Discipleship Isn’t What I Thought it Would Be

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This article is the first in our Discipleship/Mentorship Series. In this series, we aim to explore various paradigms we use for discipleship/mentorship, discuss how the gospel informs how we relate to it, and share some of the experiences that have grown and shaped how we understand it.

After almost eight years of student ministry, I’ve learned that multiplication has very little to do with math. Discipleship isn’t like algebra; there’s no plug-and-chug equation for it. There is no guarantee that if you insert student A into discipleship process B, you’ll get mature disciple-maker C. That’s what we hope for. It may even be what you sketch out for your résumé or your pastor as your process of discipleship. But if you lean on the process instead of Jesus when you’re discipling students, you’ll fall flat on your face. 

When I began to personally disciple students, I thought I had a really great plan sketched out. I had the timing down just right: I would disciple a student just before his senior year so he in turn could disciple a junior that year in the same fashion. I would then be free to start the process with a new student and multiplication would ensue. A ➤ B ➤ C, right? Wrong. It was more like A ➤ 4 ➤ squirrel. That’s when I remembered I was discipling students. These were teenagers with hectic lives: relationships, grades, football, spring training, band camp, family issues, jobs, college applications, scholarship forms, etc. I learned discipleship can’t be plugged into a formula; it’s much more fluid. 

I’d like to share some lessons learned along the way. Whether you’re just getting started or have been doing this for a long time, I hope you will find these helpful.

Lesson 1: Be selective. I know this goes against the grain of student ministry because we think it screams “favoritism” to our students. It doesn’t. Instead it screams “wisdom” from the youth pastor. The truth is you won’t be able to personally disciple all your students, or even most of them. You’ve only got time and energy for a few, so be selective. I’d suggest three types of students you should take the time to disciple.

1. New believers

2. Those called to ministry

3. Those who ask for it

If a student comes to faith at an event in your ministry you’ll likely be the one they talk to first. So you should be the first one to initially disciple this new Christian, and you should do so quickly. However, they were likely brought by another student. If so, I would suggest you disciple this new Christian and the friend that brought them. In essence, you’ll be discipling two students at once! 

If a student feels called to ministry, who is more equipped than you to disciple them? Granted, their parents should be their main disciplers, but chances are their parents aren’t in the ministry. So it makes sense for you to disciple those who are called.

If a student asks you to disciple them, you should seriously consider it, if not jump at the opportunity. I actually had this happen to me a couple of years ago. I was discipling a student who was called to ministry. Once he graduated, another student asked me point blank, “So when are you going to disciple me like him?” Obviously use wisdom and discernment, depending on who is asking you. But if a student does ask, at the very least, sincerely pray about it. After all, that’s how Jesus selected His apostles (Luke 6:12-13). (I found this 9marks article quite liberating in this area.)

Lesson 2: Be respectful. If you plan to personally disciple a student, you ought to ask their parents’ permission first. You don’t want to encroach on their calling as primary disciplers. I would even write up a short document stating your intention to disciple their teen, your reason for doing so, where you’ll meet and how often, and what material you plan to use. Give them as much information about your meetings as possible—both out of respect for them and safety for you. Also, if they tell you “no,” don’t get bent out of shape. Remember, you asked them out of respect, not as a courtesy; honor their decision.

Lesson 3: Be smart. Disciple 2-3 students together in what Robby Gallaty calls a “D-Group.” This is smart for several reasons. First, there’s safety in numbers. Others are present if you ever, God-forbid, come into a my-word-against-yours situation. Second, meet in a public place. Get outside your church building and in the community. This might also open doors for evangelism. Third, this is a wise use of time. Fourth, this encourages biblical community. Students will play off each other as you discuss and answer questions about the Bible, and learn together how discipleship works.

Lesson 4: Be flexible. This applies to all of ministry, but it’s especially true when discipling students. There will be days they bail on you without texting first. Sometimes they’ll forget two weeks in a row. This is the world we live in; it is a world with incredibly busy teenagers. 

To be flexible, you must have a plan from which you can bend. Have a plan in place – something to teach from and guide your time – but don’t set that plan in stone. Come up with an A ➤ B ➤ C process, but be prepared to discover a few squirrels along the way. 

Lesson 5: Be an example. Discipleship is both taught and caught, so give your students something to catch. For example, when I was working through a book with a college student, the topic of evangelism came up. I could have given him a great methodology for sharing Christ. However, I decided to show him by witnessing to our waiter. As uncomfortable as I was (that’s not my normal approach), I knew this was my chance to both share the gospel and to show this student how to do it.

Lesson 6: Be holy. This should go without saying, but today it must be said. You must walk in holiness if you want to disciple teens effectively. Discipleship isn’t just about what you teach; it’s also about who you are, and who you are should look like Jesus. That’s why Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).

Join us for Rooted 2015, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore how the good news of God coming to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ offers student ministers and teenagers, hope, healing and connectedness.  

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