How to make disciples in 2021?

Jesus left us with the task of making disciples – people who would follow him and his teachings.

It isn’t an easy task these days. In most first world countries, the surrounding culture is increasingly secular. Christianity, and especially the church, are less respected than they used to be, and the voices of atheism and pluralism can be loud and insistent.

Each generation has the responsibility of passing the baton of faith on to the next generation. But statistics show that we lose many of our children and youth group teenagers from the faith as they grow to adulthood.

I believe there are answers – better ways to make disciples of our teens and young adults. These ideas have been worked out through years of keeping in touch with people of these ages, mentoring them informally and encouraging them to pursue God and follow Jesus in the way that the Spirit is leading them.

The safe christian world is changing

In days past a young christian knew what to believe. Whatever their brand of christian faith, acceptable doctrine and behaviour were well worked out. Questions and doubts had simple answers. There was no need to think too much, but just believe what you had been taught.

Of course this world wasn’t as “safe” as we hoped. There were always rebels, free thinkers and drop-outs, but we knew how to think about them.

But it’s all changed now. Students are encouraged to think for themselves and to question received wisdom. Books, podcasts and YouTube abound with counter ideas, from other theologies, from christian rebels and from sceptics. Traditional christian ethics, especially about sexuality and gender, are no longer the theoretical norms of western culture.

In many respects, our sons and our daughters are beyond our command, as Bob Dylan predicted.

The “safe” way, teaching our children, youth and young adults to conform to our tribe’s doctrine and lifestyle and hoping this will be enough to see them through …. is not safe any longer.

We need to rethink. To adapt to the needs of our times.

Scoping the issue

1. Alternative ideas are out there

We can’t turn back the clock. Alternative ideas and lifestyles are out there and readily available to those interested to find them.

Some ideas are theological. Alternative ways to look at the Bible, Jesus, God, salvation, mission, heaven and hell, and more.

But there are alternative ideas from science and history too. The Bible is under challenge from all sides. Genesis vs science, the Exodus vs history, the Biblical worldview vs science, the conquest of Canaan vs archaeology, hell vs a sense of justice and ethics, and so on. Just to say science or history or archaeology are wrong and the Bible is right won’t cut it. We need answers that grapple with the evidence and respond to it.

And it’s more than just doctrine but behaviour and ethics too. Rightly or wrongly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify and live out the old christian gender and sexual ethics. And in this materialistic climate, the christian ideals about money seem less liveable than they were in the past.

2. Doctrine isn’t static but has changed through history

A little study of church history reveals that the doctrinal “certainty” of our denominations probably doesn’t go back to Jesus and the apostles.

  • Opposition to evolution isn’t fundamental to christian faith. Augustine (about 400 CE) warned against interpreting the Bible contrary to common knowledge (that we might now call “science”). When Darwin first published his book on evolution, a significant number of christians welcomed it because some of those ideas were already around in christian theology.
  • Several different theories of the atonement have been championed at different times in history. The popular evangelical theory (penal substitution) is not the only theory supported by the Bible.
  • Renewal movements such as the Reformation, the Wesleyan revival, and the charismatic renewal all illustrate that the church can be desperately in need of new beginnings and understandings.
  • Evangelical christians were once commonly forbidden to gamble, drink alcohol, dance and even play cards. Certain styles of clothing and hairstyles were suspect. But most of that has changed now, and christian teachers generally (and rightly) focus on more substantial issues.

This teaches us to be wary of insisting that young christians toe the doctrinal line. God may be wanting to reveal new things.

Christians who grow up without “playing in the dirt” of alternative ideas, getting answers they can respect to questions and doubts, and exploring new ideas, may be more susceptible in later life to doubt or disbelief when confronted with life’s big questions and difficulties in the Bible and theology.

I know a thoughtful and committed christian woman who struggled with questions that she’d been asking since she was a teenager. She got no answers from her church, almost gave up believing, and found help almost two decades later on the internet, in correspondence with a christian on the other side of the world. It shouldn’t have to be that hard.

3. Many people are going through faith deconstruction

I think faith deconstruction and reconstruction are happening like never before. I believe our church programs often don’t address this well. My observation is that there are four quite different pathways for our younger believers.

Trusting

Some young christians believe what they are told and are never really troubled by major doctrinal and intellectual doubts. We can be thankful for them, though sometimes their faith remains less mature. Parents and church programs could encourage them to go deeper.

