“You will know as much of God, and only as much of God, as you are willing to put into practice.” ― Eric Liddell, The Disciplines Of The Christian Life
I’m fond of saying, “It’s not what you believe, it’s what you practice.” That is not to say that beliefs are not important, but without practicing those beliefs, what good are they? I think that’s what James is saying
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:14-17
In my third post I described what I expected from my leaders and students. I also talked about creating opportunities, the way Jesus did, for students to flesh out what they believed. Youth ministry is all fun and games (literally) until you actually put kids in position to experience God through an act of faith.
I heard one of my Pastors talk about putting “a demand on the anointing”. That is to ask, why should God act when no faith is being put forth? God moves when faith is put into motion and, in most of our youth meetings, no faith is required therefore there is no demand on God to act or “show out”.
If we’re not asking kids to serve, speak, worship, or use their gifts in any way, for what do our students, who know Christ have to trust God for? If we do not call kids to know Christ, what faith is required for those who do not know Christ?
The fourth trait my students said they appreciated about me was my focus on discipleship and by discipleship they did not mean I cared about how much they knew about God or their attendance but that I cared about them living for and experiencing God in their every day life.
As youth workers, we can’t make kids do anything or really make any thing happen. Discipleship is, as the late Eugene Peterson said, is a long obedience in the same direction. My goal was to walk with as many students for as long as they would let me. Sow, water, repeat.
Kids want an example to follow. They want a map. I gave them the best map I could by following what Jesus did with His disciples.
In my book The Disciple Project, I focus on five core values of a disciple as described by Jesus, and I tried my best to make them the standard of every youth ministry I have led in one way or another,
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34,35
In youth ministry, I measured the love of students for one another and the world. I didn’t look for how much they knew about love, I looked for how much they would practice it. Love is the highest standard of faith. If you’re unloving, judgmental, and an all around jerk face, you are are in the same category as a Pharisee.
but I know you, that you do not have the love of God within you. John 5:42
Love, in general, is a hard lesson for anyone to learn, sacrificial love is even harder. I challenged students to love the unlovely, love those who wronged them and love those they had issues with.
I created opportunities for students to love each other by offering opportunities for them to go to someone and ask for forgiveness (in service), ask students (one on one) to make a relationship right, to give of themselves to those who they thought unworthy of their attention.
I am happy to say that many took up the challenge. I think it was this standard of practicing, in real time, what Jesus told his disciples to do that drew students to Jesus and saw life with Christ as something beyond religion.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. Luke 14:33
Teens, for the most part, believe they’re teen feet tall and bullet proof. I consistently asked teens to give up things that were either hurting them or slowing their spiritual growth. Why? Because it requires them to think about what is useful for the journey and what’s screwing them up.
Humility is something that is learned. We’re not born humble. We’re born and people tell us we’re the greatest from our first steps to our first hit in baseball. Then, sometime after, we discover that we are not the center of the universe. That was an is a hard lesson for this only child.
Asking these little humans to come to an altar for prayer is maybe the most humbling thing I asked them to do. I’m asking them to trust God in world that says trust yourself. It takes great humility to come forward or ask for help. Every human has to learn how to do this or humility will not have its way in us.
And outward sacrifice, like coming to an altar, doesn’t mean an inner surrender. Students, and adults. walk to an altar for all types of reasons
because of their friends
because they’re stressed out and need relief
because they’re struggling but can’t find resolve
because Susie broke up with Steven and she needs good cry
In the end, students must know that following Jesus is a life of surrender and that practicing surrender produces humility.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24
Jesus can become a compartment of life, rather than life itself, so I asked students to look at the world they live in, look at the scriptures and look a the their lives and decide what doesn’t belong.
I grew up in the era of rock and roll record burning and everyone told me what was bad and for me. Holiness was about fitting in with religious circles rather than examining our lives in the light of Jesus. Culture bad, religion good. I decided not to focus on culture with out students, but focus on Jesus.
Students, and people in general, want everything and Jesus too. Jesus made it plain, it costs you nothing, physically, to believe in Him, but It cost you everything to follow Him.
It broke Jesus’s heart when the rich young ruler walked away. It’s okay to be heartbroken when you’re students don’t follow through. It’s happened to me a lot. My advice, keep on loving them. The hardship of discipleship begins when a student responds to a call to have their sins forgiven but has no idea what it will cost them to follow Jesus. I did my best to make the call clear.
