5 Tips for Effective Discipleship
“Do you think God is calling you to be a youth pastor?” The question was honest enough and I was not really surprised to hear it considering the latter part of my teens and the bulk of my adult life has been spent investing in young people. This question has been presented to me in many contexts as either a question or simply a statement. The assumption being that since I enjoy “ministry” and spending time with youth, I must be called to be a professional youth worker or youth pastor. I appreciate the heart behind those who say things like this to me, just as I appreciated the heart of this particular pastor who stood before me awaiting a response.
“No” I said after thinking for a moment, “I don't think God is calling me to be a youth pastor.” He seemed surprised at my response and so I tried to explain. “When I was in high school I began helping out with a Jr. youth group and I loved it. I spent most of my time with a group of rammy boys who drove me a little crazy but were loads of fun. But those boys crew into young men, just as I grew and began to enjoy the craziness of Jr. youth less and less. As they moved into Sr. youth, I began helping with Sr. youth. Now years later, as they are moving into college, university and the workplace I have continued to grow myself, and my role in their lives has continued to grow and change as well.”
“So do you see yourself called to working with adults then?” He asked, seeming a bit confused. I was frustrated at the response. Not at him, but rather at the culture we have created in the church which expects people to fall into certain “departments” of ministry and specializing as those in the business world do. “I want to make disciples of Jesus. For now that will be young men, but when I’m 80 I hope to be able to disciple 60 year olds.” In my journey with these young men whether accidentally, or through divine control, I stumbled upon the practice of discipleship which is as old as Christianity itself. I found our calling.
Jesus didn’t train a children's pastor, a youth pastor, an associate pastor and a senior pastor. Jesus trained 12 disciples; 12 young men whom he taught to follow in his footsteps. The calling he gave them is, I believe, the calling that he gives to each of us:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Each of us who follow Jesus is spiritually descended from these 12 disciples through the process of discipleship. They made disciples of others who made disciples of others who eventually made disciples of us. If God has a specific calling on my life I do not know and frankly I don’t really care, as the great commission will not be complete until everyone is a disciple of Christ and thus we as disciples have no shortage of work to do. Therefore no follower of Christ can say that they are waiting for their calling or they do not know it yet for our calling is literally in black and white on the pages of our Bibles. If God has a unique and specific task for you then you will be knocked to the ground and made blind, brought before a burning bush, commanded in a vivid dream or swallowed by a whale and I assure you that you won’t have to second guess that call. But until then, go and make disciples!
So what does discipleship look like? A disciple is a follower of another, namely Jesus in this case. So to disciple someone is to train them in the teachings of Jesus and showing them how to live that out in practice. I will share a few points which I believe to be very important in becoming an effective disciple maker. These points speak specifically to discipling young men as that is where the majority of my experience lies considering I am not yet 30 myself. Although these points relate specifically to young men I believe the concepts can be applied quite easily to women and older men as well.
1.) Never underestimate the power of being there
Too often I think we overlook and underestimate the simple things, this being one of them. I can’t stress enough the importance of the physical act of being present in another person’s life. The vast majority of all of life's relationships start with being together and experiencing life together. This is why making disciples is very inefficient and time consuming.
The act of being present is often not very productive in the way that most people understand productivity. Sitting on cold hard benches and bleachers, experiencing various levels of discomfort while watching hockey games, track meets, drama performances, and other sports and extracurricular activities may not seem as important as preaching to a crowd but while the crowd goes home and soon forgets your sermon, the young man who you cheered on will not soon forget your cheers.
Discipleship starts with being there.
2.) Treat young people as less experienced adults
I believe it is a mistake to categorize young people as teens or adolescents (as if that designation is inherently different than simply “adult”) and use terms like “guys” to refer to them because we don’t really see them as proper men and women. We then read books on how to connect with “teens” rather than simply developing our ability to connect with people in general. Connecting with a teenager is precisely the same as connecting with any other human being. I completely agree with Kenda Creasy, Dean of Princeton Seminary, when she says, “To treat adolescents as a separate species instead of as less experienced members of our own is one of the twentieth century’s largest category errors.” I believe that we dehumanize young adults when we lump them into a special category which requires specialized techniques and professionals to connect with them.
Some people have asked me how I am able to connect with young adults so well. Do you want to know my secret? Treat them like a human being! It amazes me how often I see adults talk down to teenagers in a condescending manner and then wonder why they don’t connect well. If they talked to me like that I wouldn’t like it very much either and would probably avoid conversation with them. Treat a young adult as you would an older adult and you’ll be amazed how much better they respond to you.
One father I know stands out to me as I think about this principle. He is one of the few fathers I know whose sons would gladly ditch their friends for the chance to spend time with him. What does he do differently? Nothing. The way he talks to me, is the way he talks to men his age, is the way he talks to his teenage sons. Even though I am 20 years younger than him I feel like a real friend and equal just as his own sons do. This does not mean he doesn’t acknowledge the age gap, on the contrary he is happy to point out life lessons which he has learned and correct his sons (and me) when needed, but he does it as one man talking to another. Young men are less experienced adults, but they are still men in their own right and should be treated as such with respect and dignity.
