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A Discipleship Crisis

In this week's Youthwork blog, Pete Baker of PaisGB discusses the important role discipleship should play in all youth ministry.

A question many of us have been reflecting on for years is: what did Jesus intend when he said, ‘Go into all the world and make disciples of the nations?’

Did he mean pure and simple Gospel proclamation? Was he thinking about monasticism? Perhaps he envisioned the weekly catch-up in a local coffee shop. Or even the dreaded accountability conversation!

What was he thinking? Was it all of the above? Or maybe none of it?

Many of us have tried to gain understanding of this by either studying the culture and practices of Jesus’ time or exploring current cultural trends. In most ancient traditions, discipleship in order to raise up successors, those who are willing and able to carry on important traditions, is paramount. Within our own culture it is apparent that this is also true. 

We learn the songs, the folklore and the respected enemies of our family sports team. Many take on a family business, trade or skill. We honour military heroes, community heroes or celebrity icons when they pass from this world to the next.

So actually, discipleship is all around us. And for Jesus, it seemed to be the most important thing. It is what the Church has generally excelled in for the previous two millennium. But is it something fundamentally missing from how many of us view and approach youth ministry? 

Is a successful youth ministry deemed a success because of attendance at an event or because of the successors raised up? I know too many churches whose engagement in children's or youth work is simply derived by a fear of extinction. 

We face a crisis

Please indulge me in a brief football illustration! A couple of years ago, in a match between England and Chile, a few young, up-and-coming English footballers were given their debut in a largely drab home-defeat, the brilliant Alexis Sanchez scoring twice. One of the players, Jay Rodriquez, is from the town I live in, so we were particularly eager to see how he got on. In the build up to the match the pundits were discussing the excellent job Southampton had done in developing so many young players including Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Gareth Bale (the world’s most expensive player), Adam Lallana and others. The answer was intriguing. Southampton didn't have an intentional strategy of youth development. In fact, they were in financial disarray, languishing in the third tier of English football and struggling with no other option but to develop young talent. They couldn't afford an international import or to buy into the latest idea. They realized they had to invest in what was freely available to them. I love the idea that Southampton youth coaches went into their own community and said, ‘We have to find the future of our football club here!’ For the Church, it should be the same.

The answer is in the room

Most of Jesus’ disciples were from a triangle of villages called the Orthodox Triangle, a region famous for religious devotion. Jesus intentionally recruited disciples from a local area known for its passion. Whether they were educated or uneducated, loud or quiet, introvert or extrovert, none of that mattered. What seemed to be most important to Jesus was that his disciples had passion, desire, hunger.

Have you met any passionate young people? Passionate about the issues in the world, passionate about justice, passionate about truth? Are we going to where they are and engaging them with questions that they are actually asking? Maybe the answer to your crises is in your community, across the road, in your local school.


Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher, a discipler. Of course Jesus’ model of discipleship is difficult for us to replicate. For three years these young men left their homes, families and businesses to literally spend every waking moment with their rabbi. Asking questions, exploring faith and doubt, traveling together on their Emmaus Roads. But there are principles from his culture that fit neatly into our current cultural trends.

HAVERIM, meaning 'friends who study together,' is actually the ancient Jewish tradition Jesus used with his own disciples. What if our youth gatherings reflected those two values—friendship and study?  Friendship, where we say, ‘This space is for anyone; there's space for you at the table!’ And study, where our gatherings are a place to embrace the big questions of faith and doubt, approaching the Bible as the book we turn to in order to discover God’s heart together. Could you create youth ministries that incorporate these principles of Haverim?

Wear Faith

In modern football, when a club faces a crisis, all hope is put in splashing out huge sums on a tried and tested player. But some clubs and some managers decide to risk young, untried players to put on the shirt. When a young David was faced with a giant Goliath, King Saul attempted to put his own armour on David. But David responded, ‘I cannot wear this; I have not proven it.’ Sadly, this could be true for many of our young people. We have protected them so much that when they are faced with their own giants, they crumble. Are we giving young people an opportunity to prove their faith, to wear it, to put it into action, to pull on the jersey rather than sit in the crowd? Are we creating a way for them to pray for people, to engage in issues around social justice meaningfully, to feed the hungry, to meet people from different faith traditions, to ask important questions that reflect some of their doubts? If not, why not?

Personally, I grew to wear my own faith because of the input of a youth leader. I received the opportunity to experience early morning prayer meetings, bible studies with older and wiser Christians, road trips, weird and wonderful church meetings, lots of Keith Green music, honesty, laughing, being over-zealous, asking why we used to be so zealous, investment, resources, time, and energy. When I was 18 I decided I wanted to do for others what had been done for me and entered youth ministry. That's still my commitment and desire. We face a crisis, we already know that but while there are committed people like you who are passionate about young people, the future is still full of hope.

Pete Baker leads PaisGB, a wave after wave movement of missionaries. He's also part of the leadership of Life Church Lancashire, helps serve Burnley High school, loves his wife Bryony and two daughers, Bella & Jasmine and is a passionate supporter of LiverpoolFC. Follow him @paisbaker or email him at petebaker@paismovement.com.

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