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  • Hannah Williamson

Discipling Young People in a 'Follow Me' Culture


“After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, ‘follow me.’ And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” Luke 5:27-28

I am now 37 and so somewhat removed from the current culture of Gen Z. When I grew up, I got my first phone at 14 and then didn’t start using social media till I was well into my 20’s and by then a Youth Pastor. And to say I used social media is a bit of a stretch as it was 'myspace' which was ridiculously complicated to set up. I’m sure you had to have some kind of degree in coding. The reality is, the world since I started working with young people has changed rapidly and looks very different to what it was. Regardless of the change, there are principles that Jesus taught us that remain the same. Isaiah 40:8 says, The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” I have been reading the parables that Jesus shared and am always amazed at how he carefully crafted the story to bring a spiritual truth while remaining applicable to the culture of the time. When it comes to working with young people that’s what we have to do. What is the truth and how can we package it in an understandable way that means they will be able to go on and apply it to their every day lives?


There is somewhat of a ‘following’ culture that has intensified through the use of social media. People have always followed people but this has tended to often be the rich, famous and powerful, but today anyone can be followed and anyone can become popular. Social media in whatever form creates a world of followers, but what are we following? I sat with a group of young people and their youth pastor a few days ago and the youth pastor saw a 15 year old scroll through what appeared to be some inappropriate pictures on their social media. When he questioned the boy, he said ‘I know I shouldn’t follow them, but I signed up to this thing that allowed me to get 1000 more followers if I followed this one person.’ Hmmm!!


Discipleship or maybe what we could call ‘followership’ is something Jesus did with a group of teenagers. He took this group and poured his life into them, helping them to grow in their faith and understand so that they could then be released to disciple others (remember, thats what the great commission is all about - making disciples!) The following 5 points speak into how youth ministries can ensure they are getting discipleship on track so that it doesn’t end up being a ‘fake follow’ which builds little spiritual growth into a young person.


So, how can we disciple in a ‘follow me’ culture?


MAKE DISCIPLESHIP A PRIORITY


When I go to the supermarket, particularly Aldi or Lidl I always have a list of what I need to buy but I ALWAYS get distracted by the ‘middle aisle’ - if you know you know. No matter how much I want to focus on my list, I inevitably end up buying something I probably don’t need from the ‘middle aisle.’ When it comes to discipleship, it is often seen in churches as an add on ‘programme.’ Sometimes it's even called a ‘discipleship programme or course.’ This saddens me in many ways because it make discipleship seem like something you might pick up in the middle aisle. Something optional.

Jesus didn’t see it like this. In the very first chapters of the gospels we see Him approach people and say, ‘follow me.’ What then commenced was three years of ‘discipleship.’ Not a course, but a way of living. In the book ‘Sitting at the feet of Rabbi Jesus’ (Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg) they describe what discipleship looked liked according to rabbi’s of the time to help us understand how Jesus discipled, ‘To follow a rabbi meant something other than sitting in a classroom and absorbing his lectures. Rather, it involved a liberal kind of following, in which disciples often traveled with, lived with and imitated their rabbis, learning not only from what they said but from what they did - from their reactions to everyday life as well as from the manner in which they lived.’ This really is a picture of what Jesus did with his disciples.


This throws up some challenges to youth ministry, as we may not be able to do exactly what that quote says. However, there are ways we can make discipleship more of a priority and some of it is just in changing our understanding of what it is and ensuring our youth leaders understand that.


Here are some thoughts to consider….

  • Discipleship is about setting an example in all situations of how to live - you are as much a leader being followed when in a restaurant getting angry with someone serving you as you are when you are preaching from the front.

  • Discipleship can be both intentional and spontaneous - small groups and a challenging question to a young person when you are walking down the road!

  • Everyone is being discipled in some way. We just have to ensure the discipleship of young people is drawing them closer to Jesus not just becoming a popular person.


ENSURE YOU ARE A PERSON WORTH FOLLOWING


This is a current problem our time and particularly a problem for GenZ. My parents grew up in a world that had high levels of trust in authority, whether that be parents, school teachers or the government. GenZ however have grown up in an environment that doesn’t seem to trust anyone in authority. From lying politicians to celebrities who have sexually abused, it's hard for them to know who to trust anymore. This means discipleship could be a challenge. How can a young person trust the person discipling them?