3.) Be real
Too often I see parents and youth workers desperately trying to be something that they think a teenager needs. They do this in many ways but two of the most common I see are either trying too hard to come down to their level by dressing hip and trying to fit in with youth culture or by trying to be the perfect leader and not show any flaws or weaknesses. Both are based in mistaken understandings of what a young person needs and both are damaging.
Firstly, I believe the prospective disciple maker who goes “down to their level” limits their ability to disciple effectively. To create disciples of Christ is to teach them to follow in his ways, to pull them up to a higher standard, not lower oneself to the generally low standards and expectations of youth culture. Youth ministry is about training boys into men and girls into women, not encouraging the dragging out of childhood and adolescence. You are not primarily a friend to the ones you disciple, although a friend you should be, but you are primarily a leader and mentor to them and should act like it.
Another failing I see in prospective disciple makers is trying to be perfect or at least give an image of perfection. These people work tirelessly to maintain a squeaky clean image and not show any weaknesses, failures or doubts. They wrongly believe that these are the types of role models that young people need. They think showing weakness would damage their effectiveness as a leader or cause their disciples to lose confidence in their leadership. To play up an image of perfection is to lie to those you lead and to play down the power of the Holy Spirit that works through broken, sinful people. We follow a perfect leader but we ourselves are not perfect. We as leaders must be real with those we lead, be accountable to them and share our doubts, failings and struggles so that all glory goes to God and not to us. When we hide our flaws we encourage others to do the same so that they too may be “perfect” like us.
If you are a follower of Jesus and have trusted in him for the forgiveness of your sins then all you need to be is real! You are flawed, you have doubts, you fail, you are not worthy of being a role model to anyone and you are certainly not perfect. But you are forgiven and empowered by the Holy Spirit who works through you. When we are real we show those we disciple that they too can be real and that just as Jesus loves them despite their flaws, so too do we love them.
4.) Push them and let them push back
Being real does not mean that we remain stuck in our sins, struggles, weaknesses and doubts but rather that we are real and honest about where we are at and that by God’s grace we are still a work in progress. You are not being loving to those that you disciple by allowing them to remain in sin or by giving them no help in seeking out answers to their questions and doubts. To be real with young people is not to simply dwell in misery with them but rather to push each other forward towards missional, christlike, righteous living.
If for example, you are still struggling with overcoming pornography addiction as many young adults raised with the internet are, you should not hide this from those that you disciple. To be real is to say that yes you have failed and may fail again but that Jesus has forgiven you and you are actively seeking to become more like him and remove this and other sins from your life. We should neither hide our sins from those that we disciple, nor should we downplay the severity of them. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem and as a leader, you must model this behaviour so that those you lead feel free to be real as well.
After you have been real with those you disciple and they have been real with you, you can begin pushing them and encouraging them to do the same to you and to each other. This iron sharpening iron is essential to growing as a follower of Jesus. Disciple and discipline share the same root word and to disciple someone means that you must at times discipline or correct their mistakes in thinking or action. This process should always be a two way street and you as the leader should be willing to take discipline from those you lead and even actively seek out that discipline and correction so as to encourage them to be honest with you. If you are real, then those you disciple will know your weaknesses and should be ready to caution or correct you when those weaknesses present themselves, just as you do the same for them. Never consider yourself better than or above those that you lead and unable to take correction from them but rather consider yourself a servant and brother to them.
5.) Have Fun
After some heavy points I think it is important to remember that making disciples is a lot of fun! God has given us so many wonderful ways to enjoy his creation and to spend time together. Canoeing down the river, camping up north, going for a bike ride, playing pond hockey, sipping on a good cup of joe, jumping off bridges, playing board games, and the list goes on and on. Each of these activities stirs up memories for me of discipleship taking the form of good old fashioned fun.
God is just as pleased with you when you are laughing over old stories around a campfire as he is when you have your arm around a heartbroken young man who just lost his mother. You are being just as spiritual when you take a group of young men out to enjoy an afternoon at the pond as when you lead them in a Bible study. Was Jesus any less Jesus when he was laughing and sharing stories over a cup of wine with his disciples as he was when he hung on a cross to die for their sins?
If we begin to categorize our lives into the “Christian” things like prayer and Bible reading and the “normal” things like playing sports and hanging out with friends we do ourselves and those we lead a great disservice. Christianity is not an aspect of a disciple's life but rather, following Jesus is the disciple's life. We pray like Jesus, we study God’s word like Jesus, we show love to others like Jesus, we laugh like Jesus, we enjoy times with friends like Jesus and we have fun like Jesus! To be a disciple of Jesus is to seek to be mini Jesus’ in everything we do. There are not “normal” and “Christian” things in the life of a disciple there is just life, centred on Jesus.
So all that to say, have fun as you go and make disciples of all nations! Find things that you love to do and bring others along with you who you can disciple. Similarly, go do things with others that they like to do and seek to show Christ’s love to them in word and deed as you enjoy time together. Jesus did not come to wreck your fun but rather to bring us abundant, full life. The life of a true disciple of Jesus has many heartaches and struggles along the way, like all of earthly life, but it can also be a whole lot of fun!