military people on navy ship

9 Reasons to Intentionally Minister to the Military

Yvonne and I have been actively involved in military ministry in the military “hub” of Norfolk-Virginia Beach for 19 years. We spent 20 years in the United States Navy.  I was an enlisted electronics technician for 10 years, and a Navy chaplain for another 10 years. I experienced military life both as an enlisted man and as an officer. People who have never been in the military have no experience, or understanding, what these young people deal with on a daily basis. So it’s important to us to encourage and train churches and other couples how to INTENTIONALLY minister to the military.

To intentionally minister to the military means more than just saying military men and women are welcome to attend our church. In this article I want to give you 9 reasons to intentionally minister to the military near you.

1. The Military is a Unique Culture

Many people, including some who are new to life in the military, think serving in the military is just like any other job. But it is not!

The military is unique. First and foremost it is a war-fighting institution. It has its own language, values, customs, and culture. In addition, the military maintains restricted access to its installations for national security reasons. This effectively puts a barrier of sorts between the military community and the surrounding civilian population. It creates a subculture within the larger population.

The vast majority of those serving in the military are young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. Young men and women who, prior to entering the military, may have been flipping burgers at McDonald’s or bagging groceries at the local supermarket. These young people quickly become highly trained and motivated warriors. They often hold the world’s most powerful weapons in their hands.

The military strives to instill character traits such as duty, honor, and commitment in these young warriors. It trains them to live in an authoritarian environment where immediate and unquestioned obedience to commands is required and enforced. Severely changing their lives, it even restricts and controls their free time! This forced regimentation often comes as a shock to a new enlistee. As a teenager, she may have just started asserting her independence from mom and dad.

A significant number of these young people are geographically removed from the influence of their family and friends. And for the first time in their lives may have large amounts of discretionary spending money. They are surrounded by other young men and women from vastly different cultural backgrounds. Without their family’s influence nearby, their new financial freedom, and increased peer pressure, they often begin making poor personal choices. Many begin turning to alcohol, drugs, or sexual activity for entertainment.

2. Christians Often Feel Isolated

It’s also not unusual for the Christian young person to feel they are the only ‘Christian’ in their unit. They frequently face ridicule and embarrassment for openly identifying themselves as a Christian. Without adequate spiritual support they can drift away from the church, their spiritual roots and even faith in Jesus Christ.

3. Military Life is Filled with Stressors

For many young people, joining the military was supposed to be an exciting adventure. It was marketed as an opportunity to “see the world” and “be all that you can be.” They may even have accepted the idea that joining the military was an easy way to pay for college.

But for most of them, the reality turns out to be something far different! They experience long, grueling, 12 to 18 hour work days. These are followed by additional hours of watch standing and studying for promotion exams. Then there are also the endless cleaning details. For many, something as basic as sleep becomes a prized and precious commodity.

Aboard a Navy ship, a sailor’s life literally involves eating, sleeping, working and playing on a floating factory. This can last for weeks and months at a time. Sailors with families often have to cope with long and unexpected periods of separation from their loved ones. In the midst of all this busyness, they still have to deal with extended periods of inactivity and boredom.

4. The Greatest Stressor is Death

Because the military is a war-fighting institution, the greatest stressor service members face is the possibility of dying. These young warriors face grave dangers in combat, and even in their day to day jobs. When they enter combat they face the very real possibility of being killed or watching a friend die. But worst of all, they may have to face killing another human being in the line of duty.

5. Suicide is on the Rise in the Military

All of these stressors impact young servicemen and women. Many get overwhelmed morally, spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. An ever increasing number become so depressed that they lose all hope. They feel so helpless they consider, attempt, or even commit suicide. 

Suicide in the military has been on the rise for years.[1] Some consider the suicide rate in the military to be at ‘epidemic’ levels, especially in the Army.

Jeffrey Hyman noted in his article entitled, Suicide Incidence and Risk Factors in an Active Duty US Military Population that,

 “The suicide rate increased for all services between 2005 and 2007. The increase was greatest for the Regular Army and National Guard.”[2]

The Department of Defense recognizes the intense pressures that are placed on the young men and women it enlists. So it conducts a survey of the health of the active duty military community every three years. The DoD Survey of Health Related Behaviors[3] has been the main source of health behavior information for the military since 1980. The statistics from these studies are published in the Survey of Health Related Behaviors Among Military Personnel[4]. Conclusions and recommendations from the study are then used to drive human resource management decisions that affect the overall health and welfare of the military community.

6. Spirituality Improves Emotional and Mental Health

In 2005, the category of ‘religiosity/spirituality’ was included in the DoD survey. Researchers found that,

“20% of military personnel were categorized as having high religiosity/spirituality. More than half were categorized as having a medium level, and almost one-fourth were categorized as having low religiosity/spirituality.”[5]

In the survey researchers noted some ‘statistically significant’ differences between spirituality levels and certain health and stress measurements. They said:

Persons categorized as being highly religious/spiritual were less likely to be heavy alcohol users, cigarette smokers, or illicit drug users. They were also less likely to engage in risky behaviors, to meet criteria for need of further evaluation for depression or anxiety, perceive “a lot” of stress at work or in their family, or indicate they had seriously considered suicide in the year prior to the survey than those categorized as having a low level of religiosity/spirituality.[6]

This ‘religiosity/spirituality’ category was not specifically ‘Christian’ in its perspective. But it is reasonable to reason from the evidence that helping military men and women develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ can improve the quality of their lives in the military. It can also help them better deal with the stress factors associated with military life.

7. Servicemen and Women Must Be Spiritually Prepared for Combat

As highly trained and motivated as these young warriors are for combat, they must also be spiritually prepared for combat. They have to understand that if they die in combat, they will stand before Jesus Christ as their eternal judge. Every serviceman and woman must answer the question: “If I were to die suddenly in combat, where would I spend eternity?”