Dropping out

Some think and read more widely, and are troubled by teachings about hell, Old Testament genocide, Bible inconsistencies and inaccuracies, conventional christian attitudes to women and the LGBTQI community, christian exclusivism and an emphasis on sin and God’s wrath. They cannot resolve these issues, they are not given answers they can respect, and they gradually drop out. Many might be saved from this if they had more opportunities to discuss issues openly and freely, and were given more substantial answers that were better based on current historical and scientific knowledge.

Uncertainty

Others see these same issues but never really resolve them. They may continue to attend church and identify as christians, but they have little confidence in their faith and so are limited in their service to God’s kingdom. They, also, would benefit from more opportunities to discuss issues openly and freely, with more substantial answers.

Reconstruction

Finally there are others who are troubled by the same issues, and they come close to giving up their faith. But they search out answers and their faith is reconstructed around new understandings. These reconstructed christians are often gifted and strongly committed to serving in new ways. I have come to the conclusion that it is often the Holy Spirit who leads these christians into new understandings which are better based on truth than the old understandings they found inadequate.

4. Parents, churches & youth groups can help them

Churches, especially youth groups, can help here by creating a climate of acceptance of questioning and doubt. Working through issues with questioners is much more constructive than simply telling them what they “ought” to believe. They will be less likely to feel alienated and more willing to trust their leaders with their thoughts. Older christians can help younger christians reconstruct their faith and not just deconstruct.

I know one thoughtful young adult, doing a complex and demanding university course, whose questioning was shut down in a Bible study group, because it “could disturb the faith of others.” He ended up leaving the church and joining an independent group which discussed those questions. Ironically, most of the others in the Bible study, who the leader was trying to protect, also left, for different reasons.

Parents have a strong part to play here in raising children with the capacity to think for themselves and to know that their parents will not be shocked by questions, doubts and lateral-thinking. By the time they get to the critical time in their mid teens, they should be well equipped to deal with doubts, questions and attacks on their faith.

In addition, godparents can play more than a nominal role in mentoring their godchildren.

Of course behind all this there are the core truths of the christian faith that would not be compromised. But even here, a sensitive and accepting attitude will be helpful to those questioning these teachings.

5. Mentoring in small groups and singly

Doubts are often very personal, and while some issues can be addressed en masse, questioners are better served by opportunities to discuss and question individually, which large group settings don’t easily allow.

We have found both small groups and one-on-one discussion to be very effective. Older christians have life experience in following Jesus that they can share. Many 15-25 year olds welcome older mentors (even those in their seventies!) who will accept and support them without imposing, directing or talking down to them. Who will treat them respectfully as equals under God.

Once teens and young adults feel safe and know they won’t be criticised, and the mentor won’t be reporting back to parents or leaders, they will often be comfortable sharing questions in one-on-ones with older christians.

Special groups set up for a definite time to work through issues can be very helpful too. Shy or cautious members can gain confidence when they see that more forthright questioners are answered sensitively and honestly.

6. Older christians aren’t always equipped for this

A youth leader friend questioned older christians, including parents, in his church about raising and mentoring teens and young adults. He found them far less prepared and capable than he would have liked. Why is this?

I have argued elsewhere that sermonising is just about the worst way to make disciples and to equip them for ministry. The learning agenda (both subjects and answers) is controlled by the preacher, and people’s questions often go unaddressed.

Worse, the congregation becomes passive, a poor way to learn, and almost guaranteed to lead to adult christians, including parents and leaders, being unprepared to face the real world questions of the next generation. People of all ages need to be actively engaged in their learning.

Developmental scientist, Caitlin Faas says: “Most adults haven’t even figured it out – if you really want to get deep into ‘Well, why do you go to church?’” To truly be prepared for deep spiritual discussions, Faas says, godparents (and parents, ministers and youth leaders) must be open to hard questions and dig deeper into their own religious and spiritual convictions and behaviours.

7. Change the church!

Jesus taught a very practical faith, but we have too often made it over-theoretical. Bible study and Bible preaching that doesn’t lead to practical ideas and equipping for daily life and ministry isn’t doing the job.

