The Intentional Shepherd

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Received this article from the National Network of Youth Ministries. Real good article on shepherding our students, in particular our students that are about to graduate from high school.

By Jeff Schadt

In recent years, youth ministry has received the attention of many leaders, with George Barna and the National Survey on Youth and Religion analyzing the attitudes and actions of our youth.

National concern has grown regarding the loss of youth from the church during their senior year of high school and accelerating during their first year of college or career.

While no long-term longitudinal study exists that can conclude with certainty the exact percentage of youth leaving the church, evidence and reason indicate that a significant majority of our high school youth leave the church within one year of high school graduation.

Some in the church have said to me, "they are going to go wild in college no matter what we do" and "they will return to the church when they get married or have kids." Having personally interviewed on camera 120 college students about their transition from home to work or college, I am deeply troubled by this response.

In a short period of time, many of these students had created lifelong scars that will haunt them into their marriages, families, and careers, as well as their walks with God.

Jesus was the intentional shepherd - one whose voice alone could lead the sheep to safety (John 10:27-29). If you have ever watched a shepherd at work, you know how intentional they are.

Several years ago while backpacking in Colorado, I had the privilege to watch a shepherd at work. As the group I was with made our way through a valley at 10,000 feet between three 13,000-foot peaks, we found ourselves hiking though a herd of 1,000 sheep, all fairly close together.

We did not see the shepherd until we reached 10,700 feet. There we discovered a Native American shepherd, sitting on a giant boulder as he watched his herd, able to see all of his sheep and any predator approaching from quite a distance. As we climbed higher, we watched the shepherd gradually work his way around the herd, carefully surveying the mountains and the valley where they grazed.

Jesus was the intentional shepherd who felt deeply the loss of just one of His sheep. Like Jesus, we can be intentional shepherds, helping to prepare the sheep for their departure from our lives and ministries.

Jesus prepared His disciples by repeatedly reminding them about His need to leave to prepare rooms for them, and speaking of the One who was to follow Him - the Holy Spirit - who would counsel, comfort, remind and lead them (John 14:2, 16).

We can do the same for our students as they prepare to leave our youth groups to enter college, careers or the military. In this transition, they face a level of stress and uncertainty unlike any transition they have encountered previously.

They leave the known environments of their high school, youth group/church, their family, circle of friends and the relative privacy of their homes. This creates significant stress. Their God-given needs to be loved, accepted and to fit into a community go unmet on many levels for the first time in their lives.

Stress is defined by Dr. Gary Collins as "a force brought on by uncertainty and change which creates upset stomachs, gnawing fear, headaches, intense grief, excessive drinking and arguments. Stress dulls our memory, weakens our bodies, stirs up our emotions and reduces efficiency."

This leaves our youth vulnerable to the temptations and distractions of the world, given that they frequently leave home without a connection to Christian friends, roommates or the body of Christ. In short, they enter hostile territory without a shepherd of their faith.

In interviewing 120 students about their transition, I found that those who had been challenged and warned by their youth pastor about getting connected immediately to a church or college ministry were more likely to be walking with God. Just as Jesus prepared the disciples, we can do more by encouraging our students to locate Christian roommates where they are headed.

Since this is often a lengthy process, and schools require roommate requests by January, we need to begin preparing our students early, just as Jesus did with the disciples. We should begin to prepare our seniors (and even juniors) for the stress they will face and the importance of connecting with other believers - in October, not May of their senior year.

Data gathered from Fuller Theological Seminary's pilot transition study, and the 2003 Survey on Youth and Religion, indicates that the environment we provide for our youth is equally important. Are we providing an environment in our churches like the environment Jesus provided for His disciples? Jesus created an environment where the disciples freely questioned and challenged the teaching and actions of their Shepherd.

This "safe place" of love, grace and acceptance allowed the disciples to explore their questions, doubts and even failures without fear of judgment or punishment. Even the disciples' greatest failure - deserting the Shepherd at the cross - did not result in judgment. Jesus returned with words of encouragement, and offered even greater responsibility - the Great Commission.

Frequently, we see examples of godly men and women in the Bible whose failure was met by God with even greater responsibility: Moses, Abraham and Jesus' disciples. What an amazingly loving and gracious God we have!

Failing to provide the environment of a loving shepherd, as Jesus did for His sheep, will result in our students acting one way in church and another in the world. Helping our sheep trust the loving voice of the Shepherd will encourage them to bring their doubts and failures into the light, where they can be resolved and transformed, according to 1 John 1:5-7. If they continue to lead double lives, living in the darkness, the outcome will be blindness to the truth and a life filled with scars (1 John 2:9-16).

Pause and reflect upon how Jesus meets our failures daily with grace and forgiveness. Let us also make a commitment to become intentional shepherds for our students by providing a safe place for them to deal honestly with the Word of Truth.

Let's also prepare them for their departure from our leadership. Make them aware of the risks and dangers ahead! That will help them persevere in one of the most stressful transitions of life.


Jeff Schadt is the founder and president of Ministry Edge, an organization dedicated to decreasing the loss of youth from the church. He serves as the facilitator of the Youth Transition Network, a coalition of ministries seeking to address this alarming loss. Jeff currently serves as a licensed lay pastor for First Baptist Church, Tempe, where he and and his wife Deedee, along with their children Heather, Jennifer and Paul, worship.

3 Responses to “The Intentional Shepherd”

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