'Student' Ministry or Youth Ministry?

I was talking with someone in Corner Bakery the other day. Obviously well oriented to the social world of church, he was asking about my experience of seminary. (I think my Princeton Seminary T-shirt must have tipped him off.) When he asked what I was studying I told him, "practical theology... youth ministry, mostly." He nodded in approval and after a short pause he responded, "isn't it better to call it 'student ministry' these days?"

Without wanting to get into too deep a discussion, I said, "I still prefer 'youth'... not every kid is a student..." I'm sure he wasn't convinced by that and he probably assumes I'm getting a pretty archaic theological education... but if I could have, I would've just made him read Andrew Root's Article, "Stop Calling Them Students."

The fact is, it's not just that "not all kids are students" (and not all kids who aren't students are dropouts... young people with sever developmental disabilities can be exempt from this as well). It's also that to refer to someone as a student is to reduce them to what they do, their function. And in the Christian tradition, where ministry is concerned, this is a theological fallacy. As Andy writes,
"When it comes to defining the human being, the Christian tradition has claimed that to be human is to be a person. And to be a person is to be your relationships. It is not in instrumental functionalism that you are but in the relationships in which you are bound. We are in and through relationships of sharing love."
Young people, as people, are not what they "do." This is not necessarily to say that there is some "ideal" version of them that lives outside their actions. But it is to say that people are not just "it" they are "thou." I'm referring here to Martin Buber's classic work I and Thou. The question in what we call people is really not about what they are (sure, most young people are students, so if you've only got young people in your group who are students, why not call them that?)... the question is about how we are "bound" to them, how we orient ourselves to them. Are they just a function, a "student"--one who learns and to whom things are taught, an object of the pedagogical process? Again, Andy says, "Whatever we call them, it should bear the fundamental relational depth of our confession of who they are and how they are connected to who God is with and for them." And Andy might be right that it'd be better to call them "children," but I still say it's even better to call them "youth" or "young people." Because, like it or not, socially (not just biologically or psychologically), there is a distinct location, a "social practice" even (I'm referring here to Chris Jenks' Childhood), with its own creative dignity that is really neither adulthood nor childhood. "Youth" is still the best word... and it is nothing short of an imperative of justice that we do whatever it takes to rid that word of its pejorative and paternalistic stigmas.

Beyond simply being a poor theorization of "who" young people are, "Student Ministry" misconstrues and obscures our (adults') orientation to them (youth). To re-theorize and to re-define young people (are they "adolescents"? are they "teens"? are they "students"? are they "youth"?) is not enough, and it is not the most important question. We have to re-theorize ourselves! We must think about how our words and definitions affect our orientation to the other. Youth ministry--as MINISTRY--is one of the only places where adults are afforded the opportunity to encounter young people as persons, not just as objects for pedagogical or developmental processes. To call them "students" is, from the very beginning, to orient us to the young people as a teacher to a pupil--as one who is to affect the other--rather than as one who is open to being affected, one who anticipates the potentially disruptive encounter of one person (adult) to another person (youth).