Following Christ into ministry is an incredible life to live. You’ll be a part of seeing Christ change people’s lives and bring redemption to the most broken people in our world. You will find this calling to be deeply meaningful and fulfilling. But you will also face challenges and struggles that are difficult to imagine from where you sit today. As such, you’ll need Christ to be near, and you will need to be vigilant in the following areas of life.
- Be a disciple and make disciples. As simple and obvious as it may sound, you must maintain a close walk with Christ in all you do. Unfortunately, for many people going into ministry, they unintentionally allow the work of ministry to replace communion with Christ, and they begin to rely on their own power and giftedness. You would never intend to let this happen, but if you aren’t vigilant, it will happen. You must labor to maintain and further cultivate the spiritual disciplines that brought you this far. You need Christ now more than you have ever needed Him. Remember that your power, wisdom and effectiveness come from God, not you (Acts 1:8, John 15:5).
Furthermore, as you walk with Christ, teach others to do the same. You may not think of yourself as someone capable of discipling others, but you have a sphere of influence with people that God can use too. Each of us must be faithful stewards of these relationships by encouraging others to walk with Jesus and showing them how to do that. Your voice matters. Your influence matters. And you can make disciples of others right now.
- Protect your purity and reputation. The devil studies and crafts traps for each of us that are perfectly designed for our weakest spots. He is patient and will wait years to ensnare you. He will entice you with small temptations and lure you into patterns of sin that may seem “harmless” in the moment but will develop into patterns that will ultimately destroy you and hurt others in due time. Sexual temptation is a common trap, especially for men. As such, NOW is the time to do whatever is necessary to purge these debilitating habits from your life. If this is true for you, get some help. Find someone who can walk with you into victory.
Along with your purity, your reputation also matters. The choices you make, things you say, and the way you treat people will shape the way people think of you for years to come. In a time when most people shrug this off and say, “you be you”, we must remember that a poor reputation diminishes not just our chances for future opportunities, but it also diminishes our witness and ability to be salt and light. Every day, and in everything we do, our lives send a message to lost people.
- Start serving now. For a lot of students, serving Jesus is something they are willing to do one day, maybe after college, marriage, or after some other threshold they cross. Don’t wait. Don’t confuse serving Jesus now with your future vocation later in life. You may indeed hold a vocational ministry position in a church one day in the future, but there is a lot you can and should be doing to serve Jesus in the church today. In fact, some of the most fertile years of service can be during your college years. Many of your peers are seeking answers, making major life choices, and forming beliefs, and they are doing it now in this window of life. They will do more of that now than they will in years to come. As such, now is the time that matters most for them.
But there is another reason that you should be serving now instead of waiting. Just as God can be at work through you now, He has somethings to do in you right now. Spiritual formation is not a short process. It takes a lifetime. If you are faithful to seek Him and let Him use you now, then He will be at work to conform you to the image of His son (Rom. 8:29).
- Determine and use your spiritual gifts. In human terms, most of us are rather normal people. In fact, you may not feel super special or well-suited for ministry. No worries, that is exactly the kind of person that God typically picks and seeks to use (I Cor. 1:26-29). In Christ, each of us have been given spiritual gifts for the work of God’s ministry (I Cor. 12). As we grow in Christ, we begin to discern the specific kinds of things we are most gifted to do. But how do we do this? Let me offer four points of guidance.
-Biblical instruction. Always start with Scripture. The question you should ask as you study Scripture is: “What kinds of things does God call us to do, and what are His stipulations for doing those kinds of ministries?” God is never going to lead you by His spirit in a direction that is contrary to His word.
-Spiritual devotion. There is no spiritual discernment apart from spiritual devotion. If you want God to reveal His plans for you over time, then you must walk with Him regularly.
-Long-term submission and dependance. A lot of people will tell you to follow your heart. Your friends who’ve read Jeremiah, however, will remind you that “the heart is deceitfull” and that it cannot be trusted (Jeremiah 17:9). This is where long-term devotion and submission come in. As you walk with God over time, He will shape your heart to fit his own. When He has, you will know what it is that He is calling you to do.
-Confirmation from the body of Christ. In many ways, the answer to your calling will come from your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. God will use you in ways that are obvious to the body of Christ and your calling will be confirmed. For example, though I played guitar and was mildly musical in college, the body of Christ never looked to me to lead worship. But it has, and still does, call on me to preach. Look for the ways that you naturally fit within the body and how it looks to you for help.
- Work hard and be dependable. If you work hard and are dependable, you will have a lot of opportunity and God will use you. Unfortunately, laziness and apathy often determine the role we might play. I see this in ministry, and as a professor, I also see it in the classroom. In fact, in my career the most brilliant students have often been the laziest. I’ve often said over the years that I’d take one kid with grit as opposed to a thousand kids with brains. The hard-working ones always do better than those who are just smart.
