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Community-Shaped Discipleship: A Plea to Youth Workers

We have all been there before. A student approaches you with a desire to grow in their knowledge of Jesus and the Bible. For a youth worker, this moment is like striking gold, because he or she has found a student who wants to grow. There are many different ways to handle this. Yet for most of us, we naturally grab the latest-greatest curriculum that has been printed and tell the kid to read a chapter. Then we will meet with them a week later. This is a noble task, and we genuinely want to help the student grow. However, our methods do not line up with what is really needed.

See, for many youth workers discipleship is typically done in a couple of hours – on a specific day each week, for a month or two – through a set of curriculum. Unfortunately, the church has often promoted the idea that if you buy the best curriculum out there you will have well-discipled students. There is nothing wrong with having a curriculum to build from or to help guide someone in the discipleship process. But I fear that for far to many of our teens, this approach is not only not working, it is deeply void of a discipleship shaped by real community. Real community is needed to bring about real lasting change.

There are many great truths that students can learn from books and curriculum. Yet, the problem comes when you leave discipleship efforts merely to a book – even walking students through a book in a study format – you are short-selling the student. The real need of the student is to see us, our leaders and other adults in the real world, in real gospel-centered community, living out the Word of God. Gospel centered community is the primary environment in which students will learn what it means to follow Jesus. Real life is the lab of the gospel.

Here is a brief guide to help you grow beyond book-learning and enter the lab of real life:

  • Meet students in public, not the office – Go to a coffee shop, mall or park. Be around real people so students can see you deal with the person who messes up your order at Taco Bell, or the screaming kid next to you as you try to have a conversation over the Word of God.
  • Invite  students into your home – Whether for a meal, or to crash on your couch, your house is the perfect place for students to see how a sinner is sanctified through family and the gospel. Students can see how you are as a husband when you are annoyed with your wife after a long day. They can see how you shepherd your children with the gospel.
  • Invite students travel with you – When you have meetings, events or other, ask a couple students to go with you, even if it is only for an hour. When you’re late to your appointment, when someone cuts you off, when you spill coffee on your jeans, how does the gospel apply? How do you react? What are the things that come from your heart in those moments.
  • Recreate with students – Sporting events, movies, and video games are just a few of the activities through which you can disciple students in real life. Learn to ask good questions when you do these things, and allow them to do the same.
  • Share your life – Share your story with them. How the Word of God has challenged you, helped you and how you have failed. Let them know some of the struggles in ministry, life and your thoughts on the world around them. These things will help them see how you have learned to apply the gospel to your life.
  • Ask for help – Have students help you with lesson illustrations, chores around your house, or setup before group time. Show them that your relationship is not a one-way street. You need them in your life. You need the students to help you as much as they need you.
  • Thank them – Point out things you have learned from them. Ask them for areas in your life in which they see a need for application of the gospel. Thank them for how they point you to Jesus.
  • Point them to Jesus – In the end, what your students need is to see that you fail, that you struggle, that you are not their Savior. Jesus is! Real life points them to Jesus. Discipleship is about pointing student to Jesus, not a curriculum or simply a book.

I have learned great gospel truth through programs and books; but the deepest gospel-growth in my life has come in what I have learned about the gospel in community. When someone is struggling with cancer, how do they cling to Jesus? When another man is wrestling with lust or loneliness how do I speak the gospel to them? How do they speak the gospel to me when these are my struggles? A book will help, but it is far from what we, or our students need. What we need is to see real life application.

Use a book to disciple your students. Profit from the greatest gospel-centered curriculum available. But never rely on this alone. Our students’ deepest need is to see Jesus, not a curriculum as their Savior.

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Josh Cousineau serves as Youth Pastor and an Elder at East Auburn Baptist Church. Josh is transitioning to plant a church, Redemption Hill, in Auburn ME this in 2012. Josh and his wife, have been together for 13 years and married for 8. They have 2 sons, 5 and 3 and a baby girl, who they adopted from Uganda spring 2011.