When it comes to discipling the next generation, you will find a litany of resources. Just google that phrase (like I just did) and in a fraction of a second you will have 5.7 million resources at your fingertips! Even if only 10% are any good, that’s still 500,000 resources. Pretty incredible.
I’m not surprised. Especially considering the current cultural trends. Young people are leaving behind the church and Christianity in droves.
My wife and I have been in youth ministry for just shy of a decade, longer than we have been married. Our youth group, aptly named FriendZ (because things can get a little crazy) is designed for students on the fringes of society. Our goal is to be the church to a group of people who may not ever step into a traditional church setting.
It hasn’t been easy. We are constantly wrestling with hard questions and searching for how to best serve and represent Jesus to these students on the fridge. We have had some incredibly bad days, but some incredibly good days as well. God has done some amazing things in some truly messy situations. He really is the God portrayed in the Bible; patient, slow to wrath, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, just, righteous, and good.
How to Disciple the Next Generation
We have learned so many lessons along the way. Here are a few of my best tips for discipling the next generation:
- Connect students to Jesus. Everyone has a theory about why young people are leaving the church in droves. Here is mine: They haven’t met the living Jesus. From my perspective the most common distinguishing factor between a student who follows Jesus after graduation and a student who doesn’t is if they have a real personal relationship with God. It’s so simple — but not easy. As a 19-year-old the living Jesus changed my whole life. I have stuck with Jesus through some very difficult moments, even my own personal deconstruction, because I know Him. We need to connect students to Jesus, not just to the church, or to the youth ministry, or even ourselves.
- Practice what you preach. Just like any other generation, the next generation is not going to let blatant hypocrisy slide. Jesus said it best, “ In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” (Matt 5:16) My wife and I have had a voice in the lives of students who are flat out against God because we strive to practice what we preach. We have had students trying to get their friends to come to FriendZ say, “These people are different. You can trust them.” All glory to God! But it’s because we practice what we preach. This cannot be overstated. We need to think missionally. In a missional context what you do is as important as what you say. Words without actions are empty. And as an added benefit, by living out Jesus’ commands, you are disciplining your students to actually follow Jesus and His commands, not just know His words or facts about Him.
- Practice lifestyle Christian mentoring. Preaching has its place, I am a preacher, I know the value of it. I also see the state of the church here in the USA and take note that there is a lack of maturity. Before I had any kind of pastoral role in my local church, I met an elderly woman who had spent every Sunday of her life in a pew. To my surprise, during our conversation, she had recommended that we pray to a dead person. I was astounded at the lack of biblical knowledge; Jesus is the only intercessor we need (1 Tim 2:5). Sunday-pew-sitting was clearly not enough for this woman. She needed to be mentored. Same is true for the next generation. If we want to see them thrive, we need to do more than talk at them. We need to engage them in the conversation and show them how to follow Jesus. Jesus did it (and I would argue, presently does it) so should we.
- Engage difficult questions and hard biblical truths: If you don’t, who will? I believe that avoiding these questions sets students up for failure, specifically sets them up to have their whole world view crumble when it is challenged in any way. I know many students, whose entire faith has crumbled, because their leaders engaged in the proclamation of Christian Truth but avoided difficult questions.
Should we proclaim the authority of the word of God? Of Course!
Should we also teach them how to know why it's trustworthy? YES!
Both are essential!
I believe one of the major reasons deconstruction is so damaging, is because students have no safety net. Imagine the difference in the conversation if they deconstructed at youth group rather than in philosophy 101? And you better believe that students are capable of such conversations. Some of the best questions I have ever heard come from a 7th grader in my group.
- Do not abandon truth to make students comfortable. Students are hungry for truth. Proclaim God’s word confident of its truth. Always with love and respect, but always the whole truth. We have had many kinds of students walk through the doors of our youth group. Many. Any kind of religion you could think of, the full LGBTQIA+ spectrum, we once had a brother and sister who firmly believed that demons were trustworthy. I mean we have had them all. I have never watered-down God’s word in an effort to not hurt their feelings. I have spoken gently, understanding the gravity of what I’m saying in the lives of those listening. But I have never changed or withheld truth. In many cases students end up agreeing that what I share is true. We have had students turn from sin-filled lifestyles as they hear truth. Just this last year we had a guy ditch animism for Jesus. On other occasions we have had students leave behind sexual sins and bad relationships. Stand on the truth of God’s word. Your students will thank you!