poles #5: peer teachers vs. adult teachers


As I noted in the last College Ministry Poles entry, there are certain areas within campus ministry in which a surprising chasm exists. These are philosophical or methodological “camps” that, from what I can tell, may only have a hazy understanding that the other side exists. Parallel universes!

Reflecting one of those areas, today I ask, Does your ministry assign adults to disciple students (in small groups, for example), use students to disciple their peers, or offer a combination?

It would be easy to assume this one cuts nicely along the campus-based / church-based line, but that’s not the case – and we don’t want to leave out the Christian-college branch, either. Here’s what I’ve seen:

1. Certainly, many campus-based groups do largely use students to disciple other students. But this isn’t always the case. Adult leaders may lead many of the discipleship aspects of a ministry; in the case of smaller ministries, students may only be led by these adults. Meanwhile, there are campus-based ministries that use adult volunteers; Young Life College, for example, has aimed for large adult involvement in their chapters. And I recently encountered a Chi Alpha ministry (at Texas A&M Corpus Christi) with former students who continued their involvement in a discipling capacity.

2. Christian colleges vary along these lines. Because of the intergenerational campus community, Christian college discipleship ministries may use faculty or staff to lead student groups. Of course, students may also be involved in the same way.

3. Among church-based ministries, there’s also a mix. While church-based college ministries might generally have the best access to adult volunteers, that doesn’t mean they all use them. Certainly, many do, whether exclusively or with a mix of adult disciplers and student disciplers.

4. There are deep philosophical differences at work (sometimes). Here’s the most interesting thing: I’ve heard a significant number of college ministers express a belief that students aren’t effective as peer-leaders. The arguments I’ve heard tend to center on the idea that students rarely have enough maturity / knowledge to have much to offer people who are roughly their same age.

Of course, there are lots of ministers who would claim they’ve seen much benefit from using students to disciple their peers. Yet many of these ministers might have never considered using adults in the same way.

5. My guess is that many of us could ponder this more than we have. Because our use (or non-use) of adult leaders most often happens “automatically,” there’s probably room for most of us to spend some time thinking and tinkering in this area. Could a campus-based group “import” some adult volunteers, if they felt like that might be helpful? Sure. Could a group that primarily uses adults consider or even measure the value of using peer-disciplers? Absolutely.

And if either “camp” has formed its opinion without collaborating with ministries that have found success using the opposite model, then we’ve been a little hasty, right?

So what can you offer: A strong argument for students leading their peers? A strong argument against students primarily discipling other students? A strong argument for adult leadership?

Remember, your arguments and examples can help others think through this stuff. You might be surprised by how many out there fall on the opposite side of this spectrum!

to see the other College Ministry Poles entries (and all the great comments from everybody!), click here


[Click to comment or see any comments on this post!]

written from Motel 6, Tempe

Road Trip 13: Day 2 recap
drove Big Spring, TX, 12 hours to Tempe, AZ
miles so far: 1,068
T-shirt: the Majors of Millsaps College


  1. Both/and. We use adult leaders on Sunday mornings because I want the families to model to the college students the struggles and celebrations that married couples can have and still stay together and still be living for Christ. It’s also great because some of the girls will seek counseling from the wives while some of the guys seek out the male teacher for counsel as well.

    However, during the week, we offer peer lead discipleship groups and gives them a chance to try out teaching, leading, etc.

    There are definitely benefits of both. In missions, it’s normally natives that reach the natives that makes it successful. In the church though, it’s important for students to connect with ‘older’ families from the church rather than just their peers.

  2. Jon Smith

    I think that from a campus-based perspective you might as well ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Regardless of the utopian ideal of any camp, the reality is that most of the campus missionaries I know use whoever happens to be on hand and meets their own qualifying standards, which are based on sex and spiritual maturity 99% of the time. In my own context we use adults whenever we can (fully recognizing the wisdom of such a relationship), but physical age is just really low on any list of things we care about when trying to match up potenial discipling relationships. It might be higher if more choices were available, but they’re not, so we just go with what God has provided which is mostly student-student. Thus, pragmatism is the rule of law in operation for most campus ministries actively making disciples.

  3. Lindy

    I agree with both using adults and peers. I will say, however, that at one point while I was in high school, one of the older youth led our Sunday School class, and I struggled with feeling like, “How can I learn from someone who’s in the same boat as me?”

  4. The big picture question behind this is to ask what it is we want to accomplish? In our case, it is mentoring and equipping students, and part of that equation is to come alongside them and bring them to a point of doing what we do. In other words, I may start out leading a bible study or small group, but I have someone that I am planning on working with for him to take over the ministry. This is more a missions minded model of working yourself out of a job, rather than either doing it all yourself, or just having students do it without any training and using a curriculum that does the work.

