Discipleship a high priority for students among youth pastors, senior pastors

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Attend a student ministry conference, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear a particular grumble.  

The relationship between senior pastor and youth minister can be tricky. One is the face of the church, the one where the buck stops. The other leads the “future” of the church (a term disputed over, but which we’ll use here for convenience’s sake). The former’s stereotype is to play things safer. The latter’s – in keeping with a youthful vibe – is prone to take risks.  

In discussions at conferences, one Georgia Baptist student pastor observed a split in the relationship between pastors and his peers.  

“There are three groups,” said the student minister, who asked to remain anonymous. “Around 40 percent say they wish their pastor would be a better visionary. Another 40 percent feel their pastor has a ‘my way or the highway’ outlook and constricts that student minister. The remaining 20 percent, which includes me, express a good working relationship with their senior pastor.” 

Though perception puts that last group in the minority, a recent study shows the reality to be different.  

Common goals 

In its State of Youth Ministry report, Barna Research, in cooperation with Youth Specialties and YouthWorks, noted “discipleship and spiritual instruction” as one of the highest priorities for a majority of senior pastors (71 percent) and youth pastors (75 percent). 

“Building relationships” proved to be the second largest goal for student ministries among senior pastors (40 percent) and youth pastors (48 percent). Senior pastors felt evangelism and outreach to other teens was slightly more important (29 percent) than did youth pastors (24 percent). However, youth pastors placed more emphasis on getting parents involved in their teens’ spiritual formation (23 percent) than did senior pastors (18 percent).   

A divergence appears, though, according to a church’s location, size, denomination, and ethnicity. More emphasis on discipleship came in suburban (76 percent) and small town (84 percent) churches compared to those in urban areas (59 percent). Conversely, Hispanic (25 percent) and black (34 percent) student ministries in urban areas place a higher priority on serving the community and church as opposed to white student ministries (11 percent) located elsewhere.  

Definition of discipleship 

Given a list of possible descriptors for discipleship, youth pastors chose the options more open to interpretation.  

“Being transformed to become more like Jesus,” for instance, led the way with 78 percent of youth pastors. Following closely was “growing in spiritual maturity.” Those at the bottom included “deepening faith through education and fellowship,” a marker quantified through attending a Bible study, for instance, and “winning new believers to follow Jesus Christ.” 

A “discipling” youth ministry should contain three characteristics, said educator, speaker, and author Terry Linhart, a professor of Christian ministries at Bethel College in Mishawaka, IN. 

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“First, it must be a ministry with people who pray,” Linhart, who also serves as director of Academic Support Network for Youth Specialties, pointed out. “No programmatic trick or personal skill disciples; God is the one who transforms lives. We are about His business, not the other way around. 

“Second, a discipling ministry challenges students in appropriate ways. There is no shaming or authoritarianism – elements too common in programs for young people, even Christian ones. Rather, there is a teaching-centered ministry that is dynamic, relevant, and focused on helping students serve and minister to others. It is a community where the message is clear and the community is warm and inviting. 

“The third and final element may be the most crucial,” Linhart expressed. “A discipling ministry, no matter how big it is, has a ‘life-on-life’ aspect to its adult-student relationships. Biblical discipleship is not programmatic, but up-close and shared. It’s not private, but communal.” 

In other words, young people learn from what they see in adults.  

“If adult leaders are close enough for young people to see them live out a Christ-centered faith, then there is greater opportunity for learning, for spiritual growth and faithfulness,” Linhart said. 

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