The young men and women who enter the military need to establish a personal relationship with Jesus Christ before they go into combat. Their relationship with Him must to be strong enough to sustain them on the battlefield. And, it must be strong enough to sustain them when they come home.

Actions that men and women in the armed forces often have to take on the battlefield haunt them for years. This is called post traumatic stress. Being spiritually prepared before they go into battle helps them deal with this post traumatic stress. 

The sights, sounds, and smells of war can impact a person’s life long after they come home from war. The memories can devastate a young person’s life emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Being spiritually prepared for combat involves personally understanding and experiencing ‘forgiveness’ through faith in Jesus Christ. Only by having personally experienced Christ’s forgiveness will they be able to forgive themselves. They will be able to better live and deal with the memories of some of the actions they may have had to take on the battlefield.

8. Millennials Consider Religious Issues Irrelevant

Unfortunately, the interest in spiritual things among this age group is not encouraging. David Kinnaman and Thom Rainer wrote about surveys they conducted of Millennials (young adults between the ages of 18 and 30). Kinnaman observed that,

 “the ages eighteen to twenty-nine are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is ‘missing in action’ from most congregations.”[7]

He goes on to note that

“there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement.”[8]

Thom and Jess Rainer observed in their studies that,

“Overall, spiritual matters were unimportant to these young adults. Only 13 percent of them viewed religion and spiritual matters with any degree of importance.”[9]

Said another way, 87 percent of this age group view God, religion, and spiritual matters as irrelevant to their lives!

So why do I share this statistic with you? And why is it important to intentionally minister to the military as a result? Because the vast majority of people serving in the United States military are in this age group – between 18 and 25. Most of them have never been born again and don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. What’s worse, they may not even care!

9. Military and Civilian Young Adults are Different

Many people ask us, “What’s the difference between ministering to military young adults and civilian young adults?” 

They also ask, “Why not simply include military young adults in the church’s young adult ministry? After all, they are the same age.”

While it’s true they are the same age chronologically, they are very different because of their stage in life. Ministering to young military men and women is very different than ministering to civilian young adults, despite the age similarity.

For example, civilian young adults are usually in their hometown and attending their home church. They are also near their biological families and lifelong friends. Young adults in the armed forces, on the other hand, are usually in a strange city or state. They are usually away from their families, friends, and home church. As a result, they are often homesick, lonely, and looking for somewhere to belong. They want to be accepted, and make friends.

Civilian young adults have their intimate circle of family and friends nearby. As a result, they may not have an interest in welcoming a serviceman into their inner circle of friends.

Another difference between civilian and military young adults is the relative permanence and stability of the civilian young person’s life. This is in stark contrast to the transience and instability of the young military person’s life. Civilian young adults who live in military communities are keenly aware of the transience of military personnel. They know the young military woman will repeatedly leave the area and eventually transfer away permanently. As a result, there is often a reluctance to reach out to establish a friendship with her.

Similarly, a young serviceman’s training, and the focus of his daily life, revolves around military specific duties. Their interests and the things they talk about will be related to their military jobs. The civilian young adult often knows nothing about these activities and may have no interest in them.

Men and women in the military travel to many strange and exotic places in the world. Civilian young adults, on the other hand, may not have traveled much. They may not understand, nor be interested in, the service member’s experiences or travels. Likewise, the things civilian young adults are interested in may not interest the young military person. The activities of the church’s young people might remind her of home, what she left behind, and make her loneliness all the more painful.

Sometimes a soldier or marine will go into a combat situation during a time of war. And for national security reasons, she may not be able to talk about where she’s been or what she did. This secrecy can be interpreted as aloofness by the civilian young adult. A perception that adds to the distance and difference between them.

While military and civilian young adults are the same age, and seem as though they should have many things in common, the differences between the two groups are significant. The feeling of being unwelcome or viewed as an ‘outsider’ often causes the young military person to stay away from local churches.

To intentionally minister to the military is important and necessary because of these differences. Hospitality house ministry to the military targets these specific needs and takes the military’s transient nature into account.

Dr. John Wagner, CHC, USN (Ret.)

Dr. John Wagner, CHC, USN (Ret.)

Pastor of the Lighthouse Military Ministry, Author of "You Invited Me In...The Story of a Pentecostal Hospitality House Military Ministry," Retired Navy Chaplain

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Footnotes:

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/staff/834/gregg-zoroya/Gregg Zoroya. “U.S. Military Suicides Remain High For 7th Year.” USA Today. Updated May 4, 2016. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/ 2016/04/01/us-military-suicides-remain-stubbornly-high/82518278/.

[2] Jeffrey Hyman, Robert Ireland, Lucinda Frost, Linda Cottrell. “Suicide Incidence and Risk Factors in an Active Duty US Military Population.”
Am J Public Health. 2012 Mar; 102(Suppl 1): S138–S146. Published online 2012 Mar. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300484 PMCID: PMC3496445.

[3] Military Health System. “Survey of Health Related Behaviors.” https:// health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/Access-Cost-Quality-and-Safety/Health-Care-Program-Evaluation/Survey-of-Health-Related-Behaviors.

[4] 2011 Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel, https://www.murray.senate.gov/public/_cache/ files/889efd07-2475-40ee-b3b0-508947957a0f/final-2011-hrb-active-duty-survey-report.pdf, 1.

[5] Robert M. Bray, 2005 Department of Defense Survey of Health Related Behaviors Among Military Personnel, 2005, 239.

[6] Ibid.

[7] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 22.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thom S Rainer and Jess W. Rainer, The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation (Nashville: B&H Publishing Co.), 111.