  5. michaelmears

    When I saw this topic come up I was so excited to read input from all the campus ministry folks. I myself work with a parachurch with students connected to primarily 4 local churches all with different denominations from EV Free to Charismatic. After being reached through a parachurch while in college and now working for one I at first was a huge advocate of students discipling students. After 2 years as a student in the ministry and 4 as director more and more I am convinced through experience and scripturally that some of the best discipleship comes not from peers but rather adults. I have heard multiple pastors say that 20 year olds need 40 year old and I could not agree more. This is not to knock our upper classmen for they are doing a great job with 3-4 years of college experience on incoming students but ultimately the wisdom that an older godly (key word godly, not just gray hair) man or woman brings is priceless. Not only is it priceless but Titus 2 among other verses makes it clear the call for older men and women to take care of the younger men and women. I know this is a call on the churches but shouldnt the churches be an arm of the church reaching campus and connecting students to the body of Christ through the local church? I have not had a student yet say that they are not interested in the wisdom and experience of the generations ahead of them but are rather yearning to sit under the wisdom and watch how a godly man or woman in the next generation lives out their faith. So much to say here..This is extremely challenging in a parachurch but challenging does not mean we should push back on the call to have such interaction. I am interested to know if any PARAchurches are having success through multiple churches in such a form of discipleship. Please let me know. Too much to say

  6. Dan Turis

    I have been a campus minister in both settings. One where I needed to raise up student leaders to disciple students. The other was out of a church that was close to campus that used congregants to disciple students. I would have to say if I was drawing from experience only, hands down, no doubt, students discipling students. Though I think there are factors that make this a little tricky.
    A major factor is that students can use and need more attention. So naturally I would guess that a student living in that community would be able to do a multitude of things with those he or she is discipling and ultimately discipleship happens in many living examples and moments through out the day. Though that doesn’t disqualify a highly committed church member. The time requirement to do an adequate amount of transformation can not simply be had by an hour meeting once a week. This is what makes in my experience a church member somewhat ill fitted to disciple students. Though I would imagine there are TONS of exceptions to that rule. If you can imagine that a student is sitting in front of a professor for 3 hours a week for each class. What makes us think that a Sunday school teacher once a week will have more transformation than that. Ministry is incarnational and demands the minister to be among those he or she is ministering too. If a congregant is willing to take that call than I would welcome that.
    Another factor is that when we consider Para-church and Church based campus ministries we don’t define well each others gifts. The church needs to be the family of the student. They need to be invited to dinner. Encouraged to take leadership roles in the church. Cared for. Though most churches want to treat the student simply as a transient visitor that they must invest in from a distance and hopefully a select few will step and teach them. The Church wants to connect a student to a the select few designated for “campus ministry.” then they wan take a role in their development only after the campus ministers make the connections and meet with the students. They let the campus ministers or a select few volunteers do the hard work then they want the whole church to be a part of their teaching. If what I just said is true in your circumstance my opinion is that the church has done a fine enough job of removing themselves from the equation all together. In this case the Church has marginalized themselves to simply being an educational agency similar to that of the school they are enrolled in as apposed to say a fraternity where for the most part comraderory and friendship is the first thing felt by a new member. The church can be this to a student of course without the hazing.
    Another factor is that students are seen as too transitional to invest long term in. Churches need gear their training around the hope that they will decide to stay and be apart of the church for years to come. The thought of a student being a leader in the church is so far from the minds of most churches.
    On the other hand some Para-churches take this to far and dissuade students from participating in church. This is as equal of a crime.
    Campus ministers MUST recognize that a student praying with a 40 year old woman with cancer can put getting an A on a test in perspective. Communion and preaching of the word MUST be held among cross generational and cross cultural lines. If the Campus ministers are not plugging students into the vast body of Biblical perspectives of the body or worship styles or sermons that is not geared solely to a college audience they will not have a healthy perspective when they exit college.
    Most congregants are not equipped to lead college students. This does not mean they can’t. I often hoped that people from churches would have workshops or Sunday schools on how each congregant brings Christ into their work field. If you have a heart for the college student and cant commit to the time requirement then the next step of commitment in my mind can be to prepare students on how to be a Christian in the workforce. Something I would say Campus ministers are less equipped to handle.
    It is not an easy answer.
    Great question.

  7. I believe God uses both. I am a big fan of older staff people leading and setting the pace for the organization but giving students freedom to reach and disciple their peers. Much like a several missions organizations strategies for a Church Planting Movement. It starts with someone out side of the culture to come and model a lifestyle of discipleship and intentionally train the first converts to reproduce that. As a staff worker on campus our main role is to start the movement and then coach students in how to disciple their peers. So a combination of staff discipling upper class men and leaders and the upper classmen and leaders discipling freshman and new believers. This gives students the freedom to experience the joy of helping another person along but the organizational weight does not fall on them. The Staffs job is to organize, model and train the leaders to reproduce. With this strategy you get both more mature older staff people training the faithful who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim 2:2) Just some of my thoughts.

Leave a Reply