As I think about the role we play in helping teenagers become followers of Christ, I like to envision a picture of us walking with students on their journey. I intentionally didn't say our role was to "lead" students in discipleship. Here's why:
The biblical model of discipleship is grounded in relationship. And if our relationship with students is a real relationship, we won't always be out front.
As someone who plays a meaningful role in students' spiritual development, you must engage in real relationship with students if you have any hope to play a role in their discipleship. And this relational aspect of discipleship will dictate the assumption of different roles in the discipleship process.
It's fun to think of these roles in terms of proximity. Most times you will be out in front of students as you walk through this journey. In these times, you are in fact leading. But often, you will be walking alongside a student. These are moments where the relational bond you have necessitates that you and the teenager be co-learners and/or co-laborers. If we are to walk in a discipleship relationship with students, we must be open and willing to walk in front and beside them.
But I believe the most important (and most neglected) manner in which we walk with students is to let them get out in front of us.
If we're ever going to see teenagers develop a robust faith life, we have to let them lead-out. We have to break free from our culture's worst tendencies as it pertains to how we treat teenagers. We can't be "helicopter" youth workers. If our students are to grow into articulate, sound, transformative Christ-followers, we have to encourage and allow them to boldly live out their faith.
We have to do this knowing that they will both succeed and fail. We have to embrace the possibility of failure. I'm not talking about moral failure (though we will almost certainly deal with this along the journey). I'm talking about our students' "trial-and-error approach" to owning their faith life.
As it is now, far too many youth ministers and youth ministries treat teenagers as if they are too fragile to handle missteps, too uninspired to take bold ownership of their faith, or to immature to experience spiritual transformation. While we may not actually articulate any of these elements as reasons why we function as we do, I believe they subconsciously inform and affect how we do (or don't do) discipleship.
If we look at Scripture, the first disciples blew it all the time. Over and over again. Yet, Jesus didn't keep them in a sterile bubble. He literally, in His words, sent them out "as sheep among wolves." He allowed the disciples to journey through a process, a process where failure was regularly a possibility. And while He was there to pick them up and teach them through their failures, He let them fall flat on their faces.
If we ever want to see our students actually grow and progress in their discipleship journey, we must be willing to do the same thing.
What does it look like from a practical standpoint? A few thoughts . . .
- We have to encourage students to engage their friends and strangers alike in spiritual conversations, even if it means they crash and burn. We have to be there to put out the flames and clean up the debris. But we have to be willing to let them crash nonetheless.
- We have to provide opportunities for our students to plan and execute service initiatives (born out of their passions, not necessarily ours) even if it means that they are not as efficient or "effective" as they would be if we planned it. We need to be close-by as a voice of wisdom and experience, but we must embrace the idea that their effort might be clumsy by the world's standards.
- We have to empower students to search, question, and wrestle with the Bible. We can't answer every question for them. We must let them grapple with it. Let them struggle. Let them teach the Bible to one another. Be ready to gently and unobtrusively redirect any mistruths, but step-back and allow them to own biblical truth for themselves. Even if it means a small group time that looks a lot different than it would if you do it, they need this tension.
- We must create expectations that our students will both bear much of the responsibility for determining how they will apply Scripture in their lives, and that they will boldly follow through on living out their faith. They will fail at times, just like we do. We must let them, as painful as it can sometimes be. And instead of shaming them, or cutting them off, we must play Christ to their Peter, reaffirming their purpose and redirecting their passions.
We are traveling with our students along this incredible discipleship journey. It can potentially be a powerful time. But we must be willing to give our students ownership of this journey. It only happens with intentionality. And it only happens in the context of a relationship genuine enough to embrace the possibility of failure.