An unfortunate divorce


We all know Jesus’ concluding command to “…go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). But what exactly did Jesus mean? I have found that the responses to this question usually include ideas surrounding following after and learning from Jesus.
Malphurs reinforces this understanding of discipleship by defining it in both a general and specific manner. Firstly he states, a disciple, “…according to Scripture, is a committed follower of a person, such as a teacher or master.” He follows quickly on from this by outlining “In a specific sense, a disciple is one who has trusted in Christ as Saviour. In short, he is a believer in Christ or a Christian.” (Strategic Disciple Making, 33).
However, what I have found people usually mean by the term “discipleship” is the “… ongoing process that encourages the believer (whether a new believer or uncommitted Christian) to follow Christ and become more like him.” (Strategic Disciple Making, 34).
Thus, Christian discipleship includes BOTH an initial conversion to Jesus Christ, and the ongoing growth of ones trust and obedience in the ways and promises of Jesus Christ.

Why then have youth and young adult ministries seemingly divorced these two inseparable aspects of discipleship?

What do I mean?
For the purposes of this article, we will explore youth and young adult ministry separately, however it is my personal convictions that a the health of both of these age groups in a church is dependant on one another.
First let us focus our attention on youth ministry (High Schoolers usually aged between 12-18 years). Many youth ministries I came into contact with during my time as a Youth Pastor were very focused on the conversion part of discipleship. Thus many traditional Friday night programs are centred on teenagers inviting friends along to hear about and experience the Gospel.
While I do not in any way want to reduce the significance or importance of teenagers engaging with the Good News, in most of our churches there sadly seems to be very little time, energy, thought or resources being developed for teenagers who are already Christians.

What does it mean for a teenager to be committed to Jesus Christ?

Strommen, Jones and Rahn helpfully outline 10 characteristics that healthy youth ministries focus upon in order to foster the spiritual development of teenagers.
As youth reflect on the youth ministry in your church, I wonder how many of these are evident?

10 Characteristics of Youth Committed to Jesus Christ
  1. Trust a personal Christ
  2. Understand grace and live in grace
  3. Commune with God regularly
  4. Show moral responsibility
  5. Accept responsibility in a congregation
  6. Demonstrate unprejudiced and loving lives
  7. Accept authority and responsibility
  8. Develop hopeful and positive attitudes
  9. Embrace the rituals of a Christian community
  10. Engage in mission and service. (Youth Ministry that Transforms, 130)

While this is by no means a complete list, I believe it provides a helpful starting point for youth ministries to begin to ask questions concerning the discipleship of teenagers.

Some questions for youth ministries to reflect upon:
  • Which of the 10 are we doing well at? Why is this so?
  • Which ones need attention?
  • What do we need to put in place to see growth in these area?
  • What is going to stop this from occurring?

The second area of focus here is on Young Adults.
I use 18-30 as the loose age range for this group but essentially, while authors debate the upper limit, it is the stage of life post High School where major decisions regarding ones future are made – faith, study, work, housing, partner, children, etc.
If the imbalance around discipleship for teenagers is an over emphasis on conversation (point 1 on the preceding list), then surely the imbalance for young adult ministries is towards spiritual growth (points 2-10).
David Kinnaman (President of the Barna Group) opens his book You Lost Me by outlining “Millions of young adults leave active faith involvement in church as they exit their teen years. Some never return, while others lives indefinitely at the margins of the faith community, attempting to define their own spirituality.” (You Lost Me, 19)
While Kinnaman is writing form an American context, I believe his research and observations are not simply limited to that geographical region of the world. Our churches in Australia are facing the same tragic phenomenon – young adults disengaging from established church environments and even walking away from faith all together.
In my travels around New South Wales and the ACT this last twelve months I have identified four key factors for healthy young adult ministry:

  1. A vision that intertwines Biblical knowledge and experiencing God.
  2. Engagement in issues surrounding global mission and social justice.
  3. Young Adult specific discipleship resources – relationships, events, small groups, church services, courses, camps, etc
  4. High levels of involvement in church leadership and decision-making.

Are these evident in the young adult ministry in your church?
While the issue of young adults leaving the church is an important one that requires these four key areas, the great concern is that conversion to Jesus Christ by people in this age group is often forgotten.

When was the last time a young adult become a Christian in your church?

In response to this complicated area of ministry for our churches, Baptist Youth Ministries recently launched Anchored – a time of cultural observations, Biblical input, encouragement, and challenge for young adults.
Mark Sayers, author of the acclaimed The Road Trip that Changed the World, was our keynote speaker at the launch event. In his book, Mark summaries that “…the person of the road, whether believer or unbeliever, lives the whole of or at least a majority of their everyday life as a practical atheist. This is, although they may in their minds believe in God, they act for large parts of their waking life as if He does not exist.” (The Road Trip, 72)
We also heard from Tim Blencowe (Morling College and Macquarie Baptist Church) on “Jesus: our hope, an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” as well as Jenny Allen (Newcastle University and Mayfield Baptist Church) on “Evangelism in a Young Adult context.”
It is our hope that as Anchored grows we will see not only a greater level of commitment and involvement by young adults in our churches, but also a refocus on sharing the message of Jesus within an age group seeking to navigate some of the most difficult parts of life and make sense of the world around them.
Seeing youth and young adults committed to Jesus, in both a conversation and growth sense, should never be separated. For Jesus has always required both – for all people, no matter their age or life stage, to follow Him, and become more and more like Him.


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