There were many rabbis in the new testament times. Many options of people to follow. (Maybe not too different to today!) Jesus stood out. He was different. And what his disciples did after he returned to the Father is quite unlike what any other ‘followers of rabbis’ did. Describing Jesus prior to the commencement of his ministry, it. Says in Luke 2:52, ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man.’ Here we see 4 areas of his life which were worth following - wisdom, stature, relationship with God and relationship with others. Jesus ‘increased’ it tells us in these areas ready to teach the disciples who were to follow him.

When it comes to youth ministry, this is vital. It is vital that we teach youth leaders to fight to be Jesus like, growing in wisdom, stature, relationship with God and others. This isn’t just a command for the Youth Pastor, but for the whole team. Youth Pastor - help your team become people worth following so that your youth group has people to look up to. You as the youth pastor are the one to disciple your team just as they are to disciple your young people. Talk about integrity, model how to live, let them see you in different settings so that they can grow. Challenge them, pastor them, push them on spiritually - this is your responsibility.


Here are a few ways you can ensure your youth leaders become people worth following;

  • Spend time with your youth team outside of your Friday programme (or other day!) - both socially and developing them.

  • Focus much more on integrity than skill - praise the integrity of your team more than their ability to ‘do things.’

  • Don’t be afraid to challenge - if you have actively sought to build relationship with them, they’ll know that when you challenge you still love them. If you see something that doesn’t speak integrity call it out and help them find a way back.


CREATE A DEPTH TO DISCIPLESHIP


We all know that a negative of the ‘social media’ age we live in is that people get bites of knowledge but not a 'full meal.' Theres a big difference between ‘picky food’ at a child’s birthday party and a buffet at a 5* restaurant. Sometimes we might fancy a bit of ‘picky food’ but generally its full of the more unhealthy things like crisps and cakes and it probably won’t fill us up well. I think in comparison to a restaurant near me called Cosmo which has food from all round the world, where you can eat to your hearts content (okay, maybe thats not so healthy either, but you get the point!).


When it comes to discipleship it could be easy just to give young people a few good principles for living rather than help them dig into the depths of the Word of God. I am amazed by how many times in the gospels, Jesus shared something with the disciples and they just didn’t get it! It’s bordering on embarrassing for them! Jesus was always going deeper than what maybe they got at the time, but I’m sure so much went in that they grabbed hold of for the future! One of my closest friends came from a completely non-christian background and came to our youth ministry when she was 12. She then went away from God at 17 after having faced some real difficulties and trauma. She didn’t come back to God until she was 25. I am amazed how much she retained from those few years coming to our youth group and church. It’s quite unbelievable. That for me shows how important it is to ‘go deep’ when it comes to the discipleship of young people - they are far more smart than you probably give them credit for!!!


Here’s some thoughts on creating depth to your discipleship of young people….


  • Don’t ignore or shy away from teaching on the more ‘tricky’ subjects of what we believe - make sure you are clued up and be brave enough to teach God’s Word!!!

  • Teach young people HOW to read the bible - this may mean walking them through HOW you read it not just telling them to read it.

  • Resource young people - sometimes we can assume they don’t want to study because thats all they do in school. In your teenage years, your brain is developing and so especially where there is an eagerness, give young people ways of learning and growing, whether books or websites to do this.


TEACH SACRIFICE AS PART OF DISCIPLESHIP


We live in a world where everyone wants things easy. I don’t know if this has changed but there was a time where at children’s sports days we stopped having ‘winners’ and said ‘everyone has won.’ What a load of rubbish!!!! I know for a fact, in sports I NEVER won!!!! The sad thing is that this does not help in the build up of resilience in young people. Now, I will agree that in times gone past, there has been a shaming culture created, but hear me right we have to help young people build up strength so that whatever comes, they can face it with courage.


I came to Luke 8:57-62 in my bible reading a few weeks ago which is titled, ‘the cost of following Jesus.’ It proceeds to describe some difficult things you would do to follow Jesus. We need to teach young people that to follow Jesus does require pain and sacrifice and help them learn how to handle that. Sacrifice might look like standing up for what you believe in a class that is intent on believing evolution. Sacrifice might mean giving up your lunch to a young person who barely has enough money to afford to buy something. Sacrifice might mean not going to certain places with your friends because you know it doesn’t fit in line with the way you live for Jesus. If we don’t teach this we will have a lot of hypocritical wishy washy teenagers who live one way in church and one way outside.


Be the type of Youth Pastor that affirms a young person when facing a tough time that requires sacrifice. Love them, pastor them, encourage them, build them up. Be the coach on the side of a match cheering them on and telling them to keep going. They need it in the world we live.


Some thoughts on this…


  • How are you equipping young people to stand up for God in school?

  • How can you ensure you don’t fall into the trap of just teaching the ‘nice parts’ of the Bible?

  • How can you model sacrifice to young people, sharing how you have done hard things for Him?


EVERYONE HAS THE POTENTIAL TO DISCIPLE (OR INFLUENCE!!)


The disciples were a rowdy bunch. It makes me chuckle, because they often remind me of my old small group of girls that I met with every week towards the end of our youth programme. They were loud, rude at points, said the wrong thing, argued amongst themselves, didn’t always respect me and at points didn’t appear to be growing in faith at all! I’m sure Jesus felt even more of that when he discipled this group of 12 young men. He knew that they were to start the early church and that he had 3 years to pour into them - what a challenge! The point of these 3 years was so that they could ‘go and make disciples of all nations.’ (Matthew 28:28)


In church we often get quite strict about the people that do the discipling, but this wasn’t for an elite group - everyone was called to ‘make disciples.’ This should challenge our thinking on discipleship. Maybe it should get us thinking about how we help young people learn what it is to disciple their friends.

I often talk to youth groups about the development of young leaders. I have realised I now have to specify when I say this that I do not mean someone aged 18-25. I am talking particularly about those aged 15-18. One of my favourite memories was when we had a group of young leaders who were thrown in the deep end! We had been discipling and training these young leaders for a few months and they would help out in areas for our youth programme on a Friday. It was the September coming back from the school holidays when a massive group of year 9’s moved to year 10. At the time we split our youth into Youngers and olders and so at this point they moved to the older programme. They were a rowdy bunch! I was with the younger ones when a leader came down and said ‘Hannah, we need all the help we can get upstairs…this group are wild.’ I looked around and asked all the main leaders to go upstairs. I was left with about 6 15-17 year olds. I gathered them together and said ‘this is your moment…you are going to lead this group now.’ They were all given smaller groups of young people to ‘look out for ‘ and disciple and they were thrown in the deep end. It was amazing and I’m sure through the bumps and excitement they learnt so much about discipleship because they had to do it! Of course we coached them through, but they knew this was their role to play.


A few thoughts on this…


  • Don’t leave discipleship to an elite group - get young people involved in discipling their friends - this may just mean showing their friends how to read the bible.

  • Empower young leaders to disciple - don’t wait till they are ‘old enough’ - Jesus didn’t.

  • Make it simple - encourage every young person in your youth group to share one thing they have learnt that week with someone else - that's discipleship.


As I close off today, I want to encourage you if you have a youth ministry, to review the way you do ‘discipleship.’ Think about how young people grow from the point of knowing nothing about Jesus to being grounded and passionate young people serving him. How can you best facilitate their growth? Be creative!


One of the best decisions we ever made as a youth group was to bring our small groups into our Friday programme. We were based in East London and the pace of life was busy. I found that parents were not willing to let their kids come out for small groups during the week and I also found that my leaders were so busy with demanding jobs that they also couldn’t give the additional time. I battled it for ages until I wondered what it would be like if we made it a part of our Friday and thats what we did ever since. Generally after the preach, young people would gather in smaller groups, often age related and would chat through how they were, what was going on in their lives and what they had learnt from the preach that evening. Often we gave discussion questions to prompt thought. This system meant that every young person met in the same group every week with the same leader. There were a mix of christian and non-christian young people but they were all growing and learning together. We found the young people never wanted to leave and could have stayed chatting for hours if their parents hadn’t come. It was like they had found a space to be themselves. And for us as a youth team it was a win as there was regular weekly discipleship that I am sure has had long term impact. So my encouragement is to try something knew when it comes to the way you disciple - you might just find something that is a win to help young people journey in their faith!







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