I’ve been thinking a lot lately about discipleship and ministry and life.
It all started a few years back when one of my colleagues in ministry, Pastor Loretta Sunderland, and I were looking over the fruit of the youth ministry we both so zealously engaged in over the years and we didn’t see much of it. Sure there were the exceptions to the rule and the few that had more grounding at home or with other mentors, but by and large, we didn’t see much fruit in the lives of the students we were graduating from high school and beyond. This was disconcerting for us because we both thought we were doing a great job at having an engaging and meaningful Youth group on Wednesday nights and a lot of fun activities beyond youth group nights. But it wasn’t happening.
So we started to think about how to disciple a core group of students who were hungry all while maintaining the status quo with the normal youth group on Wednesdays. This strategy ultimately failed because we ended up creating two separate Youth groups: one for the good kids and one for the bad kids! One for the spiritual ones (in-reach) and another for the hopefully spiritual ones (out-reach). This was not good because the out-reach group needed the disciples of Jesus to be around them, but the in-reach group didn’t want to go to the out-reach group and felt secure and comfortable in their own group.
So lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what discipleship looks like and how to go about engaging both groups (spiritual and non-spiritual). One thing that has helped the last couple of years (especially this year) was a spoken expectation on Wednesday nights that if you are hungry for the things of God then this is a welcome place for you to feast on Jesus or at least sample what Jesus Christ has to offer. We have since lost the ones who came JUST for fun or JUST to hang out with their friends. We do have fun, but that’s because everyone who comes to Youth now is either really hungry, or at the very least, a little curious about what this Christianity thing is all about.
Unknowingly, we have created an environment for both spiritually-minded and seekers alike (both the in-reach and the out-reach) to engage in the things of God without having to create two different groups with two different aims.
After all, why would a seeker want a group just for them? If a seeker is just around a bunch of other seekers, how will he or she ever get a real picture of what they are looking for if the audience is all seekers and not actively engaged disciples of Jesus? If, however, a group of actively engaged disciples of Jesus are learning how to follow Christ and are doing it according to how Jesus modeled it, then seekers who are actually seeking should feel entirely comfortable and challenged to be in a group of growing disciples rather than an environment catered just to them.
At least that’s what we’ve experienced this year at Youth. We have focused on growing disciples of Jesus and have a wide-open posture of welcoming anyone in who is hungry to learn more about God (no matter where they are on the spectrum of Christianity: dead, infant, child, young adult, or parent).
In the past we have engaged with curriculum, but it hasn’t produced disciples.
This year, however, I am noticing that we (all because of the Holy Spirit’s work) are encouraging and exhorting disciples of Jesus to engage in Jesus-centered spirituality as well as live it out. We are actually seeing the fruit of Gospel growth in both qualitative and quantitative ways (not the quantity our group used to be, we have less than half of the numbers we used to run).
We are learning what it means to have a plan, but not be limited by a curriculum or a certain structure (or expectation of what that structure even needs to be). In essence, we are learning what it means to make disciples in the same way Jesus did: asking hungry people to follow Him, studying the text Jesus knew so well, and engage in this kind of Jesus-like life together in community and on mission for Him.
This takes intention on our part as leaders. After all, if we’re not growing in the LORD ourselves, then how can we possibly ask students to follow Jesus with any integrity.
So that’s what we’re doing at Youth group at Hayward Wesleyan Church: