The goal of discipleship is christlikeness. Christlike behavior is the external fruit that is the result of an ongoing internal transformation, and this internal transformation is the result of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the life of a believer who, by grace, is seeking Jesus and his kingdom (Matt 6:33). This greatly impacts how we minister to teens!
A few years ago I was in a meeting with a few parents where we were discussing the development of a youth discipleship plan that aligned with the church’s newly adopted mission statement. As we were talking one of the moms stated that the school her kids attended had begun to focus on developing good character in the kids and she didn’t understand why we couldn’t do the same. What she meant was that the school had developed a series of assemblies to talk about character and that we needed to talk to our youth more about developing character. Now, to be clear, I don’t have a problem discussing character with youth, however, Christlike behavior is not primarily developed by getting a bunch of Middle School and High School students in a room and telling them about Christlike behavior.
Yet, this is the way many youth ministries function. We gather kids together and tell them how to behave in order to be like Jesus. Youth ministry guru, Chap Clark, has humorously called this the 4 S’s of youth discipleship … we’re doing our job as youth workers if young people:
- Show up – they come to our youth events and programs
- Sit down – they behave at our youth events and programs
- Shut up – they listen to what we have to say about following Jesus
- Smile – they like what we have to say about following Jesus
Unfortunately (no, tragically), this approach mostly does not result in an ongoing internal transformation that leads to christlikeness. Many times it results in external behavior without a transformed heart, and many kids can best be described in the same way that Herni Nouwen describes the elder brother from the parable of the prodigal son, “Exteriorly he did all the things a good son is supposed to do but, interiorly, he wandered away from his father.” Thankfully scripture paints a different picture for us as youth workers.
Faith and Fruit (Galatians 5)
Galatians 5 is a chapter about discipleship and transformation. The theme of chapter 5 is having faith in, or trusting, Christ and living by the Holy Spirit. This is captured powerfully in Galatians 5:5-6,
5 But we who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive by faith (trust) the righteousness God has promised to us. 6 For when we place our faith (trust) in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or being uncircumcised. What is important is faith (trust) expressing itself in love. (NLT)
Further down in Galatians 5:22-23 Paul describes the character that the Holy Spirit produces in the life of a believer who, by grace, is trusting Christ Jesus and his kingdom. This list of spiritual fruit is DESCRIPTIVE, not PRESCRIPTIVE. In other words, this list of fruit describes the life of someone who trusts Christ Jesus and lives by the Spirit. It’s not a list that you prescribe to in order to show that you trust Christ Jesu sand live by the Spirit. The fruit of the Holy Spirit are not character traits that we teach our young people to work hard at producing themselves, but they are the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of a believer who, by grace, trusts Christ Jesus with their life.
Here’s a simple summary from a Wesleyan point of view …
- As we respond to God’s grace we receive more grace
- As we grow in grace we grow in our ability to love and trust Jesus and live by the Spirit
- As we trust Christ Jesus the Spirit produces more and more fruit in our lives
- This is an internal transformation that leads to external fruit
Based on this three things become clear for discipleship …
- My job is to, by God’s grace, trust God more and more with every aspect of my life
- It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make me righteous, i.e. to produce fruit in my life
- The purpose of spiritual disciplines (what John Wesley referred to as the means of grace) is not to try to become more righteous but to grow in our love and trust of Jesus.
Why this matters in your youth ministry
This theological understanding impacts your ministry. As leaders we need to stay focused so that the goal of our talks, small groups, etc. are to help kids learn how to trust God and align their lives with the Jesus and his kingdom. This means we must be diligent when we teach, lead small groups, provide pastor care, etc. that we do not communicate that the fruit of the spirit is something we work hard to develop/achieve. We must help kids understand that hard work doesn’t bring righteousness or holiness … we can’t will ourselves into a new holy behavior.
Our job is to, by God’s grace, trust God more and more with every aspect of our lives, and it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make us righteous, i.e. to produce fruit in our lives. This is a rich piece of theology to pass on to our young people!