by Mike Langford
The word “discipleship” can become a bit of a buzzword in youth ministry. It sounds really important. And it is easy to understand why. Scripture refers to Jesus’ followers as his disciples. He describes rather specifically what it means to be counted among them. And in his parting words to his disciples, Jesus says to “make disciples of all peoples.”
So it makes sense that we want discipleship, or disciple-making, to be present in our youth ministry. But what does that mean? Of what does discipleship consist? What does discipleship as a ministry practice look like?
There is a key problem with the phrase “discipling students”: it makes no sense.
Many youth ministers, in looking at how Jesus interacted with his own disciples, attempt to incorporate similar philosophies of “discipleship” into their ministries. Usually, this includes intensively training students what it means to be a Christian. Often—again, modeled after Jesus’ activity—this includes putting students into mentoring relationships with leaders, or comprehensively teaching students Scripture and theology, or helping students become “leaders” or ministers. Some combination of these three things is often what youth ministers mean when they speak of “discipling students.” But there is one key problem with that phrase. It makes no sense.
Now, there is nothing wrong with intensively learning how to follow Jesus. And there is nothing wrong with apprenticeship relationships, intensive teaching, or students becoming active ministers. But the problem is that in our “discipling” students, we misunderstand what “disciple” means. To explain why, let’s look at the definition of “disciple.”
It was not unusual that Rabbi Jesus had disciples. What was unusual was that which he taught them.
To be a “disciple” is to be a follower of someone or some idea. But to be a disciple suggests not merely a state of incidentally or passively following, the way that some of us “follow” celebrity news or the activity of our favorite sports teams. Rather, to be a disciple is to intentionally and actively follow someone or something in such a way that is wholly self-involving. In the New Testament, the word we translate as “disciple” is mathetes, which literally means “learner” or “pupil.” It was not uncommon in Jesus’ day for rabbis, or Jewish teachers, to have disciples following them around in order to learn not only information but also how to live. It was not unusual that Rabbi Jesus had disciples. What was unusual was that which he taught them.
When we claim to be disciples of Jesus, we claim to be counted amongst those who are trying to learn about how to live in a particular way, namely, the way that Jesus both speaks about and models. The Holy Spirit relates us to Jesus such that He is rabbi and we are disciples. This means that, when it comes to defining the shape of our lives, He is determinative and we are receptive. In the master-pupil relationship of Christian discipleship, Jesus is primary and foundational, and we are secondary and derivative. In other words, discipleship is not a ministry practice. It describes the purpose of life. We are meant to live as disciples of Jesus.
So it is nonsensical, both grammatically and theologically, to claim to be “discipling” students. To be a disciple indicates a receptive posture. It is to learn, to be nourished, to be formed. It is impossible “to disciple” anyone. It is only possible to be a disciple, and we can only help students to become more and more a disciple of Jesus. They are not our disciples. Ultimately, we do not want our students to taught, nourished, or formed by us. We want to enable students, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be taught, nourished, and formed by their true Rabbi and Master. So, when we understand it as a means to discipleship, maybe it is most accurate to think of youth ministry as creating space for the Holy Spirit to set and nourish students within the relationship in which Jesus is master and they are his disciples. How might we do that?
Pastors, Partners, and Padawans
To answer that question, let’s look briefly at the Apostle Paul. We can think of him as a model disciple in that he was “surrounded on the journey.” By that I mean that, in the journey of faith, Paul spent time with people “ahead” of him in spiritual maturity, with people who were compatriots in discipleship and ministry, and with people who were in need of something. After his own conversion, Paul spent time with an elder disciple, Ananias. In his missionary journeys, Paul had Barnabas as his peer. And Paul took great pains to help young Timothy learn how to be a disciple. In short, Paul had elders, friends, and students in his journey of discipleship. Mentors, companions, and novices. I recently heard this typology described as “Pastors, Partners, and Padawans.” And Jesus’ 12 disciples had these three sorts of relationships, too. They had Jesus as their mentor, each other as companions, and plenty of novices as they went out to engage in their mission. And each of these types of relationships is an important part of being a disciple of Jesus today, too.
