Student-led discussions as vehicles for faith formation

Jen Bradbury
May 20 · 5 min read

I recently used appreciative inquiry to evaluate and reflect on our year of ministry with my student leaders. Among other things, I asked student leaders, “What are the most valuable aspects of our high school ministry?” and “How has our high school ministry helped you connect with God?”

Here's some of what I heard:

"The most valuable part was when I led the discussion." 

"The most valuable part was leading the two discussions I led. All the work that went into it beforehand. I was really passionate about what we were talking about."

"The most valuable part was reading the book in preparation for the book club I'm leading. The people in the book really helped me connect with God." 

What do each of these responses have in common?

In each instance, a student identified the process of preparing for and leading a discussion as the most valuable part of our youth ministry, as the thing that most helped them grow in their own relationship with God.

This shouldn't surprise us.

Some of my most-rapid segments of spiritual growth have come as a result of preparing for and leading discussions. This was especially true in high school and college but oftentimes is true for me even now. By preparing to teach others, I powerfully encounter God.

If that's true for me and you, then why shouldn't it also be true of our students?

The process of preparing for and leading discussions 

- Forces students to dig deeply into Scripture, to really wrestle with a particular passage, to find themselves in it and to discover what it means in the context of their lives.

- Challenges students to investigate extra-biblical resources in order to discover additional context & meaning.

- Encourages students to ask questions about that which they do not understand so they can answer questions from their peers.

- Helps students think logically & critically about their faith by forcing them to organize a discussion in a way that makes sense to them and their peers.

- Equips students to articulate their faith. By asking questions as well as contributing their own opinion, students “speak their faith into being”as they lead discussions (Almost Christian).

- Enables students to truly see others. Facilitating discussions teach students to pay attention to their peers and to what's happening in the room around them. It challenges them to reach out & engage everyone in the room on some level. It also powerfully communicates to them that learning happens in two directions: Just as they help their peers discover some truth about God, their peers help them encounter God.

Given the many ways in which facilitating discussions inherently prompts spiritual growth, it amazes me how reluctant youth workers often are to give students the opportunity to do this. Sure, we youth workers are good at challenging and encouraging students to lead by serving in praise bands and welcoming ministries or even spearheading and planning social and service events. What we're not typically good at is letting students teach.

I can say this because I was there.

I, too, ran this type of ministry for nearly seven years. I willingly let and even encouraged students to serve our ministry in a variety of different capacities. But I didn't – I wouldn't - let kids teach. I held tightly to this role, reserving it for me and on rare occasions, other adults.

In retrospect, I know my own arrogance prevented me from allowing students to assume this role. I mean, how on earth could a kid possibly teach better than I could?

Fear also accompanied this. If students could teach or lead discussions, then how long would it be before the church decided it could do without me? Or worse yet, what if students discovered they learned more from their peers than from me? Could my own ego take that?

But then one day, a student approached me with a topic she wanted to lead. At that moment in our ministry, things were honestly not going well. So I gave her a shot, figuring things couldn't get any worse than they already were. 

Far from getting worse, they got better.

This student felt empowered – even though her discussion wasn't perfect. What's more, her peers listened to and participated in the conversation in a way they hadn't done in weeks.

In that moment, I learned something I should have already known: Teens listen to each other.

When we can leverage that in a way that helps students to grow in their faith, something sacred happens that makes student-led discussions an incredibly valuable part of ministry that no youth ministry should go without.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series: How to equip students to lead discussions.