Helping students develop a desire to grow on their own is an important part of the discipleship process. Too often, youth ministries primarily encourage attendance at programs, which sets students up for a spiritual drift after graduation if they can’t find a “program” to attend. Here are a few ways to help students develop their own relationship with Christ.

Give them a book you’ve read.
Think about the books that shaped you as a teenager and find the equivalent today. Tell students the story of why this book was important to you and your faith and encourage them to take steps down that journey as well.

HINT: Avoid the temptation to assume the same book is perfect for each student. If you can say, “I picked this out just for you…” it will make reading the book much more compelling.

Issue a challenge that’s out of their comfort zone.
Owning your faith usually takes root when a student rises to a challenge. Want to see someone grow? Push them to participate in a missions trip a long way from home. Watch them grow raising the funds to participate, and enjoy a front row seat to the refining process as they get to push past their breaking point into a moment of deep spiritual cementing.

HINT: Again, a personalized challenge is stronger than a generic one. Seeing a pattern, here?

Read something alongside them and meet occasionally to discuss.
You gave one of your core students a prayer journal? Did you share a 1-Minute Bible with them? Read a copy of it yourself at the same time, and meet up a couple times to check in and discuss what you’ve been learning.

Equip your small group leaders.
Last year we did “grow on the go” tubs filled with a few resources for leaders to give out to their students along the way. A push for a devotional during a message is great, but a personal nudge and gift of a devotional from a small group leader is the best.

Live it out yourself.
If you want to help your students grow on THEIR own, model it to them yourself. So much is caught rather than taught, so frequently do personal “check ups” in your own life to make sure you’re growing, too.

How are you helping students grow on their own right now?

This post was written by Josh Griffin and Kurt Johnston and originally appeared as part of Simply Youth Ministry Today free newsletter. Subscribe to SYM Today right here.

Last week was our student ministry’s fall launch week. Every ministry has seasons, especially student ministry. For us, there are 3: Fall (starting in August), Winter/Spring (starting in January), & Summer (starting in June). The rhythm of these ministry seasons calls for realignment behind your God-given vision and communicating that vision to your people. This means two things: 1) who you are & 2) where you’re going. The fall season is even more crucial in this respect because it tends to be the biggest surge of the year in youth ministry. Students are returning to school and getting back into the swing of things for the year. They tend to be a little more on task and more apt to attend service if invited. So communicating vision within the context of your fall launch is a great way to start off the ministry year. I did this in both our middle school/high-school & college/20-something services.

For YouthQuake, I reemphasized our Live Extraordinarily, Lead Creatively, & Love Extravagantly vision that I spent alot of time developing and communicating last year. Putting this discipleship process out in front from the very beginning of our fall season gives us a starting point for where we are going. In other words, it’s our identity…the “who we are.” Check out Geiger & Borton’s Simple Student Ministry and Rainer & Geiger’s Simple Church for details on developing a central vision and discipleship process. From there, I was able to preach a sermon around the “who we are” and the “where we are going.” Breaking down the Matthew 10 passage of Jesus gathering and sending his disciples gave us the foundation for two new initiatives in YouthQuake. First, the “gathering” part of the sermon served as a launching pad for our conversation and announcement of our LIVE groups, small groups and discipleship ministry. We’ve been moving in this direction and are finally pulling the trigger on the “next step” in YouthQuake using Doug Fields’ LIVE Curriculum. Jesus spoke to the multitudes and the thousands, but made his greatest impact in his small group of disciples. Rather than making a trite announcement saying, “Hey, you should signup for this new program,” we were able to communicate the biblical foundation for small groups, the whys behind it, AND the big picture of our vision in a matter of a half-hour. In turn, the response has been through the roof and LIVE groups are already getting full. When you communicate the vision behind the program, the program makes more sense.

Secondly, we emphasized the sending aspect of Matthew 10 when Jesus commissions his disciples to go out the the “lost sheep of Israel.” Go to YOUR immediate context, the people you’re with everyday. Preach the gospel. The kingdom is near. Do extraordinary things. Heal the sick. Raise the dead. In other words, LIVE. LEAD. LOVE. From here, we announced our Lifebook initiative which I posted back in April HERE. Again, rather than announce the saturation week as another event on the calendar, we were able to cast the vision for the Lifebook initiative within the context of the sending portion of Matthew 10. I already have students begging for books to take to their school.

We communicated two major initiatives for the fall and the central vision behind who we are on one of the biggest nights of our ministry year. When you have a larger, captive audience, take your opportunity to cast vision. When you cast vision, people catch it and run with it. It gets your core students recharged, your sporadic students plugged in, and your new students more interested. And it doesn’t have to be a boring, informational meeting. Tie it into the gospel and central message of Jesus. We are gathered to be sent and to declare the good news of Jesus. When you do that, people get why you’re really there. Visioncasting can be very spiritually impacting if you take it seriously. Best part of the night: we had a girl who came for her second time this week give her life to Jesus for the first time AND signup for small-groups AND the Lifebook initiative. Why? Because she felt the presence of God AND our desire to follow Jesus AND our heart to make an impact in our schools and she wanted in. Vision communicates hope and a future. And I’m excited for what God has in store.

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.

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.