What Does 'Real' Discipleship in Youth Ministry Look Like?
A cynical pastoral joke is told that pastors assess their ministries according to ‘nickels, noses, and nods’: nickels (a growing budget, enabling more programs, staff, and buildings), noses (attendance and participation), and nods (encouragement). In many respects, the same can be said of youth workers. While we aren’t looking to our own ‘congregation’ (our students) to give us money, we commonly hope our growing attendance and word-of-mouth encouragement by students and parents will increase our favor with senior pastors, church leaders, and finance committees, enabling us to do ‘more’.
Of course, Scripture calls us to a very different type of assessment. Instead of growing crowds, doing cool things, or gaining praise, Jesus calls us to make disciples. Discipleship should be the main assessment tool as to the health and effectiveness of our ministries. But that even feels like an ambiguous, moving target. How do we judge when a student is ‘discipled’?
Before we discuss some possible markers of discipleship (and thus, ways to assess whether a youth ministry is doing what it is supposed to do!), one other concept will help our discussion: the idea of bounded and unbounded discipleship. A concept originating in mathematics, we usually think of someone as being ‘discipled’ or not in bounded terms – black and white, yes or no, in or out. Unbounded discipleship introduces the idea of direction and momentum to Christian identity. For instance, who is ‘more discipled’ – the senior in high school who has faithfully participated and grown for years, only to recently stall out because of a poor dating relationship, or the young Christian ravenously attending Bible study and asking every question in the book? The answer is not clear, and perhaps not even helpful. But what is helpful is making sure momentum and direction play a role in our understanding of discipleship – rather than discipleship being a mark that we check off in our students’ lives, it can be a journey, ever farther up and farther in, as CS Lewis once wrote.
Traditional Markers of Discipleship
We should remember that while these are possible markers of discipleship, an over-emphasis on ‘arrival’ (bounded) with regards to discipleship can easily lead to legalism.
Spiritual Fruit: Because Scripture connects our actions to the conditions of our heart and mind (Luke 6:45), it makes sense that a person growing in knowledge and love of the Lord will also grow in the effects of such a transformation (Galatians 5:22-23). One way Scripture describes this is being united and conformed more and more into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29).
Resisting Sin: The ‘anti-fruit’ marker, this doesn’t necessarily mean an individual will sin less. Rather, it points to one’s desire to be close to Jesus – are we rightly broken over our sin (not dwelling in shame, but honestly sorrowful over our actions)? Do we confess and repent of our sin, and move towards practices that keep us from evil (James 5:6)? Are we moving to end our sinful patterns (Colossians 3:5)?
Spiritual Disciplines: The Bible calls us to prayer, to feasting on God’s Word, to Christian community, to worship and communion, and to sacrificial love and giving (Colossians 3:16, Acts 2:42-47). Discipleship involves knowing how to seek God in these ways as well as the desire and practice of doing so.
Additional Markers of Discipleship
In addition to ‘classic’ categories of discipleship, in my experience these are tangible, visible markers of a student growing in Christian maturity, especially as they leave youth ministry and transition into adulthood.
Participating in Grace: Regardless of one’s perceived ‘amount’ of spiritual fruit, or outward ‘victory’ over sin, does a student run back to Jesus no matter what (Romans 7:21-8:1)? Do they offer grace to others when they are wronged? Are they developing a tender heart towards others, longing for their salvation and healing (Matthew 9:36)?
Biblical Literacy: Knowing the Bible is a thing. It’s not the thing, but Scripture is clear as to the benefits of having the Bible deep within us. But rather than defining this as Bible trivia or even memorization, can students explain the key arc and themes of Scripture (Luke 24:27, 32)? Instead of simply knowing all 66 books of the Bible, can they help someone else find themselves in the story?
Christian Community: Do they know the difference between a cool church and a gospel-centered one? Can they find a church that will continue to disciple them, commit to that church (even when the bed is comfortable on Sunday morning?), and find a place to serve there (Hebrews 10:24-25)? This is huge with respect to direction and momentum as students as students commonly struggle with their faith in transitional periods like moving from high school to college, or college to the workforce.
Application of Faith: Are they considering how Jesus connects to their desired vocation (1 Corinthians 10:31)? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus and a student/worker in [X] occupation? How is their mind developing Christianly – when they are faced with issues in the world (thinking about politics, sexuality, culture, science, etc.), are they considering such things with respect to the gospel? This doesn’t mean they have the answers, but simply that they are growing in being able to lean into ‘gray’ issues in light of their faith.
What Isn’t A Marker of Discipleship?
Expressive Worship: While it might seem easy to identify a mature Christian student based on their excitement in worship (and indeed, Scripture does speak of ‘zeal for the Lord’, Romans 12:11), the expressive nature of many modern worship practices (and similarity of these environments to concert venues) lend themselves to emotional manipulation and groupthink.
Participation at Youth Group: Again, there is something to Christian community, even as a student. But students can come (even frequently) to youth ministry events for a whole host of reasons – friends, popularity, fun, being required to come by their parents, or having nothing else to do. It is a good thing that they are there, and their continued attendance combined with a gospel-centered ministry will often pay dividends. Yet their attendance and participation alone does not equal being discipled – this is why many are wrongly shocked at statistics describing students leaving the faith after high school. Such students are leaving a community, but may not have been members of a faith.
Ultimately, no single criteria exists for a ‘discipled’ student. Some students will excel in areas others struggle in. And as most youth ministries will have contact with a student for at most 2-4 hours per week, many other factors have great influence in shaping a student’s faith. Thus, the number of ‘adequately discipled’ students a ministry is ‘producing’ is perhaps unhealthy language based in mechanistic views on effectiveness and efficiency. Nonetheless, these markers can serve as healthy evaluative metrics for understand how a youth ministry is doing at its key task – making disciples. Usually, this information is not readily available – youth ministers may have to look 2-3 years into the future, and interview college-age students who have graduated out of a program to know whether these markers truly took root.
But even that may not be enough. We should be careful that even as we do not commit the sin of not evaluating our programs, that we not over-evaluate, and become reactive based on a single student or even class. I take hope in statistics that remind me that youth ministry is a long game, that many students who leave the faith are coming back, often with foundations built in the fires of youth ministry. And I take even greater hope knowing that I as a youth worker am a disciple of one who loves me not because of my ministry effectiveness, but out of his own incredible mercy and grace.