Getting the Right Students Involved

Years ago, and I mean years ago, like 1960 to 1980s years ago, there was a youth ministry theory called the Key Kid Theory.  Have you ever heard of this before?  Unfortunately, if you try to google it, you cannot find it.  I first heard about it when I was attending classes at Messiah College, working towards a Christian Education degree.

The Key Kid Theory is a strategy that if you, as the Youth Pastor or Head Youth Leader, focus on beginning and developing relationships with the key (i.e. popular) students at the local high school or in the youth program, you would be able to draw many more students to you youth program or event.  It is a theory that requires you to spend most of your time and energy building and developing relationships with these select students.  The benefit is that hopefully you will be able to draw more students into your program because now you have the “cool” factor as you have “cool” students coming to whatever you are doing. It is very controversial and I have found that a simple discussion on this can often turn very heated.

What do you think of this kind of approach?  Do you think this is the right approach to take in attracting key students?  Does this still happen in today’s ministry?

Unfortunately, I believe that many youth ministries still operate on this theory today.  I say unfortunately because I do not believe that this is the right approach to take for a few reasons:

  1. There are no more key kids. Back when this theory was in prominence, you had your all-star quarterback and head cheerleader that everyone wanted to be around.  If you wanted to draw students to an event you were hosting, having them there would cause others to follow.  However, in this day and age, the all-star quarterback and the head cheerleader are the heads of just 2 of the numerous groups in the local middle and high schools.  There are so many other groups in school now that you cannot simply focus on building relationships or winning the right with just a group or two.  If you do, you will miss out on the majority of the students in your school or your ministry.
  2. This theory encourages favoritism. When you focus on a few key students, you are choosing to alienate the others in your program. You are creating a class system – the cool and the uncool, the haves and have-nots.  Sure, you can argue that you are taking this approach because you want to and will reach the have-nots.  But, you focus on them only after you get the haves, only after you win the better students. This is counter to all Christ was about.  He constantly spent time with and won the right with everyone, especially the uncool, poor, desolute and the have nots (Mark 2:13-17). James 2:1-10 also highlights the importance of loving everyone the same, not matter what they look like or do.

Even though I am not advocating a key kid theory, I do believe you can and should surround yourself with the right students in your program.  You need students to help you for a variety of reason.  For starters, it gives them ownership of the program and allows them to use their gifts for the Lord.  Secondly, it provides you with additional leaders to minister.  Working at a non-mega church, it can be hard to find the right leaders to help you minister to your youth.  By having these students involved, you have additional leaders you can use at any given time.  Lastly and most importantly, surrounding yourself with the right students is a perfect opportunity to take students deeper in Christ.

This approach is different than the key kid theory because with key kids you are using the popularity of a few to gain attendance and prominence of your program.  The right student approach is designed to focus on students first, program second.  It is a great opportunity to take your students to that next level.

Who are your right students?

What makes up the right student?  For starters, anyone could be one.  Unlike the key kid theory, you are not alienating anyone because being the right student has nothing to do with popularity, race or gender.  It has everything to do with surrounding yourself with students who are ready to take that next step in their relationship with Christ.  They are the ones that have a desire to go deeper, have a heart to reach others and have the ability to make an impact for Christ!  In the Youth Specialties Artsource Clip Art, they have a clip art called F.A.T.  You may have heard it before, but it stands for someone who is Faithful, Available and Teachable.  Your right students will be someone who embodies these three characteristics.

Faithful: Finding the right student requires you to find someone who is faithful to Christ first and foremost.  In Matthew 6:33, Christ challenges us all to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.  When you are looking for that right student, you have to find someone who has a desire to grow in his/her relationship with Christ.

I have encountered a lot of students in my time that have had a lot of potential to do great things.  They are funny and very charismatic, but their desire and passion for Christ is very little.  No matter how much time I spent with them, they just did not want Christ that much.  Unless your potential right student knows Christ and is actively seeking him first, they are the wrong student for what you want to accomplish.