If your leaders can depend on you, doors will be opened for you. If you work hard and reject apathy, then you will do well. And, if you do this, the Lord will be pleased with you (Prov. 6:10-11, II Thess. 3:7-10).
- Educate yourself. The Christian faith is both simple and complex. It is simple enough that children can understand and come to Christ. It is complex enough that the greatest minds for the past 2,000 years have given everything to understanding it. To properly represent Christ in your service to Him, you must be a student of His word, and of the Christian faith itself. Here especially, you cannot be lazy. Our faith is challenged by all sorts of skeptics, and it is counterfeited by all sorts of heretics. You must be diligent to know the faith as best as you possible can (I Tim. 2:15).
For some of you, this will take the form of traditional theological education in one of our seminaries. You can certainly learn a lot without a seminary degree. Seeking one, however, continues to be one of the best ways to receive a well-rounded biblical and theological education. Students that seek a theological education can study with, and be mentored by, scholars with tremendous knowledge and wisdom, and who have also served Jesus for decades. That is always incredibly profitable.
- Learn how to communicate. Communication is critical for every form of ministry. And communication takes a wide variety of forms. Let me mention three important things to pursue. First, if you haven’t already, you need to learn how to share your testimony. You may think that your story isn’t powerful or helpful to others, but it is. Think about it, very likely, you came to faith because you heard other people sharing their story. At some point, it was other people telling you about Jesus and what He’s done for them that either caused you to consider the faith or was a catalyst for you trusting Christ. Learn how to tell other people what Jesus has done in your life. It is powerful!
Second, you’ll need to learn how to teach and instruct people in the word of God, whether you are a preacher, Sunday school teacher, small group leader, or communications director. If you are teaching or preaching, find someone that will show you the basics of moving from the scriptures to a lesson or message. Follow simple steps like (1) identifying the major point(s) of a passage, (2) explaining and illustrating those points, and (3) applying it to life for your people. And then, as you start trying to do this yourself, start listening to the way various teachers and preachers do it. In other words, listen not just for the content they give that feeds the souls, but watch and learn also from the way the put it all together and deliver it.
Third, the way we communicate on social media matters deeply. In our current cultural moment, hostility, sarcasm, rudeness, and mean-spiritedness rule the day. And unfortunately, Christians are just as guilty of this as anyone else. As Christians, there is no place for this in our lives or interactions with others. We are representatives of Jesus Himself and we must conduct ourselves as He did.
- Marry the right spouse. God will call some of you to be single and go places you could not go with a spouse. But for most of you, you will be married, and ministry will be a part of your life and marriage. As you date, get engaged, and get married, do so with great wisdom. Address red flags, listen to the counsel of close friends and family members, and make sure that the person you marry shares a calling into ministry and is growing in that calling just as you are.
Unfortunately, too many young believers ignore the advice given above and rush into marriage with people that will ultimately limit or destroy any chance of long-term service. Sometimes young godly women marry men that do not lead well or have major hidden moral problems. And sometimes godly young men to the same. In short, who you marry matters a lot and is one of the most important decisions you will make, not just for life in general, but specifically for ministry.
- Manage your finances well and avoid getting in debt. One problem that future ministers face is crippling debt. There are many ways you can accumulate debt, but the most common way you will accumulate debt at this point in life will be student debt related to college loans. Too often, a student finishes college with large student loans that either (1) prevent them from taking a ministry position in a church, or (2) prevent them from serving oversees with the IMB or another mission agency.
To some degree, taking some form of debt may be inevitable for some students. But you should be extremely careful with this as it could keep you from doing the things you feel God is calling you to do. Be careful how you spend. Pay off credit cards each month. And if you can receive the same education and credentials at a school that will cost you significantly less, then make sure you make the right decisions about your education.
- Be involved in missional experiences. One of the most important things you can do during your college years is go on international mission trips. If your church or college ministry isn’t planning any in the immediate future, find a group that is and consider joining them.
There are several benefits to getting involved in international missions at this point in life. First, you’ll be involved in meaningful ministry right now (see “Start Serving Now” above). Second, going to the hard places not only please the Lord and helps broken people, but it also expands your perspective about brokenness in the world. It puts your own life in proper perspective, and helps you avoid selfishness. Third, trips like this could very likely give you clarity on what God is calling you to do with your life.
Or course, there is always more to learn and remember. But for now, this is a place to start. As you walk this path, know that countless others have gone before you and found rich and meaningful life in service to the King. The same will happen for you if you obey Him. Also know that those who have gone before you stand ready to pour into you and help you as you go. I’m praying for you, my friends!