Hear, O Youth Worker: The Shema as a Model for Discipling Students

Every year for over a decade now, Apple has been releasing a new rendition of the iPhone. And every year crowds gather to wait for hours, or even days, to get their hands on the newest model. Each new release promises better software features, improved cameras, and the hope that replacing your old model will be worth the price. The tech giant has developed an almost unparalleled strategy for creating hype around their products with their preview events and advertising. Year after year stores sell out as millions of people fanatically flock to get their hands on the newest device.

The success of Apple’s business model reveals something insightful about our modern minds: We are looking for the “next big thing,” and we don’t want to miss out when it comes. We would do well to understand the way this mindset seeps into our youth ministries as well. When we open our Bibles together, we are met with ancient words inspired by the Holy Spirit co-authored by ancient people who lived in ancient cultures. Our subconscious temptation is to look for fresh spins, new interpretations, and innovative applications as we preach these words so that students will stay interested. We know teenagers may have a hard time connecting with Scripture, so we are tempted to aim our teaching more at cultural relevance than Biblical faithfulness.

To be sure, we must present the Bible to teenagers in a language they can understand; however, our main task is “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) More than the newest model of personal flourishing, we are offering the promise of life given in Christ, entrusted to the apostles, and delivered to the church. One of best biblical models for this is given to us in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which Jewish tradition calls the Shema from the Hebrew word “to hear.”

The Shema is an ancient Biblical creed that has served as a sort of statement of faith for the Israelites for centuries. Jesus himself locates the Shema at the center of His theology. (Mark 12:28-34; Matt. 22:34-40) God gave the Israelites the Shema so that they would primarily be a people of remembrance.

In a culture obsessed with what’s next, the Shema reminds us that we don’t miss out by focusing on what has already come. True happiness is not found in constantly anticipating the next thing, but in remembering God’s faithfulness even as we look forward. To this end, the Shema gives us at least three areas of emphasis to develop in our student ministries.

The Shema Gives Us Direction 

As Moses gives God’s words to Israel, he draws our attention to the foundational adhesive of the covenant community. “The Lord our God, The Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). Ancient Israel was to be uniquely monotheistic the Ancient Near East, which was dominantly polytheistic. And though our culture today may assume monotheism, we too are at risk for functional polytheism.

While our temptations may not include setting up statues of household gods in our living rooms, we are all still tempted to put our faith in functional saviors. Students are bombarded every day with thousands of advertisements selling them some version of “the good life.” The cultural pundits are pulling their attention to individualistic expression as the ultimate good one can pursue. The increase of a relativistic worldview has students skeptical that there even is objective truth, or if there is, it cannot be known.

The Shema gives us a foundation as we seek to help equip students to work through these messages and not be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). The Shema gives us the instruction of the self-revealing God, from whom objective truth flows, that we are to know and love Him and that He knows and loves us. It shows that we are to set our sights firmly on the one who is self-existent, unchanging, immutable, and infallible. We find an Ebenezer pointing to the faithfulness of our covenant God. He restores right relationship with His covenant people and gives us the love and acceptance we all desperately long for. For the ancient Israelites, the foreign idols were obvious, though no less tempting. In our current day, in the choppy waters of relativism and individualism, we need to give student firm footing for purpose and fulfillment directed at the Author and Sustainer of all.

The Shema Gives Us Location

Moses also tells us that youth work should reflect the unity of the larger covenant body.  Deuteronomy 6:7 begins with “You shall teach these things diligently to your children.” Much attention in recent years has been given to the responsibilities of parents to disciple their children, but the Shema broadens the horizon of this responsibility. Of course, parents have a unique role to play in the discipleship of their children (Prov. 1:8-9), but they do not have the sole responsibility of this task.

Moses does not narrow his audience to parents alone as he gives this command; rather he gives it broadly to Israel as a whole. This is important as it relates to modern-day youth ministry because it does not give us the option of setting up our youth ministries adjacent to the church body. Instead we must locate them inside of the church body. Many youth ministries today function as parachurch ministries sponsored by local churches—they may take place in the church’s building, but they are disconnected from church life. The danger in this is that students never catch a vision for the covenant family. As a result, they may view church only as games and talks catered to their preferences and tastes.

One way to combat this potential for a youth silo is not just talking about the covenant family, but inviting students to participate in the covenant family. Teenagers, like all of us, need a sense of belonging and place. They find those things in sports teams, clubs, or online communities, but it is our job as youth workers to help them locate their place in the entire covenant family, the church. Yes, parents are uniquely positioned to disciple their children, but we should also promote cultures of “children in the faith” (Phil. 2:22, 1 Cor. 4:17, 1 Tim 1:2, Titus 1:4) where intergenerational discipleship takes place not just by blood relatives but by all of those united by the blood of Christ.

In our technological age, students are exposed to a broad array of issues through the internet that seem insurmountable. As the access to information has broadened, individualism has narrowed studentssupport networks. As members of a covenant family, it is our job to reinstate familial networks and come along side these students and their parents to show them that in the family of faith we “have everything in common” (Acts 4:32) as we “bear one anothers burdens” (Gal. 6:2).

The Shema Gives Us a Destination

 The Shema is a testament to the covenant faithfulness of God to His covenant family. Our job as youth workers and parents is to embody this same theme in our ministry to teenagers. In this endeavor, by Gods grace, we will show students that their desire for direction and location are ultimately found under Gods grace in His covenant community. But more than simply giving them purpose and belonging, the gospel offers students a destination.

Youth ministry should never be disconnected from the eventual consummation of the eternal Kingdom. As we teach students, we should constantly be highlighting that the gospel is more than a get-out-of-jail-free card and that churches are more than places full of people seeking better morality. The covenant family exists with one singular aim – that we would “proclaim the excellencies of him who called (us) out of darkness and into his marvelous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9) We are united under the grace of Christ by faith in him, and together we are walking in faith proclaiming the gospel to all who will hear until we are united with our Savior at the marriage supper of the lamb (Rev. 19:6-9).

Our discipleship should never be an end in itself, but always a means of pointing students to the day when our Lord will return, when our faith will be made sight, and when we will no longer need to wear God’s commands “as frontlets between our eyes” (Deut. 6:8) because Gods name will be forever written on our foreheads (Rev 22:4). We all are longing for a place of complete love and acceptance, but being a part of the covenant family offers something more profound and eternally beautiful than any competing vision the world offers: It offers us a life of eternal love with the Lord our God,. This is the God who reveals himself in the Shema.

Parker serves as the Director of Student Discipleship at Redemption Church in Madison, MS. He and his wife, Ali, live in Jackson, MS where he attends Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson.

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