Most excelling professional athletes are described as “freaks of nature.” They’re the whole package of height, weight, strength, speed, vision, and brains. While it’s impressive to watch these biological anomalies play with such ease, to say they have made it to this stage on genes alone would not only be wrong but offensive! Such a statement would not only disregard the countless hours of work devoted to developing their craft, but even more so the people who helped them along the way.
Young disciples—namely, students—need others to faithfully observe, coach, and shape their development, too.
Is anything more encouraging in the church than watching a young person’s heart ignite with the glory of God? There is a uniqueness to an adolescent being baptized, serving in the community or on a mission trip, or using social media to honor God. Perhaps, believers are encouraged, when youth stand up for their faith, because it gives us hope that our world is not lost after all. That God is indeed building his church and using young people to do so. But it’s important to remember that this kind of maturity in students does not happen out of thin air.
MORE THAN FREAKS
Every athlete had a set of parents, guardians, coaches, mentors, and trainers who poured into them. Athletes are gifted and talented, yes. But they have also been coached and trained for the big stage.
The same is true of the rising generation in the church. We cannot and must not deny that God has lavished this generation with gifts they bring to the table for building Christ’s church. But to be gifted is not the same as to be discipled. With Paul we can say, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14-15).
We should also note that students are not resigned to being “the church of tomorrow.” They can make a kingdom impact even today. In some ways, the urgency for them to be coached and mentored and trained is even more necessary for the young disciple than the young athlete. We don’t see 15-year-olds playing in the NFL. But you better believe 15-year-olds can turn a church upside down for Jesus. The implications of 1 Timothy 4:12 are serious—young people are not to be overlooked on the basis of their youth, but in a stunning reversal, they may be the ones setting the example for the rest of us.
PASSING THE BATON
The church needs a younger generation that is eager to take the baton, but the church also needs an older generation that is eager to faithfully pass it on.
Thankfully, Paul was extremely sensitive to his role as baton-passer, and laid out what this role looks like in Titus 2:1-8:
But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self- controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.
From Paul’s instructions, we can draw three important conclusions about passing on the baton to the younger generation.
TO TEACH IS TO KNOW
We cannot teach what we do not know. Imagine being a teacher who has a degree in mathematics but has been asked to substitute teach a French II class. I doubt you would choose to give a lecture that day. If the older generation has any hope of discipling a younger generation, it must first be discipled.
To “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (v. 1) requires we ourselves be both “sober-minded” and “sound in faith” (v. 2). You cannot give knowledge you do not already have. Discipling requires not only that we understand the positives of the gospel, but that we know the errors that threaten its integrity as well.
TO MENTOR IS TO MODEL
I find it telling that in a passage primarily about the older teaching the younger, most of the advice given is directed at the behavior of the older people. Paul did not turn his attention to the content or the methods of the teaching, but the teacher himself. After listing some of the specific behaviors a good mentor demonstrates, he concludes, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works” (v. 7). Paul understood that our attempts to mentor a rising generation are all in vain if we have a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude.
Discipleship assumes modeling. The greatest example of discipleship-by-modeling is Jesus Christ, who himself became a man that he might live and demonstrate the obedience he calls us to (Matt. 28:18-20; John 14:15, 23; Phil. 2:4-8).
TO MATURE IS TO DEPEND
If we hope to mature this rising generation, it will require painstaking dependence on Christ. Later in Paul’s letter to Titus, Paul writes that it is the power of Christ alone “training us to renounce ungodliness” (2:11-12), and “to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (2:14). Paul declares, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (3:5-7).
We are called to be disciple-makers, but our discipleship does not live and die with our ability. It is the Father who saves us; the Son who redeems us; the Spirit who renews and empowers us. He will bring our discipleship work to its intended completion (Phil. 1:6, Heb. 13:21), and to that end, we depend on him.
MAKING DISCIPLES CLOSE TO HOME
When we think about making disciples of all nations, we often think about being sent to a people outside of our context (Matt. 28:18-20). It feels like getting out of our space to go to another. And while that is certainly true for many, we should not neglect the opportunity we have for the global impact that is right before our eyes.
After all, we disciple students with the intent to send them. Most of them won’t be hanging around your church on Sundays for the next fifty years. They will go to college. They will relocate to a job. They will move where their family takes them. And if we will be diligent to disciple them here and now while they are among us, they will fill and subdue the face of the earth with the image of God through the gospel (Gen. 1:28; cf. Matt. 28:18-20).
One way I like to practice this in my own current ministry context is offering an annual “College 101” course to my high school senior students and their senior friends. We invite them over, share a meal, and discuss topics like managing relationships with family and friends once they go to school, keeping a budget, finding a local church—all with the intent on sending them with a gospel mindset into their next chapter.
Most of these students simply haven’t gotten the chance to have a dialogue about what it means, for example, to look for a gospel-centered local church in their college town, the role of college ministries, and what their level of involvement with a local church should be. Having a place to have these conversations reminds them that their faith is really becoming their own before their eyes and reminds me that my job is to build a ministry that sends well.
WHAT PASSING THE BATON WILL REQUIRE
Discipling students has present and future, local and global value. And being a pastor of students myself, I cannot overstate how incapable I am of doing this work alone. Church, we are called to be the vessels who train, mentor and mature these students for the kingdom work ahead of them.
What will it require of us? Study. Honesty. Integrity. Patience. Dependence. A life filled with gospel-obedience.
Father, convict us of the rising generation’s need of us. Give us committed men and women to work among the fields white-hot for harvest. Give us the tools we need to train and prepare them well. Give us a heart to see your kingdom shaped by young people. Help us, pass the baton faithfully. Amen.
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.