i was asked to respond to a series of questions for an article in our spanish youth ministry magazine: lider juvenil. the questions are on youth discipleship. you can see from my answers that i struggled with some of the wording! but, here are the questions and my responses:
When youth ministry talks about “discipleship”, what are we talking about precisely?
Jesus instructed his followers to “go and make disciples.” He didn’t say “go and make converts” (we seem to regularly forget this). A disciple is simply a follower. So, when we talk about discipleship, we’re talking about helping youth become followers of Jesus Christ. This doesn’t just mean a one-time decision. Being a “disciple” of Jesus means living a radical, counter-cultural lifestyle that imitates Christ: a life of grace and love, of caring for the poor, of being passionate about justice, of being people of integrity and humility. Wow! Can you imagine what it would be like to have a whole youth group full of teenagers who fit that description?
What is the difference between discipling an adolescent and discipling an adult?
In one sense, there’s no difference. We all need to be encouraged to bring our lives into alignment with the values, teachings, and life of Christ. But, certainly, adolescents have some differences from adults.
First, teenagers are less likely than adults to choose a path of discipleship on their own, without an adult mentor to help them learn what this looks like. The brains of teenagers are still forming, and the most under-developed part, called the “frontal lobe”, is the part that’s responsible for things like speculation, decision making, priorities, and thinking about implications. This is the stuff of discipleship! So, we need to come alongside teenagers and help them think about implications of following Jesus. As we help them with this, they’ll become more accustomed to using this part of their brains.
Second, the good news is that teenagers are notoriously passionate. You might say they are hard-wired for passion. This is very different than most adults. When a teenager really connects his or her life with the selfless life of Jesus, they are often willing to really give themselves to it. In other words, teenagers can engage in discipleship in a way that will radicalize their own lives, as well as their friends, their families, and their churches.
Why is it that churches do not focus on discipling adolescents, considering that it is in this stage that character is formed in a holistic way?
Great question! I think there are a couple reasons churches falter in this area.
First, churches often think of adolescents as “pre-adults”. In doing so, they downplay the role of teenagers in the body of Christ. People often think of teenagers as “the church of tomorrow.” There’s some truth to this, of course. But we need our churches to re-align their thinking on this, and consider teenagers as “the church of today!”
Second, i think many churches just don’t understand the developmental reality of the spiritual opportunity that exists with youth ministry. Young people are making decisions about who they are and who they want to become that will impact them for the rest of their lives. When we understand this, we come to a place where we put more emphasis, more resources, more time and energy into youth ministry.
There are groups that have a diferent vision of discipleship. Some call them emergent churches, where there isn’t a classic “structure”, but instead kids are reached through diferent strategies. What do you think about this? Is it efficient?
A “classic” structure of discipleship has – i think – erred in the direction of utilizing a banking model. The idea is: if we cram kids full of enough Bible information, they will become disciples. This approach to discipleship assumes that information leads to transformation. But this is usually not the case. Yes, an understanding of biblical truth is important. But if it’s not lived out, then what use is it?
The emerging church is difficult to describe. But one thing emerging churches seem to have in common is a desire to “live in the way of Jesus.” This embodies a fancy word: praxis. Praxis is the combination of reflection and action. In the context of discipleship, a praxis approach means that we help followers of Jesus (teenagers, in this case) learn to live like Jesus; and, then, we do theological reflection in that context.
No, it’s not efficient. But i don’t think efficiency is a value of the Kingdom of God!
What are the steps to develop an effective discipleship with adolescents?
I’m not a big fan of “steps”, to be honest. I think that implies that discipleship will look the same in my context as it does in yours. And that is not the case. Discipleship is not formulaic.
Look at the “steps” Jesus provides:
• To the rich young ruler, Jesus says, “Sell all you have and give to the poor.”
• To the woman at the well, Jesus says, “Go, and sin no more.”
• To the disciples, Jesus simply said, “Follow me.”
In other words, Jesus clearly didn’t think discipleship was a formula either. He was responsive to the differnet context for each person he encountered.
So, if i were to offer “steps”, i would say this:
• Get to know the teenagers in your ministry
• Get to know Jesus
• Live in the way of Jesus yourself, so you become a living labratory for your own reflection, and for your teenagers to observe
• Exercise prayerful discernment, with your teenagers, about what an approach to discipleship should look like in your context.
• Try something. Live a life of faith in action together.
From your perspective as director of YS and one of the speakers at the Spanish Conventions, are there diferent issues regarding discipleship among latinamerican kids and northamerican kids?
Well, yes, in the sense that there are different issues regarding discipleship for any one youth group in comparison to any other youth group.
I do think there are some contextual differences that we could generalize become northamerican kids that present different hurdles to discipleship:
• North America is an extremely individualistic culture. This is a problem, when it comes to discipleship, because discipleship should be a communal experience, not just a solo activity.
• North America is an extremly materialistic culture. Our kids have a lot of “stuff”, and (remember what Jesus said to the rich young ruler?) stuff often gets in the way of discipleship.
• North America is often (but not always) a very driven culture. Kids are expected, often by their parents, to excel in sports and other activities, in addition to school (so they can “get a good job someday”). And this often gets in the way of discipleship.
One hurdle I’ve observed in Latin America, that seems to be a bit less of a challenge in North America, is that asking questions and expressing doubts are often seen as threats, or seen as a sign of spiritual weakness. But asking questions and processing doubts are an important part of the discipleship process. We have to make it safe for kids to wrestle honestly with real life, and with their deepest thoughts, ideas, concerns, questions, and fears.
If you could express in a few words what is the ABC of successful discipleship for adolescentes, what would you say?
Ah, we’re back to “steps” again.
While i’m not a big fan of that wording, i’ll say this: The ABC of successful discipleship for adolescents is engaging them in Kingdom living.