Obstacle 5 // We Have Embraced a Discipleship that is Failing our Young People.

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In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in the US released a monster report in which it was stated that “teenagers today are the best behaved generation on record.” This might surprise many of us when we realize that this emerging generation is not even entering the doors of the church and has in large part become unaware and negative towards the Church and Christians.

How do we make sense of the fact that teenagers are better behaved than they have ever been and yet not connected to the church or the Christian faith?  It would seem that if the purpose of Christian faith was simply to do “less sins” then the answer is that we need to get youth to stop being part of the Church.  Why do I say this – well it seems there is a correlation between the timing of youth having left the Church on mass, and the reporting of them being the best behaved generation on record.

Now, it is easy to poke all sorts of holes in this kind of correlation - especially when what has been defined as “best behaved” is largely focused on the teenage pregnancy rate being down, drug use being down, smoking rate being down, and the fact that teenagers are drinking less alcohol than previous generations of teens.  But still, this statement should move us to ask what is the purpose of ministry with young people?  Ask yourself – is our ministry more interested in getting youth to be well behaved or is it to see them experience ongoing transformation through a relationship with Jesus??

I think in many cases, our discipleship models have made the message of Jesus more about behaviour change (or modification) and simply doing the right thing, rather than about experiencing the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and joining God on mission.  If this is the case, then we are robbing our young people of experiencing Jesus as the Lord of their lives and falsely teaching them to  simply think all they need  to change their behaviour.  I believe that what has happened is that we got so caught up in teenagers experiencing Jesus as the Saviour who forgives their sins, that we missed out on them experiencing Jesus as the Lord of their life.  We have sought to simply see the forgiveness of sins and change of behaviour as the ends to being in relationship with Jesus rather than the means to be able to experience life to full, as our Creator God intended us to be. 

So let me ask this - what if our discipleship process wasn’t focused on getting youth to do the right thing or meet some moral code?  What if our discipleship process emphasized embracing Jesus as Lord of our lives? When we continually submit to Jesus as Lord the on-going spiritual transformation from the inside-out that comes through the work of the Holy Spirit is demonstrated. This I what empowers us to  be agents of his love and grace – offering hope amidsta world of darkness.

We need to understand that this generation is not looking for a heavily programmed discipleship model that is designed to keep them “safe and well behaved” until they are 18 through means of being “spoken at”.  Rather, I believe that they are desperately wanting to experience an ongoing spiritual transformation that will give meaning to their life and existence here on planet earth, right now.

Therefore, our discipleship process needs to be rooted in experiences, relationships and a biblical understanding that is far deeper and longer lasting than that which just results in behaviour modification. 

So ask yourself – what would it look like for your church to embrace a discipleship process for young people that leads to genuine spiritual transformation and not merely behavioural modification?

Here are 3 helpful areas to think about to create a healthy discipleship experience that moves youth beyond simply behavioural modification to genuine spiritual transformationled by the Holy Spirit.

1. This generation will follow a shepherd not an institution or program: Youth are so busy that being dependant on a specific night of the week or a specific ministry program to raise them up in the ways of the Lord, likely means that the rest of world is having a greater and more consistent influence in shaping them then the church.  What we need to do is make a shift towards placing the importance on ensuring each young person has a trusted Christian adult investing daily in their lives, rather than  placing the importance on a “come to us”, one night of the week, program structure.   Elements such a bible studies, retreats, game nights, and small groups are all still good, but our discipleship model needs tobe more personal and intentional witha ”go to them” structure. A mentor can go deeper with an individual than a program every could. A mentor is able to personally help a young person make sense of where God is in their every day experiences and give specific ideas on how following Jesus could influence the teens day to day decisions and actions.

2. This generation needs to experience God in their everyday moments, and not just know about Him.  Be more intentional in providing experiential learnings beyond the program that invite teenagers into the spiritual disciplines including prayer, fasting, community dialogue, scripture reading and meditation., Rather than simply preaching or speaking knowledge “at” youth each week invite them to hear and experience the Lord for themselves. Take time to share how prayer works in your everyday life, how we as the church daily care and give voice to the poor and marginalized, what it looks like to express forgiveness to others, how we will love our enemies, and that we selflessly serve the needs of others around us.  Living out the message of Jesus can’t simply just be another program or ministry we do in the church, it needs to be seen as a way of life.

3. This generation is fearful of abandonment and looking for security and belonging: Create a culture with youth that demonstrates that you will lead with grace and love instead of with judgement and self-righteousness.  This culture shift will allow discipleship processes to flourish as it give youth the freedom to “come as they are” and feel safe to ask real questions, share genuine doubts, and express true pain and hurt. In this kind of welcoming, authentic environment   you are then able to point them to the hope, grace and truth of Jesus.  It is when youth start to feel safe enough to take off their masks, that we have permission to speak words of encouragement, truth, hope and grace into their spiritual journey. 

Spiritual transformation in the lives of our young people begins to occur when we are willing to STOP PLAYING CHURCH (where you simple come to a gathering, look good, say all the right things and then get on with the rest of your life), and START BEING THE CHURCH (where we gather as imperfect people who are daily seeking to join a righteous and loving God in a relationship through which we are given purpose to live out the gospel of God’s radical love and redemptive work for all ofcreation). Let me say it again, spiritual transformation in the lives of our young people begins to occur when we are willing to stop playing church and start being the church.

Rev. Matt Wilkinson

Director of Next Generation Ministries, CBOQ

Exec. Director, Camp Kwasind

Matt Wilkinson