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A New Definition of Discipleship for Youth Ministry

A New Definition of Discipleship for Youth Ministry

How do you define discipleship for your students? I want to offer up a fresh definition of discipleship, one that is organic (as opposed to systemic) and personal (as opposed to programmatic). This new definition of discipleship is chiefly concerned with our students’ identity in Christ, and it is rooted in a powerful, if not often overlooked, concept from Scripture: adoption.


The New Definition of Discipleship I want to offer is this:

Discipleship is the life-long, Spirit-fueled journey of children becoming like their Father.

If we can ground our discipleship efforts in helping students fully internalize the truth of their adoption into the family of God, it saves discipleship from legalism, from a misguided, performance-based mindset, and from a purely academic exercise. Here’s how Scripture supports and informs this definition.


Salvation Enables Adoption

When a student comes to saving faith in Jesus, they are dramatically transformed in a variety of ways. One of the most powerful changes that occur has to do with the concept of adoption.

When we come to faith in Jesus, we are adopted by God into the family of God.

  • “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” - 1 John 1:12
  • “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. - Ephesians 1:5

Faith in Christ enables adoption by God. Through faith in Jesus, we are connected to God in an eternal, personal bond. We have a family. We belong. He is our Father. We are His children. And this relationship is absolutely vital in how we help teenagers understand discipleship.

 In Galatians 4:5-7, Paul says that God sent Jesus

“to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

When Paul mentions adoption, he’s invoking a very powerful picture of what God does for each of us. When we come to faith in Jesus, it is as if we were orphans with no rights and no privileges, who were plucked out of destitution to be granted the rights and privilege of chosen heirs. It’s a powerful, deeply moving picture of God’s seeking love for us.


Adoption Empowers Discipleship

In Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Our identity as children empowers our discipleship, and this is where our definition of discipleship really comes into place. Let’s unpack our definition a bit.

Discipleship is the life-long, Spirit-fueled journey of children becoming like their Father.

      Our discipleship journey is long.

Our students’ journeys don’t start when they enter our ministries and end when they graduate. We know this. But it’s still hard for us at times to take this view. We are one of many voices that influence a teenager’s faith development. While this is not an excuse to slack off, it’s a comfort when we don’t see students maturing spiritually as we’d like.

    Our discipleship journey is Spirit-fueled.

The Bible teaches us that the Holy Spirit is working behind the scenes in our lives to make us more like Jesus. We call this sanctification. How refreshing it is be reminded that discipleship is more about what the Holy Spirit does and less about what we do.

But what does this definition say about the motivation behind the desire to imitate our Father?

Relationship Motivates Discipleship

The real heart of this definition of discipleship is motivation. When we help students internalize the concept of adoption, we show them that there is a new motivation for their pursuit of Christ. The motivation for discipleship is rooted in their relationship with their Father.

When it comes to discipleship, I believe many students know the basics of what to do. We can help students see that they are to engage in the practices of discipleship not because it satisfies their checkboxes as “good Christians,” but born out of love for and admiration of their Father, and the longing to be like Him that comes with being adopted as a child of God.

 For a student who has ever struggled with reading their Bible or praying or any other spiritual discipline, this new way of processing motivation is freedom.

When our students are motivated by their identities as children seeking to imitate their Father, everything changes . . .

  • Bible reading ceases to be a burdensome chore and instead becomes a powerful interaction with our Father through the pages of His Word.
  • Worship ceases to be hollow or centered on us and instead becomes a personal gift of thankfulness and praise from a child to their father.
  • Prayer ceases to be one-sided or even this abstract practice and instead becomes a tender, two-way conversation between family members.
  • Service ceases to be a task we do and instead becomes an extension of God Himself where we model the very same selfless sacrifice Jesus made for us.
  • Evangelism ceases to be this semi-awkward presentation we halfheartedly stumble through and instead becomes an opportunity to excitedly share with the orphan the amazing pathway to becoming part of this family that we love so much.

Discipleship is the life-long, Spirit-fueled journey of children becoming like their Father. Our students are not alone. The Father draws them to Him. The Spirit guides them and strengthens them. And they have a family around them to journey alongside.

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