Running the Long Race Together

Youth ministry is fraught with all sorts of distractions and decisions. It’s really easy to get caught up in things that don’t ultimately matter, like which butt ugly youth event t-shirt should I wear today? Or how can I induce vomiting in my students this Wednesday night? When it comes down to it, we’re really great at offering fun times. We’re even good at offering students chances to encounter and receive Christ as their Savior. But what happens when all that wears off? What happens when it’s mid-February and a student’s world has come crashing down on her?

Even for the youth ministry veteran, crisis situations can be daunting. That’s why a steady and consistent discipleship process can help prepare you and your students for those uneven times. Here are a few things that are essential if you’re going to help disciple your students toward greater Christ-likeness.

Discipleship starts with you.
Yep, you can’t lead others toward the goal of Christ-likeness if you yourselves are not on that journey. It doesn’t matter if you are a lifelong Christian or a newbie; if you do not pay careful and consistent attention to your own spiritual development, you’ll find yourself floundering around, chasing after this or that program or fad which promises to offer results. Those programs or fads might work for a while, but they won’t offer the lasting impact on your students that you’re after. Here are a few things to help you nurture your own faith:

  • Set aside time to pray every day. Don’t just talk to God; sit and listen. Be quiet. Be alone.
  • Read scripture. Don’t do it just to prepare a lesson, but allow it to seep into your bones. Try practicing the Lectio Divina.
  • Get a spiritual mentor(s). Find someone more mature than you. It doesn’t matter where they live. Connect with them on a regular basis.
  • Read books. Don’t get stuck on practical youth ministry books. Branch out; read some Eugene Peterson or Wendell Berry. Fiction can offer some significant spiritual insights, too.
  • Listen to sermons. Maybe you don’t get into the main worship service that your church offers. Listen to the recording if your church offers it. Otherwise, check out other pastor’s sermons. Some of my favorite preachers include Jon Middendorf and Scott Daniels. Do both! It’s always good to hear fresh perspectives.

The Christian life is messy, and it’s hard. We can’t help students make this journey if we aren’t constantly making progress ourselves.

Discipleship starts before they’re Christian.
This may seem a bit odd to say, but discipleship often begins long before anyone makes a decision to follow Jesus. If discipleship and the Christian life are like a journey, then the period before a conversion happens is like the packing and preparation time that takes place before the trip begins. As youth workers, we’ll come into contact with many students who have yet to commit to Christ, yet we have the great opportunity to prepare them for the journey they may not yet know they need to take. What does this look like? Here are a few ideas for pre-discipleship discipleship:

  • Offer love and forgiveness. Prepare current students in your ministry to offer these as well.
  • Don’t jump right into telling them about your faith. Demonstrate for them the quality of character that comes from becoming more like Christ.
  • Give it time. Don’t pressure. Let God’s prevenient grace lead them and you.
  • Always be there to listen. Listen more than you speak. Of course, you might be thinking that this sounds like evangelism, and you might be right. Although, I’m not sure there’s a difference between evangelism and discipleship. Evangelism that doesn’t begin in discipleship is worthless. Discipleship that doesn’t result in evangelism isn’t really discipleship.

Discipleship takes a village.
It’s not the job of the youth ministry to be the church for students. It is the job of the youth ministry to be a part of the church for students during those formative adolescent years. Youth ministries cannot stand on their own if they hope to effectively disciple students. Youth groups need the whole church. We find ourselves in the middle of an often fragmented discipleship process. Our job, as youth workers, is to build on what students have learned in our church’s children’s ministry, while preparing them to join the church as mature, responsible, and contributing members of our faith. Here are some things that I think will help us do that:

  • Study the same passages of Scripture that the children and adults study. This will allow for conversations about the text at home.
  • Collaborate with your children’s director or pastor and the adult ministries director on an intentional scope and sequence that spans all age levels.
  • Have Sunday School be a preview of your pastor’s sermon. Ask you pastor to run through his or her sermon with you late in the week. This will help you prepare your students for what they will hear in the worship service.
  • Encourage students to attend your church’s main worship gathering.
  • Encourage students to participate in your church’s adult activities.

The church at large and our ministries to students will be stronger if we can work collaboratively with those in children and adult ministries. We’re but one stop on our student’s journey of faith.

Discipleship takes a long time.
This side of Christ’s return, we’ll never be done with our growth as Christians. At times, it is easy to get discouraged when we don’t see the change in students’ lives that we’d like to see. What we can’t forget is that their time with us will leave a mark on them that we may not be able to see for a very long time. Don’t give up. The God who began a good work in your students, long before you met them, will continue the good work in their lives, in often untold ways, long after they’ve graduated.

Jason Buckwalter

Jason is an ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene, has served in a variety of youth ministry roles, and is an avid fan of books and baseball.

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