Intergenerational Discipleship is Not Optional…It’s Crucial!

Posted: December 19, 2011 in church, community, discipleship, ecclesiology, family, youth

Christianity Today recently posted an excellent article regarding the importance of encouraging the integration of youth and adults within the church’s corporate life.  The article quotes Scott Brown, director of the National Center for Family Integrated Churches, who writes in his new book, A Weed in the Church, that modern youth ministry constitutes a “50-year-old failed experiment” (not sure I’d go that far).

The article also cites Sticky Faith, a new book by Kara Powell and Chap Clark (Fuller Theological Seminary), which notes a six year study demonstrating a strong correlation between intergenerational worship/discipleship and mature faith among students in high school and college.  This correlation has been confirmed in my own experience living and working with college students: the vast majority of those who had a mature faith were intimately discipled by an older Christian(s) throughout their teen years.

The American church’s near-exclusive focus on developing youth-only ministries, complete with cool (masquerading as relevant) conferences that hand out cool t-shirts emblazoned with cool words like “ignite”, “fusion”, and “edge”, is not a lasting solution to the serious decline of Christian commitment among young people in America.

In their book Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis ask a good question:

Providing fun activities for young people may do some social good.  Many parents like it because they fear the alternative.  They would rather have their children in a church than wandering the streets.  But does it mature young people through the gospel, and does it build Christ’s church?  Where it is successful, most of the fruit is borne from activity around the fringes – the relationships that develop and the ad hoc conversations that ensue.  Is there an alternative? (183)

They go on to write:

It is often assumed that peer groups are key to youth ministry. … But our experience suggests that more significant than peer relationships are relationships with Christians who are older than the teenagers but not as old as their parents – adults who may not be “youth workers” but who are committed to young people just as they are committed to other people in the church and who model gospel living and make young people feel part of the Christian community.

This takes church seriously.  Integrating young people into the vibrant and diverse life of the gospel community is a key objective. (185-186)

What is needed today is what the Bible has always taught regarding true discipleship: one-on-one, personal attention from more mature Christians (cf. 2 Tim. 2:1-2; Tit. 2:3-6).  As Jonathan Parnell writes in an article entitled, “A Concise Theology of Role Models,”

A role model like Paul is not an optional Add-on to our Firefox browser. Following men and women like Paul is not like a scarf that accessorizes our Christian outfit. This is life or death. This is servant or enemy. Having a role model like Paul is indispensable to following Jesus. As Paul imitates Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1), so do we by following Paul’s example and keeping our eyes on those who walk like him.

But to truly follow Paul’s example, we need more than simply one trained “professional” role model (aka, the youth pastor).  The church is a community of believers in which the growth and maturation of all is the responsibility of all.

Robert Coleman’s words, from his ever-important book entitled The Master Plan of Evangelism (which is a bit of a misnomer, as today the book’s focus would be termed “discipleship”), regarding people in general are perhaps even more applicable to America’s youth today:

The world is desperately seeking someone to follow.  That they will follow someone is certain, but will that person be one who knows the way of Christ, or will he or she be one like themselves leading them only on into greater darkness?  This is the decisive question of our plan of life.  The relevance of all that we do waits on its verdict, and in turn, the destiny of the multitudes hangs in the balance. (121)

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