Ask Rooted: What is the Balance Between Outreach and Discipleship?

We asked several experienced student ministers how they balance discipleship and outreach in the context of ministry (In other words, what is the balance between reaching out to new students vs. discipling the students who are already in front of you?). We hope this wisdom sparks insight and ideas in your own ministry!

Kendal Conner (Student Ministry Girls’ Associate at Henderson Hills Baptist Church, Edmond, OK) said:

The mark of a good ministry is this: if one day, something happened and you were no longer a part of that ministry, nothing would change. My entire philosophy of ministry changed the day I was given this advice. I knew my call to make disciples, and I knew that call would not change now that I was a leader in ministry. However, as leaders we first have to learn that we cannot do it all. We must cling tightly to Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:2. As leaders, we will always be involved in outreach, yet our goal should be to invest in discipling others for outreach and, in turn, to lead our disciple into outreach themselves. God has designed our discipleship to be a tool for the work of evangelism, not a neglect of it. May we seek to so equip our students for the work of the ministry that they do not actually need us to continue it on!

Davis Lacey (Student and Early Career Pastor at Grace Fellowship Church, Kinston, NC) said:

Discipleship and outreach/evangelism are pitted against one another. In my opinion, this dichotomy is a falsehood. 1 Peter 2:1-5 describes individual members of the body of Christ as “living stones [which] are being built up as a spiritual house.” Inasmuch as they minimize hostilities and cliquish tendencies (while molding a group into a closely-knit community), fun, outreach-style events can be useful tools in accomplishing the purposes of God. At the same time, we student ministers would do well to remember that God’s mission was not designed to be primarily accomplished through the events that we plan or the services we offer directly, but rather through our equipping of God’s people for works of ministry (cf. Ephesians 4:11-12). In my view, the aim of student ministry leaders should be to give young people a biblical vision for reaching the lost, to help them develop strategies for pursuing that vision, and then to work alongside of them to put those strategies into action.

Christopher Talbot (Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Welch College, Gallatin, TN) said: 

Thinking about this question, I’ve often found this video to be very helpful. I think the problem we run into—very easily it seems—is to assume that there is a strong dichotomy between these two areas of our ministry. That is, we’re either doing outreach, or we’re doing discipleship. Here is the crux: outreach that doesn’t lead to discipleship is bad outreach, and discipleship that doesn’t lead to outreach is bad discipleship. I would say, then, to balance these two areas, we should allow them to serve one another. Let outreach lead to discipleship, and discipleship to outreach—one always fueling and serving the other.

Sarah Nixon (Bible Teacher at First Presbyterian Day School, Macon, GA) said:

I open up pretty much anything I do to anyone who is willing to come, programmatically. If I’m doing a workshop on how to read your Bible, I’m going to invite students that I know are not saved, even though the goal of the event is discipleship rather than evangelism. Why? Two reasons. First, if a non-saved kid is willing to come to something that is deeper, or more challenging, that is huge! It tells me that they are hungry to either know God or be a part of my community, and that’s something I can push into conversationally. Second, it forces me to make sure I’m not causing my discipleship programming to be works-based. The tendency of my heart – the human heart – is to revert to works and law instead of gospel, and knowing that unsaved kids are definitely in the crowd re-centers my focus on Jesus and the cross. I would also give a warning to anyone who is tempted to over-rely on the “big events” (like post-football Friday night parties and back-to-school bashes), these things can be helpful and fun and certainly there should be a culture of celebration around your youth group, but I’ve never seen a kid say “Man, I was interested in that Jesus stuff, but that youth group didn’t have enough high-energy fun events so I decided He wasn’t for me.” Think about investing more in deep, intentional relationships with all types of students that can move from outreach to discipleship.

Josh Hussung (Pastor of Youth and Families at Grace Community Church, Nashville, TN) said:

Outreach and discipleship are not at odds with one another, they have the same end in mind: a person who knows Jesus as their Savior, walks with him, and shares the Good News with others.

Outreach is discipleship. Having strategic events in your youth ministry during which you encourage students to invite their friends to a fun, attractive event to get their foot in the door of the church, gives your students ownership in spreading the Gospel message.

But to really answer the question, I would say that you should have periodic, strategically-placed events that exist to bring in unbelieving students, for the purpose of getting them in the door, or to share the Gospel at the event. In addition, I would include in my teaching applications and illustrations that refer directly to unbelieving students.

Seth Stewart (Pastor of Student Ministries at Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City) said:

Evangelism and discipleship are the same thing. I’ve been telling my leaders and interns for a while now that they should treat all of our students like non-Christians. Not only does this help us remember to preach the gospel every time we interact with them, but it also helps us recognize that even if our kids are Christians, the only way they will grow is through a deeper understanding of Christ’s substitution on their behalf. How do you balance the two? You don’t. You pursue both 100%, 100% of the time.

Shaun McDonald (Youth Pastor at Open Arms Church, upstate New York) said:

I believe our primary calling as shepherds is to “feed [Jesus’] sheep” (John 21:17). As we do so – reminding them of the gospel and teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded – they will grow in both love and maturity. We speak most of what we love most. What is first in our mind is often what is first on our tongue. When our youth are in love with Jesus, they speak of Him. When they are walking in righteousness, their life is able to shine brightly on their words. Our calling is not to go out and evangelize all of the local youth. As a Youth Pastor, I believe my calling is “to equip the [Christian youth] for the work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). Our students are to make disciples as they go, and we are to bring our student-disciples to continue going, as well as the new disciples they bring in.

Kris Fernhout (Director Kansas City Fellows, Kansas City) said:

When thinking about the tension between reaching in and reaching out in youth ministry, I try to remember that students participating in outreach is part of their discipleship. Midway through Jesus’ own ministry, he sent out his disciples two by two and “gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction…and proclaim as [they went], saying “The kingdom of heaven is at hand…” (Matthew 10:1-7). In Mark 6, we read that the disciples went out and proclaimed that people should repent; they healed many people. Luke reports in chapter 10 that the disciples came back to Jesus with joy, saying that His name caused demons to be subject to them. But Matthew 17 also reveals that they could not heal a boy with epilepsy. Jesus didn’t wait until they were fully trained to send them out. With that said, we shouldn’t ask students to do something we aren’t modeling for them; they should see their youth pastors in their schools, in their communities, reaching out just like we invite them to do. Inviting students to participate in making Jesus known to others, reaching out, is one part of them becoming more closely yoked with the one who can give them true rest.

How do you balance outreach and discipleship? We’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!


Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

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