The High Calling and High Challenges of Discipling Teens
By Elizabeth Fink
October 22, 2021
“Teenagers” and “discipleship.” Do those two words strike fear in your heart? Alone they can be unnerving, but together, they make even the most dedicated pastors, parents, and laypeople shake in their boots.
Many of us have spent hours desperately trying to find the most effective process for discipling youth. There is tremendous pressure to pick the right curriculum, implement the best structure, and create just the right atmosphere. Christians often talk about discipleship and toss the word around as if we are certain of its meaning. We use the term so much it has become diluted and lost its potency. Discipleship is the act of discipling. For me discipleship begins when a believer of Jesus Christ willingly chooses to enter into the lifelong process of being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
Youth discipleship is something I have long wrestled with understanding and accomplishing. There is no one size fits all approach. Every ministry I have been a part of over the last decade has played a part in how I view what discipleship is and should look like with teenagers. I have heard church leaders who say, “We’ve always done it this way.” I have dealt with parents who ask for, “More fun at youth group gatherings!” And of course, I have dealt with teens who simply laugh at the idea of learning how to share the Gospel.
It is easy to get caught up in the frivolous details, but when you have teens contemplating suicide, being approached by gang members, and experimenting with drugs, it causes you to reconsider your priorities and how you spend the precious time you have with them. Fun and games are no longer priority number one. Eternity is on the table. You come to realize that most everything a teen experiences will either bring them closer to God or lead them further away.
As someone who grew up attending United Methodist youth groups and has since been working in youth ministry, here are some observations about youth discipleship that might help us as we move into the Global Methodist Church.
Unfortunately, most of our teens are growing up without a biblical worldview. They are living in a culture constantly bombarding them with messages about how they should see the world, themselves, and act in accordance with it. The messages they receive make them the center of attention. They must have their own Facebook page, Instagram site, and Twitter and TikTok accounts so they can show and tell the world who they are. But invariably the oversharing leads to hurt feelings, and sometimes much worse. What they desperately need is to see the world through the lenses of the Bible and classical Christian teaching.
A biblical worldview allows them to confront a culture that often champions self-centeredness. Conversely, when teens become rooted in Scripture, they come to think very differently about how to respond to hurtful words, mockery, money, and traumatic events in their lives. The goal is to train teens to interpret and respond to everyday life situations that are consistent with God’s word. I have seen this accomplished through small group Bible studies and confirmation classes where teens are taught how to read and study the Bible. It is crucial they know what they believe, why they believe it, and gain a growing ability to articulate what they believe. Our teens need to begin growing a deep comprehensive faith that will stand against the unrelenting tide of our culture’s mores.
A second observation is our need to adequately equip parents and volunteers to serve as faithful and grounded mentors. Too often volunteers are asked or pushed to lead teens when they are not ready. They are good people who genuinely want to help, but they are often ill equipped. I have frequently witnessed volunteers, including parents, who have little or no knowledge of Scripture and basic doctrine, valiantly trying to teach a Sunday school class or lead a small group. They often feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and ultimately defeated by the task. In my experience, most of the hurt and trouble in youth ministry stems from a lack of proper training and accountability.
Recognizing this challenge of finding quality leadership, some parents decide the best course of action is to pass the “discipleship baton” to a “youth ministry professional.” As a person engaged in youth ministry, I certainly understand the appeal of this move, but parents have to accept that whether their church has a “youth ministry professional” or not (and most do not), they are their teenager’s principal discipleship leader (Deuteronomy 6:7 and Ephesians 6:4). It can be a bit overwhelming for some parents to accept that reality, but when they and a church’s mature Christian leaders do recognize their roles, great things can happen for teens. We all need to remember that embedded in our membership vows and in the liturgies of baptism and confirmation, we commit ourselves to standing with and supporting parents in discipling teenagers.
My third observation is the need for youth pastors to get messy. Now when I say get messy, I don’t mean having a shaving cream fight in the sanctuary but being creative in how we do ministry with teenagers. Pastors and church leaders, support your youth pastors and give them the space to be creative and get messy with ministry. Try new things. Switch it up. If it fails, try something else. And let teens be a part of the creative process. We are not looking for quick transformations; we are here to play the long game.
And finally, whether we realize it or not, we can all help disciple teens by simply living lives of joyful obedience on a daily basis. Teens are watching us. When they see us challenging our world by living counter culturally and prioritizing our faith, it makes Christianity more real to them. Because of the ubiquity of the internet and social media, teens encounter all kinds of things long before many of us did. So we have to be prepared for their hard questions and know they will quickly recognize a shallow answer when they hear one. Thankfully, most of them want to be challenged, and so they are willing to pay attention to a mature Christian who patiently explains how he or she tackles a hard theological or ethical question.
In short, teens need parents and leaders who will help them engage their hearts and minds in Scripture and basic Christian teaching. In the process, they will definitely say and do things that will drive you crazy! You cannot force them to be discipled but stay with them! Trust that God will work and open their hearts to experience the wonderful life of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Elizabeth Fink is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Ministry degree at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Until recently, she served as the Junior High Youth Minister at First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. She is a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Global Council and serves on the executive team as secretary for the Council.
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