When we want to think about discipleship in youth ministry, it’s good to start with defining some terms. What do we mean by discipleship?
Literally a disciple (mathetes) was a learner, a follower, usually of a significant master. Discipleship then is simply learning from, or following a master, in our case Jesus Christ. When we say we want our students to become disciples, we mean that we want to see them following Jesus and learning from Him.
Discipleship then means spending time with Jesus, for instance in prayer and worship. It means learning from Him by studying His words, discussing it with others and trying to understand it. It means spending time with other Christians, learning from them. It means serving God and His Kingdom, like Jesus did. But above all it means obedience, being willing to do what He says, or to do what He did.
We should all be disciples as Christians, because that’s what Jesus commanded us to be. He said that if we wanted to come with Him, we should take up our cross daily and follow Him. He also told us to go and make disciples. He didn’t say converts, He said (and meant) disciples, followers of Him. Having faith in Christ then, means to follow Him.
What’s the difference then between being a Christian and being a disciple of Jesus? Well, in my opinion this is where it gets tricky. I feel that the two have somehow become separated, while they’re actually one and the same. I don’t think you can be a Christian without following Jesus, without wanting to learn from Him. Yet I see many Christians around me, both adults and youth, who call themselves Christians but aren’t following at all. It seems discipleship is something for ‘serious Christians’ only.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging anyone here. I grew up in a Baptist church and gave my heart to Christ at a very young age, yet I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a clear statement about discipleship. Sure, I’ve heard about disciples, about following Jesus, about obedience even, but somehow it all blended into ‘being a good Christian’. And I’m not sure I’ve done much better with the students I’ve taught.
I think we should get rid of this whole separation between being a Christian and being a disciple, as they’re one and the same. That’s what we should teach our students as well, that they can’t be a Christian unless they follow Christ. And that’s where the challenge starts.
We live in a postmodern world that embraces instant gratification, denounces absolute truths, encourages everyone to do ‘what feels good to them’ and above all teaches that you are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul. No wonder we have a big problem getting discipleship ingrained in our churches, our youth ministry. Because discipleship has a cost.
Discipleship costs you something, maybe everything. And I’m not talking about material stuff, though that may be the case as well. I’m talking about those things that are deemed so valuable in our culture: our independence, our right to make our own choices, our freedom to live our life the way we want it. Discipleship demands obedience, accountability, sacrifice, and discipline. Discipleship is dying to ourselves and becoming more like Christ as a result. And that will cost us.
You can’t be a Christian and not follow Christ. If you’re not willing to pay the price, if you’re not willing to take up your cross and follow Him, then what does your faith in Christ mean? It’s am empty faith, a belief in certain facts. But it won’t get you anywhere.
“Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” These are harsh words from famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I think he’s right. He wrote a whole book on The Cost of Discipleship, fiercely opposing what he called ‘cheap grace’. And he knew what he was talking about, his resistance to Hitler ultimately cost him his life in a concentration camp.
What does this mean for youth ministry? Is it even possible to ‘sell’ discipleship to youth, knowing the cost? Well, first of all I’d say we have a huge challenge with this generation of youth that is so steeped in postmodern thinking. Discipleship will by all accounts not ‘naturally’ appeal to them. However, that doesn’t mean we should water it down or present it as anything else than it really is.
Let’s present the full gospel, the ‘saved by grace’ followed by the ‘sanctification’ part. Let’s show them Jesus, who is so worthy to be followed and obeyed. Let’s be honest about the cost of discipleship, about what it really means. Let’s show them how wonderful the life of a disciple ultimately is. And then let’s trust God to do His work in their hearts and convince them like we never could.
Do you agree with Bonhoeffer’s statement, that Christianity without discipleship leaves Christ out? Do you see many Christians who are not disciples? How could we change that do you think?