Don’t Entertain Teenagers, Disciple Them
According to Lifeway Research, “66% of American young adults who attended a Protestant church on a regular basis as a teenager say they dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.”
Similarly, the Barna Group reports, “The percentage of people whose beliefs qualify them for a biblical worldview declines in each successively younger generation.” Barna’s statistics identified that 10% of Boomers, 7% of Gen X, and only 6% of Millennials have a biblical worldview, compared to only 4% of Gen Z.
Too often, student ministries prioritize entertainment over disciple-making. If we want to see students become mature disciples who obey and follow Jesus for a lifetime, we must build our student ministries on gospel-centered discipleship, rather than entertainment. A ministry based on entertainment has a culture of reaching students with games and events, whereas a discipleship culture equips students with the gospel and sends them to reach other students.
In my experience, students crave authentic relationships over entertainment. What seemed to be effective in youth ministry 15 years ago (i.e. entertaining students to get them in the door) doesn’t translate very well to today’s world—and that may be a blessing. Teenagers need an encounter with God more than they need to be entertained. Fun is an important element of building community, but entertainment won’t sustain them when their faith is challenged, or when they experience suffering, or when they face the temptations of a college campus. Only a solid theological foundation and a personal relationship with Jesus will.
We want our students not just to survive but to thrive. We hope they will engage culture with the gospel—the good news that God saves and accepts sinners through repentance and faith in Jesus’ performance, not their own. So we must disciple them to love and treasure Jesus and to fully embrace the unchanging truth of his Word. Here are four ways youth ministers can lead this kind of discipleship-focused youth ministry:
Focus on the right goal. My youth ministry professor in college would always tell us, “keep the main thing the main thing!” For youth ministries that are driven by entertainment, doing whatever it takes to get students in the door becomes the main thing. For youth ministries that are driven by the gospel, making disciples is the main thing.
God has used COVID-19 to remind me of this crucial truth: How many students show up is neither an accurate nor a helpful way to evaluate the fruit of our ministries. If your aim is to get as many students in the door as possible, you will potentially sacrifice biblical depth to make it happen. Strive to have a healthy youth ministry. Healthy youth ministries partner with parents to disciple students, mobilize them for mission, provide opportunities for authentic relationships, and teach hermeneutics, sound theology, and apologetics.
Charles Spurgeon is said to have explained the danger of an attractional focus saying, “If you have to give a carnival to get people to come to church, then you will have to keep giving carnivals to keep them coming back.”
Youth pastors should pray and work hard to reach students, but we must always remember that it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor 3:7). What you count and celebrate will create your culture. If you want a discipleship culture, count and celebrate discipleship and evangelism wins; spend time celebrating spiritual growth from camp or gospel conversations from a mission trip. If you primarily count and celebrate how many students show up, that demonstrates the main goal is simply to get students in the door.
Have a plan. Because of the biblical calling to shepherd those whom God has entrusted to us, developing a disciple-making strategy should be an urgent priority for every youth minister. We want to equip students to be faithful disciples in our post-Christian culture. Know what type of disciple you hope your ministry will cultivate and know how you are going to get there. If we don’t intentionally disciple our students, our culture will.
We must do some heavy lifting theologically in order to build a foundation upon which we can develop resilient and faithful disciples. Knowledge must lead to obedience and heart-felt devotion. We are called to teach students their place in the church body, how to self-feed on Scripture, how to pray, how to share the gospel, and how to address cultural issues with truth and love. These four words guide how I teach and disciple students: Truth, Mission, Community, Delight. The aim of our youth ministry is to equip students to know truth (the gospel, hermeneutics, apologetics, theology), to live on mission (evangelism training), to live in biblical community, and to delight in spiritual disciplines.
Youth pastors must have a plan for both the committed and uncommitted high schoolers and middle schoolers—the first-timer as well as the inconsistent attender—to hear the gospel, experience community, be discipled, and make disciples. We can all probably think of at least one student who is goofy, awkward, and maybe even a little annoying. We need to remember the calling God has placed on our lives to shepherd even the annoying students! What a beautiful reward when we see the gospel captivate students’ hearts, leading them to grow as disciple-making disciples.
Evaluate your ministry. If you are wondering whether your ministry values entertainment over discipleship, evaluating your calendar and budget is a good place to start. What consumes your energy and resources? Recently I worked with my leadership team and we developed a simple strategy for our ministry: reach, equip, go. We are in the process of creating a discipleship culture so if something doesn’t help us reach students, equip students, or send students to go, we choose not to do it. A strategy like this one can help you to see if you are uneven in your events, programming, and teaching.
If you want a student ministry driven by discipleship, evaluate your ministry by asking yourself the hard questions: Are students maturing in their walk with Jesus? Are students connecting in biblical community with the church? Are students growing in their ability and passion to share the gospel with those far from God? Are we providing opportunities for new students to experience biblical community? Are we raising up leaders to be disciple-makers?
If you are a youth pastor who evaluates your ministry and realizes changes need to be made to create a discipleship culture, work to build relationships and trust before making big changes. Get core people to rally around the vision.
Empower Youth Leaders and Equip Parents. The best ministers are those who help others thrive in their gifts. Develop a team of student leaders and adults who are gifted in creating a welcoming environment. Train them, keep them rallied around the vision, and then release them. Work with them to schedule events or retreats that could help students to hear the gospel and experience biblical community. Empower and encourage them to take ownership in the ministry.
Just as a leadership team is critical, having a student ministry that is driven by discipleship is impossible without including parents. Scripture is clear that parents are their children’s primary disciple-makers (Deut. 6:4-8, 20-24; . Therefore, it is essential that we empower and equip parents. Spend intentional time with parents getting to know them and their student’s spiritual journey. Pray with them. Provide resources and training. Develop an on-ramp process for parents with students transitioning from the children’s ministry into student ministry. Many parents are terrified to have conversations that our culture has made necessary to have, such as gender and identity confusion. Equip them to have those conversations!
We should work to foster a welcoming, gospel-centered culture in which kids can feel known and cared for in biblical community, and where they can hear the gospel preached. While this kind of culture will certainly include some time for fun and games, ultimately we want to be
intentional about discipling students to follow Jesus. In the end, only the gospel can instill a deep sense of identity and spiritual strength long after students have graduated from student ministry, shaping their future—and the future of the Church.
Charles Holmes, How a Return to Scriptures Can Help Those Wanting to Flee Faulty Church Culture, (https://lifewayresearch.com/2021/03/19/reconstruct-faith-in-a-deconstructing-culture/), 2021.
Jonathan Morrow, Only 4 Percent Have a Biblical Worldview, (https://www.impact360institute.org/articles/4-percent-gen-z-biblical-worldview/), 2018.