We do students no favor by lowering the bar of the gospel so they can get over it with only their emotions. Students must understand that following Jesus is a long-term relationship. This is a hard sell to students who go through boyfriends and girlfriends like Jr. High kids though a burrito. They don’t know what a long term relationship looks like unless it’s a Snapchat streak.
Separation is not about saying, “I’m better”, its about saying, “I want my life to be a light in a dark place and I can’t be that light if I’m always trying to fit in with the darkness.”
If all we present is a gospel of dont’s, we have not laid a good foundation for the rest of their lives. If we do not arm students with the ability to read scripture and discern between good and evil, they will not be able to think critically or biblically. If we are legalistic with them, we may make them OUR disciples but they may not be recognizable as Jesus’s disciples.
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. John 8:31
We don’t need statistics to tell us our kids are not reading their Bible. We can see it in their lives. April 2018 GQ magazine included the Bible in it’s list 21 Books You Don’t Have to Read. It’s reason? “The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it.”
As a youth pastor, I could not over emphasize to my students to read the Bible for themselves rather than just let me tell them what it says. I bought a box of the same kind of Bibles so everyone could have one during the message time. This way I could ask them to turn to a page and they could all go there at the same time.
I wrote devotions for them. I did video devotions for them on YouTube and Instagram. I challenged them with reading plans, etc. I hyper focused on study, and there’s nothing wrong with that, except Jesus didn’t focus on that with his disciples. Jesus was less concerned with their academics and more concerned with the practicing what he was saying, in real time. He want them to hold to his teach.
Paul tells Timothy, “Study to show yourself approved” except, the word study, in this context, has nothing to do with academics. The word study, in this case, means, be persistent. How much knowledge one has about the Bible does not improve their standing with God. If this were true, the Pharisees would have been some of Jesus’ favorite people. So, is it fair to measure a student’s relationship with God by how much they study?
“Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.”
― Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
I want kids to know their Bibles. It’s the baseline of faith. It’s how we know what Jesus taught so we could hold on to it. I was less concerned with how much a kid knew and more concerned with practicing what they did know.
What good is driving a kid to know more when their passion is fading. When I cancelled out meeting for three months, it was for the purpose of putting into practice what we had been learning. We sent kids out to visit, serve and create so that they could connect what was being read, what Jesus was asking of them, could be practiced, in community so they saw the connection between reading and doing.
Connecting the lesson to doing did more for a kids faith because they saw power of obedience and the blessing it brings. Persistence, in anything, is the result of understanding the reward that follows our behaviors.
Action: Living What You Believe
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. John 15:8
Kids want and need accountability. This goes back to expectations. If they tell me they are a Christian, I will hold their behavior to their beliefs, gently reminding them of who they follow when they make a mistake or get off track.
John the Baptist said.
Produce fruit in keeping with repentance Matthew 3:8
After a call to Christ, I make sure my students knew that acting on their new faith was their best way of growing in Christ. I offered kids not just opportunities to learn more but to do more.
The Apostle Paul said,
Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Ephesians 4:28
This is practical fruitfulness. Stop doing things that harm others and start doing things that benefit others. Offering service and leadership opportunities to my students was my way of connecting their new heart with a new way of living.
This was a get time to invite them on a missions trip or to serve at the local homeless shelter. I also challenged them to give in the offering to sport missions to counteract their need to hold on and to trust God with every part of their lives. Action begets believing.
The other kind of fruitfulness is something we have little control over as youth workers. Galatians 5 says
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
This is slow growing fruit. Moving from acting in the flesh to acting in the Spirit takes a lifetime. Look at your own life. How’s it going? Exactly. Grace and more grace, especially when it comes to teenagers.
When picking out cantaloupe at the grocery store, I am told you should thump it to test its freshness. So, it is with students. Not that we should thump them, although I have done that on occasion but not for spiritual reasons. I did give them a spiritual thump or challenge when I saw that they needed to be reminded of the the new fruit God was producing in them. They just needed to let I out.
I’ve had some great students over the years who, like Jesus, grew in faith and stature. Some had great families who fostered that growth and others did not. Regardless, teens deserve a youth program where the programming is a progressive journey that grows them into lifetime followers of Jesus.
Schools make sure kids graduate with the knowledge they need to make it through the next grade. Youth Ministries should make sure kids not only know what they need to live the Christian life, but given opportunities to actually live out their faith.
If I can help serve you and your youth ministry to making such program, I currently have an open coaching program that you can jump into, ask questions, and we’ll plan together the kind of youth ministry that makes disciples.
Next, Part Five: Care