I don’t listen to music when I run because I like to hear what is going on around me. I also love the “quiet” because it allows me to think. As I ran by the middle school I was struck by the language that the 11 and 12 year olds were using. Then a little further along a teenage girl pulled into her driveway pumping the rap beats on her car stereo. As I finished my run I thought about what I hope my daughters are like in middle and high school. What are the character traits that I hope they exhibit? Deeper than that, what are the marks of discipleship for adolescents? If the Holy Spirit is moving in the heart and mind of a teenager, how will they talk, act and think?
This is my attempt at laying out the marks of discipleship for a middle or high school student who endeavors to follow Christ. Discipleship is a hard journey and takes time. It doesn’t necessarily get easier with age. My selfish, sinful nature is always trying to drag me back down as the Holy Spirit is purifying and strengthening my soul. I have definitely not mastered these marks.
I’ll start with addressing the issue of language.
James writes, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water” (3:9-12).
Teenagers who are following Christ should talk differently then their peers who do not. If we allow the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and minds, then our language will change. We will edify others instead of tearing them down. Our words will be a breath of fresh air to those around us.
Unfortunately sexual humor is pervasive in our culture and especially with teenagers. This destroys the purity of sex that God created. Women are objectified. Teens who are questioning their sexuality are laughed at and bullied.
“Oh my God” is not meant to be used in frustration and flippantly like many do. We have already had to call Anna on this one at home. I bet she picked it up at school and didn’t know any better. But even at her age she needs to understand the reverence and honor that God deserves.
Purifying our language starts with looking critically at the music and movies that we watch. It is naive to think that those things do not affect us. On our recent mission trip, I didn’t allow students to listen to rap music for this reason. Teens also need to think critically about those who they choose to spend time with. Peer groups influence behavior in a major way.
Our children are just beginning their elementary years but Hillary and I shouldn’t wait until they are teens to talk about these marks of discipleship. We have to take an active role in instructing Anna and Norah about the language that they use. Are they encouraging each other? What words are appropriate and inappropriate? What TV shows encourage pure language? What friends are good for Anna and Norah? Hillary helps out in Anna’s class so she can see who Anna’s friends are at school.
Some of you might cringe at this active parenting style. It is the path we have chosen. After 12 years of youth ministry I have begun to make some connections between parenting styles and students’ behavior. Sitting back and not steering a child’s behavior is like planting a garden and just letting it go. Weeds grow up and animals come in and destroy it. The best gardens require time and energy.
As a youth pastor I suffer from “success anxiety.” I am anxious that the numbers in our youth ministry aren’t keeping up with the big youth ministries in town. I worry that if we don’t attract more students to our youth group, then people will wonder if I am the right person for the job. Maybe if I did more all-nighters or had a cool, young worship leader, then we would enjoy success.
Honestly the choice for my staff and I is between success based on numbers or success Jesus’ way through discipleship. Discipleship is not cool, hip or attractive. When Jesus called people to radical discipleship many turned away and stopped following Jesus. If we look at Jesus’ ministry on earth, he was a failure. He started with thousands and left with only eleven. Youth pastors would definitely lose their job if they oversaw an attendance decline like this.
How does Jesus’ model of discipleship impact youth ministry?
I believe that the first step is acknowledging that success according to Jesus is much different than the world judges success. Success is not hundreds of teenagers hanging out drinking coffee and listening to Coldplay-esque worship. Success is students who are committed to loving God and loving their neighbors for their lifetime. Ultimately, life change like this does not have as much to do with us but what the Holy Spirit does in the lives of our students. We create an atmosphere for the Holy Spirit to move and model lives that are devoted to Christ.
What do you think? How does Jesus’ model of discipleship change the way we do youth ministry?
“I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.”
— Elie Wiesel (Night)
Elie Wiesel begins his book Night by recalling a childhood mentor who told him that it is more important to have right questions than the right answers. Having already spent countless hours in church, my children have become great at parroting back the right answers. Do they really understand the answers that they are recalling from their memory? At their young age it isn’t as important that they know the depth and reasons for their answers yet. But we can begin to challenge them to think.
Too often in youth ministry we tell students WHAT to think instead of HOW to think. Then we wonder what happens when they go to college and are challenged on their answers. They fall apart because they don’t know how to think and come to their own conclusions. Why do we concentrate so much on telling students what to think? Because it is easier to create robots who can repeat back what you just said. We need to challenge students to go to a higher level of knowledge.
I love the movie Dead Poet’s Society because it is all about training students to think for themselves. The movie portrays very well the fear that is inside some who think that training students to think will lead them astray. If we truly believe in what we believe why are we afraid that training students how to think will lead them away from the Truth? One unforgettable moment is when Mr. Keating stands on his desk and exclaims, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
Our youth ministries should be a place where students can question the beliefs that they were brought up with. We need to stand up on the desks and view our beliefs from a different angle. Together we can dialogue and hash it out in a loving, caring community where no question is out of bounds. This will strengthen and solidify the beliefs of our students. Kurt Johnston, the Junior High Pastor at Saddleback Church once described children’s ministry as putting beliefs and practices in the mental suitcase of child. Then he described student ministry as dumping out that suitcase and helping the student decide what goes into their suitcase.
How are we teaching students HOW to think in our youth ministry? How are we creating an environment where they feel safe asking the right questions?