most of them had never had an adult refuse to give up on them and they responded to it. I had to break up fights or go pick kids up from court on several occasions. In some ways I just refused to act like their parents or teachers. They knew I abhorred fighting, drugs, and other things they found themselves getting into, but they were always willing to talk to me about it because they knew it wouldn’t change our relationship.

    I saw some beautiful progress, and I had a lot of disappointments. I’m not saying this is a model for youth ministry. But the gospel compels us to look at people differently than we would otherwise. They weren’t delinquents, they were passionate kids who didn’t know how to harness their passion.

    Most these kids are in their early 20’s now. Some have made huge strides. A few others will have to live out the consequences of their decisions and I pray that they find mercy when they need it.

  • Sue

    I’m going to address the last paragraph:

    In my experience, it’s been the “church congregants in general” who are behaving badly that get the bulk of the time and attention from church leaders, to the extent that the folks who are “role models” for faith are exhausted, demoralized and burnt out from trying to clean up the damage the badly behaved are leaving in their wake.

    While I am 100% convinced that God is at work between “possibility and nothingness,” I believe that it ultimately is not true compassion to continually enable behavior that destroys community.

    Situations in ministry (youth or otherwise) call for a lot of discernment. “Honest yearning” needs to be handled differently than “destructive attention-seeking.”

    Honestly, in all the churches I’ve been a part of, I’ve never seen those who are truly mature in their faith held up as role models. I’ve seen a lot of popularity contests and a lot of bad behavior rewarded in the name of “fairness” or people being unwilling to confront powerful personalities.

    So I guess I could say “no,” I haven’t seen a youth ministry (or an adult ministry) that only pays attention to the model students. If I were to write a post, I’d write one calling churches and youth leaders to pay more attention to those who are truly mature in their faith. They are the ones giving of themselves on a regular basis, and they need support.

    Those who are truly searching need time and attention, but those whose actions disrupt community need to be held accountable for their actions.

  • YM-Lifer

    What do you mean?? All my students are model students 😉
    I think I get what this article is getting at. I know that I have found myself playing “favorites” with those students who are the model students. Investing in them more. Mentoring them more. Inviting them into leadership more. And I saw this in the youth ministry I grew up in. Except that I wasn’t one of the model students. And I had wished I was. I wished that my youth pastor would have invested in me. Would have seen the unseen things to me. When I went to seminary, I was told by one of the adult volunteers that worked with me in my teen years, that I was the last he expected to see in Seminary.

    And the idea continues to stick with me. It is easy to see what is seen in these model students. But what about the unseen gifts and desires in our quiet students or our troubled students? It is hard to fight the tendency to go right to the model student.

  • DRT

    JoeyS, Thanks I believe I understand.

  • DRT

    I have a question for you all, and think this is OK for this thread. Let me know if this would be too tangential.

    I helped found and grow a church up to the acquistion and building of a facility, 8 years of effort. One of the things I found out about the church was that the youth group leaders would lead the groups in prayer for families. As I have come to find out, the prayer list is a common fixture.

    But I did not expect the prayer list to be used in pre-high school children’s classes. You all know that kids often tell you like it is if they are asked, and the teachers would regularly ask, under the umbrella of learning to pray for others.

    Is this common in churches? I had very big problems with this and that was a component in my eventual breakup with that church.


  • Steve Sherwood

    I have spent 27 years doing and teaching youth ministry. I believe there are a number of dynamics at play in this post. First, I believe YM folks DO tend to focus a great deal of attention on their “all-stars” but not necessarily in the right ways. Chap Clark, in his very influential YM book “Hurt” introduced many to the idea of “the world beneath” or what child psychologist, David Elkind, would call “the patchwork self.” Essentially, kids learn to perform for adults. To get us off their backs. To earn our approval, attention and love. For all kinds of reasons. They do that in school through grades, performing in sports & the arts, etc.. But, this “performing for adults” often masks “the world beneath” where they are broken, afraid, lonely, often desperate. He would argue, and I would strongly agree, that youth ministry plays into this destructive game. In YM, kids don’t perform for grades or a varsity letter, but they “bring their friends,” “witness regularly,” “have a solid walk with the Lord,” often for the same reasons. Is SOME of it genuine? Sure, but much more of it is a young person desperately trying to do whatever it is we tell them they need to do to be approved of and loved.

    Here’s my question. Does that all-star youth group kid KNOW (in the depth of their soul) that we love them, period, not BECAUSE they “perform” for us and for Jesus? What kind of attention do we pay that kid when they screw up and let us down? What kind of manipulation is it when we not only layer expectations on a kid like the teachers and coaches at school (If you really care about the team, you’ll play through this injury…), but do so in the name of God (If you really love Jesus, you’ll bring your friends to youth group so they can hear the Gospel…)?

    There ARE healthy, thriving Christian kids in youth groups. But, I think there are a lot fewer than we think. I think there are lots of kids who have intuitively figured out that, just like their coaches love them more if they stay after practice to work on their jump shot, their youth pastor will love them more (and maybe God will too) if they never miss an event or show up without bringing a friend or two.

    After 27 years of doing ministry, I am afraid I have much too long a list of “all-star” kids I saw as performers who could help “build MY ministry” than young people who had hurts, insecurities and needs just like the obviously broken kids.

    Sorry for the rant. I just feel very strongly about this issue.

  • Christ calls us to the fringes – those who recognize their need for him. His selection of the disciples show that truth clearly. In a study on Howard Thurman, I read and was challenged by his book “Jesus and the Disinherited”. It helped me to see the compassionate ministry of Jesus focused on the lost sheep.

    So I see value in both calling the model students to higher levels of faith, character and leadership as well as seeking to encourage the outcasts. All need genuine love to grow. It must be fostered in the entire group. The students themselves also have a responsibility to be united as one body in Christ even in their different commitment/maturity levels. But ultimately it is God’s work to transform lives. Be available for Him to use your in any way with any person.

  • kerry

    Our son was one of the difficult students, suffering as he did with a learning problem and “something else”. That “something else” turned out to be a serious mental illness that has the potential to destroy and take his life. For most of his time in youth group he had wonderful leaders who maintained high expectations for his behaviour in the group… but he also had mentors who worked with him one on one to hammer out his beliefs and an authentic lifestyle. He was loved even though he could be very challenging, and at times, ungrateful.

    The diagnosis of his mental illness generated some relief for him but also a deep faith crisis. Looking on, I would say that without the grounding of a community that demonstratively loved him he may not have come through that season with an intact faith. As his parents, we are deeply grateful that he experienced such a generous and wise youth team in his formative years – from our perspective it probably saved his life.

    Ironically, he is described by his medical team as a “model patient”!!

  • My kids were those “model students,” and they regularly got ignored by youth leaders who gravitated toward the kids who were disinterested or crashing. The thing is, they had questions about faith; they just weren’t acting out.

    All our kids need mentoring and discipling, and too often these essential parts of youth group are neglected in favor of activities. Kids “ask Jesus into their hearts,” but they aren’t challenged to seek God, surrender to him completely, follow Jesus sacrificially. At some point they decide Christianity “doesn’t work.”

    My two older kids have wandered away from the church. So have most of the kids who were crashing.

    It breaks my heart.

    I pray for them all to hear God’s voice.

    I talk about this with my 20-year-old daughter all the time. I challenge her. I’m involved with her friends. I don’t want to see this repeated again.

  • I am so grateful for everyone’s comments– I feel like I’ll be a better youth pastor as a result of reading these.