Between 1919 and 1933, a small amendment changed the face of American culture…for a few years anyway. The Noble Experiment, as it was called, introduced the Prohibition Era with the banning of alcohol manufacturing, transportation, and sale. It was a huge failure. Repealed just over a decade later, we learned that legislating the lifestyles of Americans is actually quite difficult. Even today, questions of “legislating morality” still pepper the discussions of Congress, boardrooms, and classrooms all over the country. Can we give people a list of do’s and don’ts and call that morality?
Discipleship is a bit of a soapbox for me. The vagueness of that term discipleship is exactly why I want to explore the idea from a different perspective. When I think of discipleship, small groups, curriculum, Sunday School classes, and student leadership are usually the first things that come to my mind. Discipleship, in other words, is “smaller” in retrospect to your larger corporate worship service. It usually involves some sort of structure, schedule, curriculum, or teaching notes. If it’s done effectively, it creates good conversation and interaction. But if it’s done poorly, as the structured version often is, it usually leads to one person doing all of the talking while a small group of people (that gets smaller every week for some odd reason…) “listen.” As is, this is what we define as discipleship.
I love people. Really, I do. If I didn’t, there’s no way I could be a student pastor. But even I tend to get task-oriented from time-to-time. Between writing sermons, filling out POs, hosting weekly meetings, vision-planning, and keeping the student ministries building in tact, life can get pretty busy. It’s that task-oriented mind that usually defines discipleship by the terms mentioned before rather than what discipleship is actually about: PEOPLE!
Discipleship is a cycle of leading and following that finds its life and vitality in one thing: relationships. Without relationships there is NO discipleship. No matter how savvy our programs, how extensive our small group curriculum, or how many ministries we have for students to get involved in, if relationships aren’t a part of it all…we fail. Now don’t get me wrong: small groups, student leadership, and Sunday school classes can be good tools to facilitate spiritual growth and even build some form of relationships. Oftentimes, however, we tag these programs with the umbrella of discipleship and they have nothing to do with relationships at all! It’s just another gathering to fill up time during your week, which in turn takes away from the relationships you should be building in the first place.
Let’s reel this in: Can you legislate discipleship in your youth ministry? Can you make students follow this program or buy into this vision or that ministry? I’m learning that the answer to that is absolutely, positively, “NO, NO, NO!”…without relationships. You cannot disciple a student that doesn’t want to be discipled. If they don’t want to follow, they won’t. It’s a little disheartening, but I’m finding it to be so true. But a student WILL follow if they know their teacher. They WILL follow if you’re spending time with them outside of your programs. And they WILL follow if your discipleship ideas facilitate the centerpoint of relationships.
To be honest, a lot of our discipleship programs exist for one of two reasons: 1) We’ve always done it that way. 2) It’s the next big thing from a youth ministry, yet we ignore the purpose and reason behind why THEY actually created it to begin with. Let’s take the concept of Sunday School for example. This discipleship program was very popular in the 50s and existed as a forum to ask questions and facilitate discussion that usually wouldn’t happen in the context of a sermon. Many youth ministries have carried on this program from generation to generation. But I wonder if you were to ask them now WHY they actually do it. I think I would shudder at the answer and I know what it would be for most of us: We would get crucified at even thinking about not doing Sunday School as it were. Heresy!
The course of my youth ministry has its own sacred cow in student leadership. Directing a student leadership program was one of the first things I did in youth ministry. To think of not doing student leadership is hard for me because it collides with my sentimentality. But the idea of legislating discipleship has never glared itself more true than in my experience with this program. The idea and concept behind student leadership is fantastic: allow students to lead. But what often happens through the application process, laundry list of student tasks, rigorous reading plans, and unorganized meetings is that we lose focus on relationships in the process. We begin investing in the program rather than investing in the students. Am I saying that student leadership is wrong? Absolutely not. Veterans like Doug Fields and Josh Griffin swear by it and have great success with it. But what I am saying is that I will not, nor will I ever again, sacrifice my students on the altar of programming.
As a youth ministry, YouthQuake has made a few changes to facilitate relationships in our discipleship process. By no means am I saying that we are the perfect model, but this is what we are experimenting with to see more effective ministry. Our Sunday School slot is being replaced with a short 10-minute talk about practical issues like dating, picking a college, time management, etc. through a biblical perspective. After that, we break away for a time of hanging out and relationship building so that our leaders can be more intentional about KNOWING our students. This slot immediately follows our weekly staff meeting so that all of our leaders are present. Our spiritual emphasis programming is on Wednesday nights so this is a more practical approach that simply acts as a conversation starter.
In place of a student leadership program, I spend time weekly with 3 small groups of my high-school and JV core students. With no plan or agenda in place, we take time to break open the Scriptures and just enjoy each other’s company. Out of these times, we’ve seen some incredible revelation happen and even creative ideas for how to move forward. Now these students get excited about the ministry that’s happening and they invite their friends like crazy. The meeting is not oppressive or something that the students dread going to, but its refreshing and encouraging. Its refreshing for me. This saves our energy to turn around and build more relationships. They come because they want to come, thus discipleship happens very naturally through the refreshing relationships that are built.
The key to all of this is to simplify your programming to align with your youth ministry’s vision. For YouthQuake we want to teach our students to LIVE extraordinary, LEAD creatively, & LOVE extravagantly. It just makes sense to free up as much time and energy to accomplish this. What you’ll find is that this process duplicates itself and students disciple other students. And that is the gospel lived out. After all, STUDENTS are what discipleship is all about.
Bradley K. Chandler is a graduate of Southeastern University and is the Student Ministries Pastor at Trinity Worship Center in Burlington, NC. Be sure to subscribe to his blog here — good stuff for sure.