Last night I arrived back home after spending three days with my youth group at our annual youth retreat – everything that had come with me had returned with evidence of the outdoors, including my walking boots, which were weighed down with 2 inches of mud and leaves, twigs in my hair and a bag of abandoned damp, odd socks from young people who had lost them at some point.
It was only three days but it felt like we had been in our little bubble for much longer and seeing all these things felt very out of place in my front room where it was warm, dry and mud free. But I was missing that bubble. It was an interruption from regular routine and once again, my expectations of what God would do in this time had been exceeded tenfold. It was a powerful reminder of the importance of fellowship and discipleship.
Young people live in a noisy world. If you take into account social media, technology, friends, school, family life, church life, peer pressure, self-doubt, dealing with hormones and so on, the life of a teenager must be overwhelming. We as a church are not the only one sharing a message – young people are inundated with so many different messages that we could easily be the quietest voice amongst all this ‘noise’. It’s easy to see why they seem so distracted and sometimes disengaged – and why interrupting this noise is vital to creating space for starting and continuing discipleship.
Coming alongside young people means just that – walking alongside them through a forest while searching for carrots (long story, don’t ask) or sitting alongside them while playing Jungle Speed – all of this is a chance to open up a line of communication that is sometimes missed in the routine schedule of youth work.
Don’t get me wrong, our youth retreat was anything but noise-free. There were 31 young people all in one not-very-big room and despite having a microphone, I often had to do the ‘can I have your attention’ arm dance. But I welcomed this noise, because it was a different noise – it meant that their heads were up and they were engaging with one another – conversations and jokes were being shared – the distractions of phones, social media platforms and who-said-what at school were all forgotten. For someone passing by, it would have seemed chaotic and loud – but to us leaders, we had a way in! We could share stories, join in with conversations about their life and most importantly – bring the good news of Jesus.
Intentional discipleship is at the centre of youth ministry – and our perfect model of this is Jesus. He interrupted people’s daily routine and invited them to come with Him – as they were, faults and all. They weren’t picked because they were well-behaved or polite or easy to deal with. I know so many people who shy away from the idea of approaching a young person, let alone joining the youth team, because they presume young people are dismissive, hard work or difficult to gage. I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of adults who are these things too! But as with adults, young people are filled to the brim with potential and when encouraged and time is spent engaging with them, they can flourish and grow into disciples that make disciples. Some of my most ‘heart-swelling-with-joy’ moments have come when I have seen young people, who weeks before were dragging their feet about stepping up into something that they deemed daunting, were not only flourishing but were shining examples to their peers.
Paul said in his first letter to Timothy to not let his youth be something he is dismissed for, but that he could and should be an example to all those around him in how he spoke, acted and taught. As I said before, God has exceeded my expectations within my role as a youth worker numerous times – where I have failed to have faith, He has humbled me. Where I have feared a lack of response from the young people, He shone through them. Expectations should never be lowered because of a person’s age – the Spirit can move through all God’s people, both young and old. And we should be setting our expectations as high when discipling young people – as adults we should be setting an example to the youth of any church, but this should also be something we encourage the young people to do.
How can we be discipling our young people to be shining lights amongst us adults? Through presence, persistence and prayer. Be intentionally present with them on Sunday mornings, persistently encouraging them in using their giftings and cover this all in prayer. We as humans thrive for fellowship, it’s how we were designed and created – and with the pandemic and social media, young people have had this desire warped. Let’s be encouraging them to be a part of church life and with that, the joys of a Jesus-centred community. And this responsibility of encouragement and engagement is for ALL members of the church – we are blessed with a church family from all walks of life and with this, we can be showing our young people the overflowing grace of Jesus and that they are all integral to the expansion of God’s Kingdom.