Succinctly, I think that we can best help our students in their discipleship by making room for the Holy Spirit to move through these three sorts of relationships, by helping them to have mentors, companions, and people to whom they minister in their lives. Let’s briefly look at each.
It is important for us, if we can, to connect students to mentors in our faith communities, mature Christians who can help them in following Jesus. But here we can run into a common problem. Youth ministers often look for a certain “type” of mentor, someone that they think will best “connect” with the student. Think: young, hip, outgoing. However, this is quite shortsighted and, perhaps, even prejudiced at times. Having only a certain sort of mentor prizes specific social characteristics more than maturity, as if students were joining a club rather than following a Messiah (and, often, they are). It also denies the power of the Holy Spirit to use anyone, including those we least expect (a theme throughout Scripture). We need the whole diverse Body of Christ to be collective mentors for our students. Remember, our students are not disciples of the mentors. Rather, the mentors are being used by the Holy Spirit to help students be disciples of Jesus.
It is important for us to create communities of companionship for our students. They should feel that they have lots of partners in their journey of faith, partners of all shapes and sizes. Youth ministries are often good at creating a community that emphasizes belonging—feeling known, feeling loved. And that is good. Our Christian communities should be places where students feel known and loved. However, does a community really need to be Christian to do that? There are lots of community organizations that aim to help people feel known and loved. What makes a community Christian is that the people in it are, together, disciples of Jesus. A faith community is a group of companions for the journey. Together, we follow after Jesus, sharing joys, sorrows, encouragement, accountability, faith, hope, and love. But, ultimately, the community itself is not the focus. For disciples, Jesus is the focus as we follow along. And, so, it is important, as we create communities for our students, to remember the focus. We are creating groups of companions for the life-long journey of discipleship, not for comfort.
People to whom to minister
Sometimes, students are treated like they are in training, as if they were not fully Christian until they become adults. It is for that reason that many youth are not allowed to hold positions of leadership or ministry in our faith communities. This assumes, however, that a person must have certain qualifications in order for the Holy Spirit to use him or her, which, of course, is patently false. Not only can the Holy Spirit use our students in bringing about the Kingdom of God, but the Holy Spirit does use them, every day. It’s just a matter of how much they take notice and cooperate. We need to help our students understand that, as disciples, they are being used by God to advance the missio Dei as embodied in Jesus. For that reason, we should be teaching them to keep their eyes, ears, and hearts open for ways that they might minister to others. This might mean helping those who may be less spiritually mature. It might mean being agents of peace, justice, and reconciliation to the world around them. It might mean telling others about Jesus. Who knows? The key is that we help students see themselves as ministers here and now. Jesus always sent out his disciples to be agents of his mission. So, too, are we sent out.
And so, then, must we as those ministering to youth understand ourselves as disciples, too. As disciples, we also should understand that we follow a Rabbi and Master, and not any other measure of success, admiration, or worthiness. As disciples, we also should put ourselves in spaces where we can be formed by the Holy Spirit. And as disciples, we also should seek to have those three types of relationships in our lives. It is usually easy for youth ministers to find plenty of students or novices! But some of us, for whatever reason, have a hard time finding mentors and compatriots in ministry. But let’s try. For, generally, it is through relationships of all types that God becomes present to us. So it will be through pastors, partners, and padawans that Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will be present, and through them that we will follow him.
Michael D. Langford, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry and Coordinator of Youth Ministry Education and Training at Seattle Pacific University and Seattle Pacific Seminary. He is also an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He and his wife, Kelly, live in Seattle with their kids, Hannah, Seth, and Caleb.
 This is, for instance, the focus of The Master Plan of Evangelism, a classic by Robert Coleman. However, books such as these often make the category error of not distinguishing Jesus as disciple-maker and our role in disciple-making. This is not (necessarily) to say that we should avoid the things Jesus does in his ministry, including those things he does with his disciples. But rather the key is that, in discerning how to create ministries of discipleship, we should look at the experience of the disciples rather than strictly at the actions of Jesus.