Paul says in Ephesians 4: 12 that the ministries of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers should equip God’s people for works of service (not just to know right doctrine!). That passage tells us two things:

  1. we are all meant to be doing ministry of some sort, and
  2. church leaders should be equipping, not just teaching knowledge.

Instead of 25 minute sermons that half the congregation don’t listen to, even less remember, and few change as a result, short teaching segments (10 minutes max) could be offered followed by time for practical equipping, and hearing from congregational members who are ministering effectively.

This could and should include training, encouragement and some examples of adults, especially parents, preparing children and youth for the challenges of the secular world.

How to do it

Here’s a bunch of ideas on how adults can help teens and young adults examine and question their faith in a constructive way, so they may avoid dropping out or becoming passive.

Keep growing

Choose to get out of our denominational bubbles and go to conferences, read challenging books, watch videos and listen to podcasts from challenging experts. Let’s make sure we have real answers to the difficult questions – or admit we don’t know. (Too much christian “apologetics” ignores facts and cannot be respected.)

Do this for our own sake and not just to keep up with the next generation. Answering difficult questions honestly and factually can often lead to new understandings of God and the Bible

Take an interest

Take an interest in what younger christians are doing and thinking. It can take time to build a relationship that is based on mutual respect and honesty. Listen. Ask non-threatening and non-invasive questions. Try to understand their world and issues. Validate their thoughts and questions.

Accept that the Spirit may be teaching God’s people new things that weren’t important in the past, and these younger christians may be more open to this than we adults are.

Care for the orphans

Look out for teens who have lost a parent, come from unstable or unhappy homes, or are feeling lost or alienated. They may be led into relationships, situations and beliefs about themselves that turn out to be unhelpful.

Churches can “place orphans in families” by providing mentors to help fill the gap created by a lost parent. Vulnerable people can be especially supported.

Don’t be afraid or shocked

Don’t be afraid of diversity of views. Don’t be shocked at new ideas or behaviours that don’t fit our worldview.

Don’t be afraid of doubt, it can be the doorway to a new understanding.

Be wary of giving advice.

We are not the Holy Spirit. We want them to learn to depend on the Spirit more than they depend on us, or anyone else. This life with Jesus is a marathon, not a sprint. God so often takes his time with us, allowing us to learn from our mistakes. Let’s not get in the way of what the Spirit is doing.

Share principles, model christian living and ask challenging questions. Then pray and trust the Holy Spirit to lead them. This way we can encourage them to learn for themselves, from each other and from the Spirit.

Be practical

So much of Jesus’ teaching is practical advice about living. Forgiving. Loving enemies. Avoiding materialism. Being generous. Caring for the poor

Be practical. It’s something everyone can do, including new christians, even if they don’t understand much doctrine. Let’s make our aim the old prayer, that we all see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly.

We have found the “way of Jesus” exercises and experiments of Mark Scandrette to be an excellent way to mentor and disciple young christians, and challenge ourselves at the same time.

“Youth is made for heroism”

A quote from Tony Campolo, which we have found to be true. Asking young christians (or anyone else for that matter!) to sit around and listen is depriving them of the opportunity to do something heroic. The more idealistic want to change the world, which is exactly Jesus’ agenda.

Encourage empathy and compassion for the poor and suffering, from a very young age. Even young children can appreciate the joy of giving a TEAR card from the Useful Gift Catalogue. I have seen a primary age child writing letters for Amnesty campaigns for prisoners of conscience.

Encourage them to seek the kingdom of God with high priority. To see ethical living, sharing our faith, caring for the poor and knowing God as all part of one big adventure and challenge of being Jesus’ disciples in this broken world.

Make disciples

Let’s commit ourselves to the task of passing on the baton of faith to the following generations. A faith that will stand and can be held with integrity because it is based on reality, truth and the Spirt and not just tradition and dogma.

Making disciples doesn’t just require Biblical teaching. Instruction must be in a manner that people will listen, hear and be transformed by the renewing of their minds by the Spirit of God (Romans 12:1-2). We need to feel confident of our beliefs. And we need to be living it out as we follow Jesus our rabbi.

Making disciples, not just converts, is a critically important goal of the church. It requires all hands on deck, not just the ministers and leaders. Parents are key players in this.

But it won’t happen if we don’t change the way we do things. Leaders, clergy and so-called laypeople all need to work together to share the ministry and chart a new course.

Jesus said: “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

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