DISCIPLE: Showing Up for the Next Generation

By: Majors Matt and Jamie Satterlee

The church has been given a wonderful gift, the opportunity to lead young people to Jesus and disciple them to be resilient, faithful followers.

Tom Shefchunas, a veteran leader in youth discipleship and development, imagines youth discipleship as a three-legged stool. One leg is based on curriculum or what we’re teaching. The second leg is relationship, shared experience and history together. The third is time.

In a perfect world, our stool is perfectly balanced, each leg equal to the other. We have time, the lifetime of the disciple to build relationship and to impart biblical knowledge. The reality is, though, that our stool is often wobbly, with more emphasis placed on one leg than the others.

Our teachings must be grounded in the Word. Barna reports that only 4% of Gen Z (those born between 1997-2013) have a biblical worldview. There are several reasons for this, such as a decline in family church attendance. I wonder if it might go beyond that. I wonder if we might be guilty of using our program time to entertain instead of to teach. That’s not to say we can’t play games and have fun, but if we want our young people to have a biblical worldview, they have to know what the Bible says. Young people want a place where they can ask the hard questions. The cool thing about Gen Z is they don’t mind if you don’t have all of the answers. They just want to talk it through and to be able to dialogue about the questions they have and the challenges they face.

Discipleship takes time. Time is unrelenting. There is never enough of it, and it goes so quickly. To disciple young people, we must invest our time. It’s important to show up for them, setting aside time to go to their performances, their games, their concerts or their birthday parties. I recently listened to a podcast on youth discipleship with Kara Powell, Executive Director at Fuller Youth Institute, who has spent the last 15 years studying young people of faith. While doing research on what keeps young people in church, one youth group consistently talked about staying tied to the church because of Bill.

Bill is in his late 70s. He’s retired, so he decided he wanted to spend his retirement years showing up at games and recitals of the young people in the youth group at his church. He remembered how it felt as a young person, when it seemed that everyone but him had a cheering section. He didn’t want the kids in the youth group to not have someone cheering them on. Bill has even recruited other retirees in the congregation to attend the games and recitals. They don’t teach programs. They don’t volunteer at youth group. They just show up at games and cheer the kids on. Those efforts are keeping young people tied to their church.

Discipleship takes relationship. This is critical for discipling young people. If we want to disciple a young person, we first have to build relationship with them. Know their names. Ask them what is going on at school. What classes are going well? What classes are challenging? Find out their hobbies, what they’re passionate about. What worries them about the future? In their study on young resilient disciples, Barna found that inter-generational relationships are key. 65% of these resilient disciples shared that they felt valued by people in their lives that were older than them.

Our corps have a great opportunity in discipling young people, but it can’t just be done by corps officers. The discipleship of young people is a responsibility for the whole corps. We need our local officers and soldiers to be engaged. Show up to the kids’ games. Serve as table leaders on youth night. Pray for and with the young people in your corps. Studies show that if a young person has five adults that pray for them, they are more likely to become resilient disciples and stay integrated in the church. Local officers and soldiers have an advantage that officers don’t, in that they stay in the corps while officers transition. When local officers and soldiers are invested in young people, that foundational leg of the stool, time, continues.

When asked if she could sum up the 15 years of research into one sentence, Kara Powell said this: “All you need for youth spiritual formation is caring, Jesus centered adults investing in young people.” Youth ministry is the mutual fund of ministries. You may not see the fruit of your investment today or tomorrow. It will show itself in the disciples they become, the husbands and wives, the moms and dads, the candidates, officers, local officers and soldiers, in twenty years. If we want to see those fruits, we need to balance the stool.