These next few posts will mostly be for the people with a personal interest in our youth program. But if you don’t attend our church or have any connection with our students, perhaps these thoughts will still be helpful for you as you think through your own faith community and how it impacts teenagers.
As I have been involved in various leadership roles in church youth groups over the past decade or so, it has become all too clear to me that almost everyone has their own ideas about what a youth program should look like. And so, as we seek to be all the more effective in impacting the lives of teens with the kingdom of God, I think it is helpful for us all to be on the same page.
Jesus gives us a great word picture of the kingdom in Luke 13:18-19.
So He was saying, “What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.”
Now, I know very little (next to nothing) about how mustard trees work. But one thing I do know is that growing a tree takes time… lots and lots of time. Too often in the youth ministry game, we want to see mature fruit in our students right after we planted seeds. (Speaking of planting seeds, be sure to check out Matthew’s post about what it really means and doesn’t mean to plant seeds). Which simply isn’t how the kingdom of God works.
But I like that picture of a tree, so let’s stick with that mental image and use it as we talk about what the kingdom of God is going to look like here at First UMC. And the best place to start talking about a tree is its roots. The roots are the foundation. It’s the place where we find our center. You have to have the roots, and you have to hold onto them. A tree without roots simply won’t grow … in fact, before long it will die.
And the roots of our youth ministry (or any ministry) is the Great Commission. You see, in Matthew 28:19-20, the resurrected Jesus is about to ascend back to heaven and leave his apostles to grow this mustard tree kingdom, and the last thing he tells them is “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Did you catch that? The last thing Jesus told his followers to do was not to go make “Christians” or “converts,” but to go and make disciples. A disciple is someone who follows. It’s not someone who said a prayer once. It’s not someone who had a really great conversion experience. You see, discipleship isn’t about soaring on wings like eagles so much as it is about walking in the dust with our Rabbi.
I am sad (and somewhat embarrassed) to say that I have seen youth pastors and speakers at youth events convince teenagers to make emotion-driven decisions for Jesus and then tell them to go back home to their schools and peer-groups and try to get their friends to now also make similar decisions. Not only is that model of ministry not effective (in fact, it’s damaging), but also it completely avoids discipleship … which is the one thing that Jesus told us to do!
Because I believe so strongly in the centrality of discipleship for our youth program, over the past year I have adopted Colossians 1:28 as the goal of my ministry, working “so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” My goal is not to get kids to say the sinner’s prayer and have good church attendance. Rather, my goal is to produce fully mature believers. When students graduate from our youth program, my desire is that they would be mature Christians who have walked in the dust of discipleship. And that means that they have to remain connected to the roots.
Now (here comes the ugly part), this goal, this root of discipleship that we are holding onto has some rather unpleasant implications. The first is that it’s not very attractional. Kids will flock to fun and games. However, being up-front and honest with students about the day-in and day-out tedium of true discipleship isn’t going to win me any popularity contests. (If you want a good explanation as to why I am so opposed to attractional youth ministry, check out my sermon “Are You Relevant?”) And the second thing is that true discipleship often comes in small numbers. Just look at Jesus! When free food was available, thousands followed him. But when it came down to who really wanted to be his disciple and who was just looking for a free meal, only a dozen or so stuck around. As I’ve told many of you already, I would rather have a youth group of 5 students who are sold out for the kingdom of God than 50 students who just show up to youth group to see their friends. And I know that’s uncomfortable for a lot of us. In our culture, we measure success by numbers. Not so with God. True discipleship, real kingdom building, actually doing what Jesus commanded us to do, is going to look a lot less like feeding 5,000 and a lot more like mentoring 12.