We are always in danger of what Stephen Covey called the tyranny of the urgent. In youth ministry, this often means we run from meeting to meeting: with students in crisis, with anxious parents, with timid leaders and church members. We are constantly racing to get things done. Ordering pizza. Planning events. Teaching. Eating pizza. Planning youth group games. Umm, did I mention ordering pizza?
Of course we want to be available to the people and tasks entrusted to us. But in all this urgency to get things done, could it be that we are missing the essential calling of the Great Commission to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20)?
Dawson Trotman, founder of The Navigators, explained the disconnect between our tasks and discipleship:
“Busyness—I believe this is why Satan puts all his efforts into getting the Christians busy, busy, busy, but not producing [disciples]. …The curse today is that we are too busy. I am not talking about being busy earning money to buy food. I am talking about being busy doing Christian things. We have spiritual activity with little productivity. And productivity comes as a result of what we call [discipleship].”
And Trotman said this in 1955!
Today’s problem is not too many Christian events or opportunities for growth, but lack of in-depth, gospel-soaked discipleship. And I am convinced that youth pastors must personally disciple and train leaders to disciple students.
Whether you lead a group of ten or one hundred, you cannot disciple everyone. To intentionally disciple someone is a time-consuming and gritty process. Most people have a maximum capacity to disciple anywhere from one to five people—even the Son of God only discipled twelve—and among those disciples, he drew especially close to Peter, James, and John (Matthew 17:1; Mark 5:37, 14:33; Luke 8:51).
Being a Disciple-Maker, Not Just a Program Manager
For the last five or six decades it seems that many have settled for this equation: Pastor + people + programs = church. But this isn’t biblical, since discipleship is ultimately relational. I have often felt the conflict between Jesus’ call to make disciples versus becoming only a program manager. Being a disciple-maker requires intentionality.
Personal discipleship is incarnational. As relational beings we need examples, models and life-on-life community, meaning we spend time together outside the walls of a church building. Discipleship provides biblical accountability through reading Scripture and praying together. It provides a chance to get into the boat with someone, listen, and live in the light together.
For a church leader, discipleship means equipping the saints to disciple. The apostle Paul writes, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12).
For a youth pastor, discipleship also means equipping parents to create homes that are gospel hubs for discipleship, as Deuteronomy 6:7 commands: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Training others to do discipleship doesn’t mean pastors are exempt from personally discipling others! Rather, Jesus showed relational discipleship to be his leadership model (Mt 28:18-20, Acts 4:13).
Jesus died for this vision of discipleship, calling others to follow him and make disciples. If this call doesn’t move you, then don’t expect that it will move your lay leaders. If you yourself as a youth pastor or leader do not have a mentor or discipler, you need to find one. Find a group of peers who can sharpen you and keep you accountable and speak the gospel to you.
Making Disciples Who Make Disciples
Think about the people who have invested personally in your life and faith. Hopefully there have been faithful older Christians who have spoken into your life in various ways, inviting you to follow them as they follow Christ. We find this pattern throughout Scripture: Joshua had Moses; Elisha had Elijah; the apostles had Christ; Paul had Ananias and Barnubus; Titus, Timothy, Philemon, Epaphroditus, Luke, and Silas all had Paul.
Through multiplying discipleship relationships we can reproduce ourselves and exponentially increase our influence. I found out very early on in ministry that I can only disciple three to five students well. But if you have eight leaders each disciple two students suddenly that is nineteen students that are being discipled!
This was the apostle Paul’s strategy and charge: “…what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Paul discipled Timothy, who discipled other faithful men, which led to many others being taught. That’s four generations–all because Paul multiplied disciples.
We can teach, train, and empower leaders and/or students to disciple through leader meetings, teaching, volunteer trainings or retreats once or twice a year. Parent seminars, parent-pastor chats (like parent-teacher conferences) and one-on-one meetings with parents can urge parents on in family discipleship. Lead by example by discipling leaders, church member or students yourself. I also have seen discipleship group of two to four students or leaders work well. You can even make it a requirement of being a student or adult leader. You can co-lead a group with a leader and then let them take over and train another apprentice. Another program that can be effective is creating a formal mentoring or discipleship program with registration.
A framework that I share with my leaders of what a discipling meeting may look like is this: First work through a Bible or book study. Then spend some time focusing on accountability, sharing about your spiritual lives. Finally, pray together. Whether or not you recommend this particular strategy, it’s important that your philosophy of discipleship is clear to you and those you lead.
Let’s not content ourselves with merely filling up seats or planning attractive productions. It’s easy to get people to show up for a program, especially if it’s entertaining. Relational discipleship is gritty and hard—but it brings true gospel transformation.
Jesus spent the majority of his time on earth pouring into twelve disciples. As a result, the gospel spread to the known world during the first century without radio, TV, the printing press, the Internet, the iphone, FaceBook, Twitter or Instagram. The spread of the Christian faith was accomplished as Christ’s few disciples made more disciples, who also made disciples.
This is the upside-down power of the gospel Jesus proclaimed: One seed must first die to bear fruit (John 12:24). A tiny mustard seed becomes the biggest tree (Mark 4:30-32). The foolish things shame the wise and the weak things of the world shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27). The kingdom starts small, goes deep and brings about massive and lasting change when we focus on multiplying disciples as Jesus taught
“ ,” Dawson Trotman (1955).