Over the last couple of years I have been struck by the number of conversations I have had with concerned parents and church leaders about the effectiveness of church discipleship.
Sat with a group of parents recently I could almost feel the pain expressed in the voices of those present as they talked about the challenges of discipling their own children. Talking with church leaders there are those whose own children have not continued their journey of faith and others who have.
Losing Heart, research published by Youthscape, suggests churches are not confident in delivering youth work. Research commissioned by Youth for Christ, suggests only 50% of those brought up in church continue in their faith. If that is true then this is daunting… but not without hope.
Faced by these questions, I have recently written a piece of work based on conversations with young people, parents and youth workers. Shaping the Church to Disciple Young People was published in early February and you can download it here.
The conversations, I believe, could help us respond to the challenges around discipleship of young people.
A High View of Discipleship
Firstly, those I spoke to have a ‘high view’ of discipleship. They regard discipleship as centred around a relationship with Jesus Christ, out of which they learn the teachings of Jesus; to live life with others in relationship with Jesus; and live out and experience their faith in their daily lives, in ‘their world’.
However, just because they know what discipleship is does not necessarily translate into being a disciple or mean that a church is effectively discipling young people.
So we asked those we spoke to about how a church that disciples well, ‘feels’. We recognise that feelings can be a little ambiguous. However, feelings are important. If a young person feels welcomed, loved, accepted and that they belong, that is a good thing.
Responses to my question centred around three themes:
- A church that disciples young people well, feels good to young people – it is homely, safe, welcoming and inclusive
- A church that disciples young people well feels alive – it is exciting, dynamic, creative and open to change.
- Churches that disciple young people well feel encouraging of their involvement and participation – they recognise that in spite of their young and incomplete faith (which would describe adults too!) the perspective of young people is valued and young people feel that.
If this is what it feels like to young people when a church disciples them well, what can a church do to work towards such a community?
The conversations revealed primarily that it is all about relationships.
Perhaps you were expecting something a little more radical. Whether it was young people talking about the importance of older mentors and peers in the Christian community, or parents sharing encouragements about other parents who have supported their children; relationships are key. They are the fertile ground without which much of what we do will be like seed sown in rocky or weed filled soil. So critical are relationships that if they are not intentionally worked on, there may be a lot of energy but the fruit will be minimal.
From the fertile soil of relationships there are intentional actions that will be important in passing on faith:
- We must create and encourage encounter and experience opportunities in the church. That is, times to experience Jesus Christ, whether in Bible study, mission trips or festivals; local or national. These times were cited as really important. This is where young people grow and share community with others on the journey of faith.
- The church must create genuine opportunities to participate and live out faith, both in the church and beyond the church. This will help young people see that their faith and their church is alive!
- The church must model discipleship. Discipleship must be something they see modelled by the adult congregation in a church; where what is preached, is lived.
This presents all sorts of opportunities and challenges. Relationships are strong and flexible, and this means that if discipleship is rooted in relationship, whatever is thrown at young people (and much is), there is a greater likelihood that the opportunity for discipleship will continue as they get older.
So what can you do to respond?
Start by talking to young people in your church. Secondly, consider how to respond with action. Finally make sure you are praying for them!
You could start by asking questions below:
- How does our church feel to you?
- What words would you use to describe church?
- What can you do to support and strengthen relationships between young people of faith?
- How well do the adults in the church really know the children and young people?
- What can you do to shape a ‘oneness’ (unity) across generations?
James Vaughton is the Director of Bath and Wiltshire YFC.