By Rich Atkinson
I remember sitting in the corner of one of the largest and most successful youth conferences in the U.K. a few years ago watching great worship with 13,000 young people dancing, singing, waving their arms around, and passionately giving their lives over to Jesus. I love these crazy times watching young people get thoroughly over-excited about Jesus. To my surprise, though, on this occasion I buried my head in my hands and said to myself, “But how do we make it last?”
I had been bringing young people to this particular conference for years, and had left every summer expecting to see the stats change and the great revival start to take shape. I mean, they really seemed to mean it this year.
The problem was that the stats didn’t lie. Every Sunday fewer and fewer young people would connect to church; fewer and fewer would choose to live for him. The youth generation was continuing its slide into being the missing generation of the church.
So what happens to that raw enthusiasm? What happens to all that passion? What happens to that vision of reaching the nation? What happens to all those plans to stick with Jesus whatever it costs? What on earth happens?
I’ve been a youth pastor for more than 10 years now and have watched how very easy it is to get young people excited … and how very hard it is to make that excitement stick. Jesus seemed to have an idea that this might be a problem. After all, he spent a surprisingly high percentage of his time investing in 12 young men knowing full well that one of them wouldn’t make it anyway!
This shows us that Jesus didn’t make conference junkies — he made disciples.
Discipleship isn’t just a buzzword for Christian youth workers to get excited about. It’s a guarantee of heartache, letdown, mistakes, struggles, perseverance, and blood, sweat, and tears! To be a disciple simply means to be an apprentice or a learner. We need to help our young people be learners who actually change based on the great experiences they have with God.
It’s no use thinking that this will be done in the classroom. Young people need us to engage in their lives as we discuss and help them see how they can grow in and connect with all that Jesus is doing in their lives. I learned early on that, for young people to see breakthrough and change that matched the passion, it took years, not moments. It took small, not big. It took a heart, not a program.
Years, not moments
It takes a moment to make a decision for Jesus, yet it takes a whole lifetime to work this decision out. We hate the idea of not seeing something happen in a moment, yet Jesus knew that a significant amount of what he invested in his disciples wouldn’t be seen until years after his death.
As we look to create a culture within youth ministry which sees young people as disciples rather than as cannon fodder for events, we have to be prepared for it to take a long time. The young people I had in my first youth group 10 years ago are all still my friends today. In fact, as I sat here writing this blog, I received a Facebook message from a young person who walked away from Jesus. I haven’t seen her in more than five years, but now she’s asking to meet up to chat about how she is getting on. As you can see, it really can take a long time!
Small, not big
Almost all youth workers have built into their psyche the idea that bigger is better. However if we are to follow Jesus’ way of doing things, then we actually need to make things small! We’re often keen on events, but we usually severely lack in process.
The best way to disciple people is in the smallest form. In our youth ministry, we’ve built three ways in which discipleship can happen. We run missional communities of youth which creates families for the young people in which their life rubs off on one another. We also have 2-to-4 groups where young people meet to discuss and debate how they can move forward in their walk with Jesus. We’ve found that the smallest unit of social space really is the best unit for personal change. The other magic ingredient which we use is huddles. In a huddle, five to 12 young people gather together in a training environment where they intentionally share what God is doing, how they are leading, and how they are following.
When I talk about big, not small, I don’t mean that we don’t seek to reach a whole city or a nation but rather that we need to try and work structures to help discipleship happen in the small even when we get big. I think this mix of family, training, and one-on-one sharing of life is what has enabled us to keep great discipleship at the heart of our youth ministry as it has grown so vastly in the last few years.
Heart, not program
As I finish, I want to make sure to say that no program, event, or structure will bring a discipleship culture to your youth ministry. It starts with a heart that is truly engaged in seeing lives transformed by God power rather than auditoriums which are filled with people getting excited. Programs and conferences are good, but we discipleship is much better.
After all, discipleship is what was at Jesus’ heart. So it should be at our hearts too.
Click here to find out more about Rich’s ministry in Sheffield, England, and how you can connect with him.