Imagine you are …
A parent asked to teach a kids’ Sunday school class once every 4 or 6 weeks.
A new staff member tasked with leading a ministry to middle or high school students.
A young adult who has to invite a bunch of men or women in the church (often older than you) to lead students.
A parent who has been bearing the burden of trying to disciple your own kids… and who wishes there was some place or people for them at your church beyond just the worship service.
If that’s you (or any number of other possibilities), odds are you are asking this question: what’s the church’s role in bringing the gospel to the next generation? I do not want to take away from the responsibility a mom or dad has to lovingly lead their children to know the Lord, but in their zeal to cultivate that role, church leaders can often miss the reality that God has given us the church to help us along in this important task.
The local church has been ordered to proclaim the word of Christ and to meet the needs of the church and the community (Acts 6). The local church is entrusted with the gifts for discipleship, ministry, and maturity (Eph 4). The church is meant to be the place and the people with the priority to make disciples of Jesus Christ. 1
Most every parent I know already shudders at the responsibility and pressure of loving and leading their kids. They already know they fall short, and they long for a better future for their kids. But not every parent sees the church as their partner in that work.
Our churches have a remarkable opportunity to partner with parents in the task of making disciples of the next generation. There are many avenues to accomplish this, but one of the most critical paths is finding, cultivating, and growing men and women who will serve in kids or student ministry spaces as leaders, teachers, and friends.2 There are a handful of keys elements here that are worth patient consideration:
Commit to relational discipleship
Relationships are the best context for discipleship. God did not make us as brains on sticks to absorb disembodied information: he made us as relational beings, lovers to be formed for loving him, our selves, others, and his creation. The big story of the Bible is one of communion: relationship given, broken, reconciled, and being renewed in Christ. In the body of Christ, we live this story out.
Make it a matter of generational investment
This works in two directions: each generation takes a responsibility for reaching and mentoring the one following it. In turn, that same generation is renewed in encouragement and vision by those younger. I am all for inviting high school students to help minister to others, or students to serve with and lead kids, but I’ll be adamant that adults should be the primary one serving kids and students for the sake of leading them to Christ for the sake of introducing them to the larger body of Christ.
Show up consistently to create community
Given that you get maybe 50 or 100 hours a year in the church’s ministry to kids or students, I’ll argue any day for week-after-week ministry roles (particularly for any kind of small or groups-based ministry) rather than some kind of rotational leadership.3 If you can provide the same welcoming, prayerful, prepared person week after week to disciple students, you make huge inroads in community. 4 This person knows their names, is coming to understand their hearts and their stories, and can consistently point them to Jesus. Every student in our churches deserves a place to belong and a people to belong to.
Give a clear and compelling vision for their role
At our church, we call these leaders to show up in three ways: weekly in their ministry, unexpectedly in the world of the kids, students, and adults (who then learn that they personally matter more than the “program”), and whole-heartedly in all their service. In the pressure to find people, you might be tempted to make the role so easy or so infrequent that you undercut its importance. Show them what’s at stake: the gospel and the hearts of those who Christ loves.
Keep your messages to parents and leaders the same
You are working toward the same end in discipling kids. In this way, as you both teach parents and (through leaders) teach kids and students, you let their respective voices overlap and reinforce each other. This is particularly important at times where the voices of others seem loudest.5
Above all, keep your eye and heart fixed on the true teacher and discipler: Jesus himself.
The command to parents to “teach these things to your children” (Deut 6) or to the church to “make disciples of all nations” will be experienced by us and by others as crushing law apart from the gracious presence and power of Jesus himself. Jesus became incarnate among us and for us, he called us, died and rose and ascended for us, names us friends, teaches us, and sends us out by his spirit, in his name, under his authority, with his promised presence. Attending to who Jesus is to you, for you, and in you is the single best thing you can do for others.
There is a benefit for the church here, too. Time again I have found that the responsibility of leading a group or teaching kids, middle, or high schoolers becomes an avenue God uses to stretch, grow, and shape the faith of those volunteers. Teachable students and adult leadership often become something like the church’s laboratory for leadership in other areas, or even pursuing theological education for future kingdom roles.
I deeply love my own parents and their witness to me, but I can still remember the names, faces, and ministry of a few key volunteers in our churches who taught me and pointed me to Jesus as much by their life as by all the hours or words: Forrest, Larry, and Betsy, Erik, Mark and Greg. They are a few of the ordinary saints, called by God and commissioned as his witnesses, whose lives had a shaping influence on my heart.
A partner in discipleship
When you create a place for students within your church, and you staff it with people from your church who know the gospel of Jesus and share him with students on a consistent basis, you give a family an incredible partner in the work of discipleship. You help them connect to other believers: brothers and sisters who are examples in faithfulness, who call for faith in Jesus Christ, and who cooperate with parents in their ministry to kids. As the household or family of God, the church as community becomes the vibrant context for forming a lasting faith in Jesus Christ.
Interested in learning more from Andy Cornett about family discipleship? We hope you’ll consider attending his workshop: “The Kids Are Not Ok: Why the Adults Have to Step Up, Face the Truth, and Serve” at the Rooted 2023 Conference in Nashville, TN.
- For a great intro to this truth, see J.T. English’s book Deep Discpleship.
- In this article, I’m not addressing the place of public worship, the key roles of the sacraments here, the ways you might help teach or train parents, the communication practices you might have as a ministry, or the myriad small ways an intergenerational community rubs shoulder and passes faith down and around.
- Imagine you met every week and each kid or student came for 1-2 hours. Now be realistic in how often they might regularly come: it’s less than you might think. Why not maximize the time they have?
- It’s worth reminding each other that we are mandated with the responsibility to safeguard the welfare of kids and students by properly screening, checking, and training these leaders.
- Parents by far hold the long term influence here. With rare exception, no one has a greater influence on the life of a child than a parent, even when that role shifts from more formative (as children) to supportive (in transition to adulthood).