Available: You may have a student who is very faithful to Christ and your program and wants to help out in some way.  However, this student is not always available because he/she plays a sport(s), is highly involved at school, has a job or other recreational conflicts that prevent them from help out very much.  We live in a very busy world where people and programs are tugging on our students left and right.  They are not always bad things as there are many good things for them to do.  If a student has so much on their plate, they are probably the wrong student for you because they have limited availability.

For example, I had this great student a few years ago who was well grounded, had a servants heart and had a desire for his friends to come to know Christ.  The problem was that he was involved in so much!  He had a girlfriend, was very involved in Young Life, played, coached and refereed sports.  Not only that but he was very involved in school activities!  This person would have been great to have serve with us at the Church, but he was never available.  Did that limit what Christ did in his life?  No Way!  God did some great things in his life and the life of others.  But, it did limit what he could do at Cedar Run.

Deciding whether or not someone is available or not is a tough call to make, but it needs to be made.  In the long run, there are few things more frustrating for students and Youth Pastors alike when the desire for them to be involved is there, but the actuality for them doing what is needed is NOT there.  In order for a student to be the right student, he or she needs to be available.

Teachable: Being teachable is key.  Being faithful and available are very important, but if you have a student who fits the first 2 categories but is not teachable, he/she is not worth the investment you will put into them.  When someone is teachable, that means they are willing to be taught and desire to learn.

I have been doing youth ministry full time for over 12 years and following Christ whole heartedly for over 16 years.  I could easily say that I know it all and that there is nothing more for me to learn.  But that is not the case.  As Proverbs 12:15 says, “Fools think they need no advice, but the wise listen to others.”  The moment we think we know it all and are not willing to learn is the moment we lose our effectiveness for Christ.

In order to be the right student, someone has to be teachable.  God has so much He wants us to know and learn that we have to be open to his leading and direction, no matter how well versed we feel that we are.

Once you have set up the criteria, students can decide for themselves if they are ready to be the right students for what you are looking for.  You are not alienating anyone, you are simply taking students who want to, go to that next level.

How to Invest in them?

Now that you have identified the right students, it is important to invest in them properly.  Investing and building into them is very similar to how you invest in your leaders.  You want to give them skills to be successful in ministry, but you also want to help them out with life skills.  What is it they need to hear or know about a followers of Christ in today’s world?   For each youth program, your training time with the students will look different depending on what your mission statement and primary focus is.  However, here are a few suggestions you could use for your F.A.T. Training Times:

  • Spend time digesting Scripture together.  This is not another Bible Study, but use this opportunity to build into your leader students and inspire them to take leaps of faith similar to what is found in the Bible.
  • Give them ownership of your program.  They are available to help, so include them in planning and preparing.  At Cedar Run, we created Ministry Teams for students to serve in.  Having them being able to meet in those Teams during this time is important.
  • Walk through a book together.  There are great books out there that you all can spend time covering like “Improving Your Serve” by Charles Swindoll, “Holy Sweat” by Tim Hansel or “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster.  Reading and processing books like these will inspire your students to take that next step and continue to pursue Christ all the more.
  • Use this time as a way to teach and live out community and accountability.  Over the course of your meeting time, break up into guy and girl small groups where you are getting real with each other.  Break down walls (not literally please) by building trust and support with each other.  It can be a powerful time.

You have an awesome opportunity to surround yourself with all sorts of students when you are in ministry.  But, if you can identify some of the right students to catch your vision and run with you, you, your ministry and most importantly, they will be much better off.  You are going to be training and equipping your students who could have a far greater impact in life and in ministry than you will.  What’s not to like about that?


  1. Examine if you have the right students in your program.  Are the F.A.T.?
  2. How are you going to raise them up?  Use the summer months to start planning out a fall training and leadership time.
  3. Invite some new students to become the right students you surround yourself with.  Encourage your other volunteer leaders to identify students as well so that you can kick this off successfully in the fall.

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