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Oct 14

What does 21st century youth discipleship look like?

We are sixteen years into a new century and yet I still get asked what does youth discipleship look like for the 21st Century? It often comes from leaders and parents who have belonged to churches which have had a good heritage of youth work, but now numbers have dwindled. There is a recognition that the old model of youth ministry no longer works, but they are unsure as to what the alternative looks like.

discipleshipI want to explore five areas where discipleship has developed, although as I write this, I realise that they are all deeply rooted in first century discipleship. Maybe what we’ve needed for too long is to look back more to Jesus’ way of discipling, than to worry about our own ideas and plans.

1. Experience as well as knowledge

I have noticed in a lot of youth groups how the main teaching times focus on communicating knowledge and understanding of Bible passages but there is often little, or no, application of the learning.

One of the reasons young people walk away from church life is that they feel they understand who God is and have been left wanting more. In other words, they can accept that God exists but he seems to be irrelevant to their lives and so walk away.

This is not down to their misunderstanding, but our poor ability to enable them to experience the reality of a relationship with their heavenly father.

Without experience of God, we can fall into a danger of teaching Christian morality rather than a transforming relationship.

2. Relationship as well as programme

At the heart of every teenager is the need to be significant, to be loved, to be valued. We need to make sure that relationships are at the heart of our youth work. We can no longer rely on two hours once per week being sufficient (was it ever?). Young people are connected permanently to their social groups via social media, and yet long for authentic community. We as the Church need to explore what this truly looks like and how we can walk day by day with the young people we are investing in. Yes, it does mean we need times in the week when we all gather together, but it also means that we need to have regular personal contact the rest of the week.

3. Enable not lecture

One of the marks of this generation is their valuing of interdependence. They want to learn together and not be told what to believe. They learn by discovery and by questioning. We need to ensure that how we teach enables them to discover more about God and to create an environment where it’s ok to ask awkward questions, in fact it needs to be encouraged. The more they question their faith, the more robust it becomes.

We need to help them learn how to read the Bible for themselves, to find the answers to their questions, to learn how to understand the world around them through the lens of Scripture. No longer can we do this by telling them, we need to include them in the journey of discovery.

4. Contributors not consumers

Young people need to know that they can make a difference. There is an entrepreneurial spirit amongst this generation. They see the world they are growing up in as failing, they have become adolescents in a time of financial crisis and world instability, and so they’re motivated to make a difference. We need to ensure our discipleship harnesses this desire and we don’t short change them but putting on events, services, meetings where they can merely come and consume what is on offer.

We need to make sure that each person has a role to play and that they understand that there is an expectation on each one contributing to the life of the church, as well as an assumption that each one will look to live out and share their faith with those around them at school.

5. The need for story

Everyone loves a good story! In a time where the world no longer accepts the notion of absolute truth (except for that absolute truth), young people struggle to know what is right and what to believe as truth. But no one can argue with your story. We need to become more open, more honest as we disciple teenagers. They need to know the struggles we have had in our lives and how our faith has enabled us to wrestle with them. They need to know that we don’t have everything sorted now. Jesus was the master storyteller. We need to rediscover this in our communication and to help those we lead to learn to share their own stories of encountering God and to recognise the difference he is making in their lives.

As I think back over my last twenty years or so of youth work, I don’t think these are new ideas but I think that we’ve not taken them seriously enough, soon enough. The crisis we now face in youth work is the result.

It’s time for us to change and to make sure the way we disciple young people is relevant to their growing up in the world today. Let’s examine our youth work under this lens and seek God more as we look to lead more young people into a living relationship with him.