The youth programme seeks to build well-rounded disciples through Bible study, fellowship, worship and prayer.
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
As we have seen previously a key purpose of any youth ministry is to make disciples. This should be kept at the forefront of our minds as we put together our youth programme. But just what is a disciple?
There is much we could say in defining a disciple but essentially it boils down to just two things: someone who loves God and loves people. Whatever programmes we run must ultimately contribute towards these two key elements.
That of course is not very specific. It might be helpful if Scripture were to lay out exactly what our programmes should look like but there is little to be found in the New Testament that is prescriptive of church life, much less what youth ministry programmes we should run. This is deliberate. It allows us to work out how best to meet together in ways that are culturally relevant and effective.
That said, there are principles to be found in Scripture that are normative for all situations and for all time – elements that need to be present in any healthy youth ministry that seeks to make disciples.
The most succinct verse that tells us these things is found in Acts 2:42 where Luke is describing church life. In this verse he lists four elements that are essential to the process of disciple-making:
The first if these tells us that the followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. This means that there was some aspect of church life in which believers were instructed both in what the Old Testament taught and what the implications were for how they were to now life under the New Covenant. (Remember they didn’t yet have a “Bible” with a New and Old Testament).
I was taking a class through this material once and in discussion one student remarked, “We don’t do any Bible teaching as we find it tends turn the young people off coming.” It is a somewhat extreme comment which I’ve rarely ever heard but I have met other youth leaders who limit Biblical input to a minimum for the same reason.
Equally I have also talked with many leaders who took a risk and decided to increase the teaching and decrease the fun and games. In almost all cases numbers dropped but the depth of faith among those left rose, and interestingly, numbers eventually started to rise again.
Teaching in youth ministry can take a number of forms: it might include a five-minute devotional message at the end of the night or a half-hour exposition on a passage of Scripture. It can take place with everyone together or can occur in small groups where there is scope for discussion. However leadership deems it best occur, several features should be present.
Most importantly, the Bible must be presented as divinely inspired and authoritative. True, men in ancient times wrote the words we read today, but they did so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. What we read is exactly what God intends us to read and what He resolves to speak to us through.
The first church I was a youth leader in had a low view of Scripture. In the eyes of the minister, the Bible was a very good book with useful insights, but it wasn’t necessarily “the inspired and authoritative Word of God” that was fully applicable today. That church no longer exists…
Scripture must also be presented in a manner that is relevant to young people and can be understood by them. To facilitate this there should be opportunity at some point for young people to ask questions and to discuss or reflect on what a passage means.
I remember one girl who was given to healthy scepticism over everything we taught, once remarking, “I love how we can ask questions here… and get answers.” If you try to shut down questions and demand blind acceptance, young people will look elsewhere for answers.
Scripture must be taught with the expectation it is acted upon. Note that in this verse that the implication is that the people did not simply devote themselves to listening to the apostles’ doctrine; they devoted themselves to applying it too.
Whenever I lead a small group I end by asking the young people what they planned to do to put into practice what they learnt. Then at the start of the session the following week I ask how they got on. When you do this, young people soon catch on that Bible study is not for information alone but for formation through application.
The early church also set about making disciples through fellowship. The fellowship referred to here is not simply hanging out together having fun in the youth room. The Greek word koinonia carries the meaning of sharing or participating together based on our common belonging to Christ and our sharing in His life. Therefore, it is more accurate to think of fellowship as those times where young people share deeply and personally with one another in an atmosphere of trust and honesty.
In youth ministry, this most commonly happens in small groups or in one-to-one mentoring or pastoral care. Conversation goes beyond the superficial and ventures into deeper sharing with an awareness that Christ is present and that He desires to share in what is being said through Scripture and the wisdom of His gathered people.
Next, when the early church met together in homes they frequently ate together, sharing in “the Lord’s supper”. At Jesus’ command they did this as an act of remembrance (Luke 22:19) or worship. Similarly, a healthy youth ministry is one that sets aside time to acknowledge who God is and to worship Him.
Worship need not be singing – this is only one expression of worship. Worship occurs when we consider God’s “worth-ship”, so it might also include, for example, meditating on a passage of Scripture that exalts Him, listening to a worship song that praises Him, or praying prayers that remind us of His many qualities.
The final element that must be present in any youth programme is prayer. At very least this might be an opening and/or closing prayer that acknowledges God’s presence. But it can also include praying for needs in the church, community and world along with times of personal prayer ministry for young people in need.
Prayer reminds young people that God is not only present but that He wants to be actively involved in our lives. There is nothing more powerful than answered prayer in building the faith of young disciples.
One youth group I led had already established a weekly prayer meeting when I arrived. Those regular mornings of praying together over breakfast probably had more impact than any of us ever realised!
CHECKLIST: TEN CHARACTERISTICS OF A YOUTH MINISTRY THAT HAS COMPREHENSIVE PROGRAMMING
- The youth ministry accepts and teaches the Bible as the inspired and authoritative Word of God.
- The Bible is taught to young people in a manner that is relevant and understandable.
- Young people are allowed to ask questions about Scripture and to discuss what a passage means to them at a personal level.
- There is a stated expectation that young people will act upon what they are taught and evidence exists that this is occurring.
- There are opportunities and encouragement for young people to share honestly and at depth with one another.
- The youth programme includes opportunities for young people to express their love for God through worship.
- Worship is not limited to singing but includes a range of creative ideas.
- God’s presence is acknowledged and welcomed through prayer offered at all programmes.
- Time is devoted to praying for young people’s needs.
- Time is devoted to praying for needs in the church/community/ world.
CCCNZ Youth offers a coaching programme for key youth leaders and youth pastors who would like help in implementing these principles as well as learning leadership skills. Contact us if you are interested.