Youth Pastors, Beware of Making Counterfeit Disciples
God designed the church to center on the gospel—the good news that God rescues sinners through the person and work of Jesus. Placing the gospel at the center of our ministry to students leads us to emphasize discipleship because Jesus specifically calls us to be disciples and to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). However, when we look at the Church today, we don’t always see disciples being made. Many churches and youth ministries claim to be gospel-centered, but the proof is in pudding. If something other than disciples are regularly emerging from our ministries, we should question whether the gospel is at the center after all.
If we are not centering on the gospel, our youth ministries might be making something other than disciples.
1.) Making Feelers
The feeler believes that his spirituality must always be emotional. I believe that people can and should experience God, that our hearts ought to burn with passion and conviction—but some Christians seem only to chase after emotions. When feelers are not “vibing with” the worship or preaching, or when community feels a little “meh,” they falsely believe something is wrong with their faith or with the church.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones wisely taught that the Christian should approach emotion in the right way, almost indirectly. Lloyd-Jones called this approach “logic on fire” because truth should fill our mind before it burns in our hearts. The Holy Spirit convicts our hearts when truth is preached (1 Thes. 1:5). Although we pray for for students to encounter God personally, they may not have a deeply emotional experience every time we gather. When we elevate experience to the very center of our ministries, however, we may be making feelers more than we’re making disciples.
2.) Making Doers
The doer believes that the church must be packed with programs, events, and services—and the burden is on her. Although these individuals can get a lot done, that doesn’t mean they are growing spiritually. Instead the busyness can be a veneer of holiness. We often applaud doers but we cannot prioritize production over the person. If people are burning out for the sake of “ministry” perhaps we have lost focus of what is ultimate.
Doing things for Jesus is secondary to being with Jesus. In John’s Gospel, Martha busied herself with doing while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him. Amazingly, Jesus commended Mary for choosing to spend time with Him (John 10:38-42). When performance and productivity are central, we might be making doers instead of disciples, whereas when we call people to follow Jesus, serving will be the overflow of their love for him.
3.) Making Learners
The learner eats up truth and information without any application. James writes that we must not only be hearers of the Word, but do what it says (James 1:22). Many youth pastors dedicate a large majority of their time to exegetical sermons, in-depth devotionals, catechism, seminars, and Bible studies. Don’t get me wrong, we must faithfully teach and defend biblical truth; but we also must challenge our students to live out what they learn. In ministries where Bible teaching is highly valued, minds are being filled with the truth of God’s Word—but perhaps without enough space to apply what is being taught. Pharisees studied and learned more than everyone else in their time, but many of them were far from God because they didn’t practice what they learned and taught (Matt. 23:1-3).
More knowledge of God’s Word is essential for spiritual maturity; but knowledge does not equate to spiritual maturity. We should be lifelong students of the Word, but if knowledge is the central goal of our ministries, we might be making mere learners.
4.) Making Leaders
The leader is a competent individual who sees the church as a company to be run. We all want to see our ministries grow, but it must be done in the right way. In all churches there is a great need for leadership—but the recruiting, on-boarding and training process must look different than that of the world. Competency is important but it must never come without character. Leadership principles and business practices are resources for the church but they must never replace Scripture.
Healthy ministries will tend to grow as students begin to love Jesus and invite others to follow him. But when we place strategy at the center of our ministries, we may be making leaders instead of true disciples.
5.) Making Attenders
The attender is someone who comes to church and thinks that makes him a Christian. We might fall into the trap of tracking numbers and attendance because they are easy to measure. At times, we are tempted to compare church sizes to stroke our own egos or out of envy of larger churches. Encouraging students to meet together regularly is critical, but it’s only part of discipleship.
Jesus approached ministry so differently. He never chased after numbers—instead, he presented difficult teachings, telling people to treasure him more than their own families (Matt. 10:37) and to sell everything they had (Luke 18:22). Jesus was not about simply gathering people; He wanted to make disciples who would also make disciples. When attendance or numbers are central, we may be making churchgoers. When we emphasize discipleship, followers of Jesus naturally multiply.
6.) Making Followers
The follower comes to church because of a gifted individual—whether it be a charismatic preacher, a strong leader, a musically talented praise leader or an empathetic counselor. Individuals who use their God-given abilities can bring people closer to Jesus; however, if we are not careful, our youth ministries can become personality-driven. The celebrity culture around Christian conferences, retreats, events, and books is dangerous because it can lead students to trust in individuals more than they trust in God.
Jesus said, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19), but some early Christians chose to followed Paul or Apollos exclusively (1 Cor. 3:4), creating division in the Church. When we lead in a team and follow Jesus together, there is unity. On the other hand, when a human personality is central, we may be making followers of other people rather than followers of Jesus.
Churches come in all shapes and sizes but we must all build our foundation on Jesus. If the gospel is not central, we are not making disciples. When something else is at the center, we make unbalanced, immature or incomplete Christians. The disciple, on the other hand, is holistic, balanced and centered on what is most important: the gospel. A disciple learns truth which moves him or her to feel and do. A disciple attends church not because of the gifted leaders but to worship God and to serve the needs of others.
Making disciples is hard. As people who disciple youth students, we all lean one way or another. If you tend to make doers, feelers or learners, there is grace. If you emphasize attendance, leadership or have a strong personality, there is hope. As we spend time in the gospel and see Jesus at the center of all things, we are transformed to be more well-rounded disciples ourselves. And as we follow Jesus as disciples, we become disciple makers.