Put 20 youth pastors in a room and tell them they can’t come out until the agree on a definition of discipleship and it’s possible their friends and families will never see them again!
And IF they can agree, the odds of them implementing that definition in their youth ministries are about the same odds as me slam-dunking on a 10-foot rim (zero, in case you’re wondering).
But that’s what’s so wonderful about the way we lean into discipleship—we share a singular focus on helping students grow in their relationship with Jesus, but there’s lots of flexibility in how we get there. That’s especially important in the context of junior high ministry, because a “standard” approach to discipleship with young adolescents is frustratingly irrelevant to some, even when it’s powerfully relevant for others. Because their development, maturity level, and interest in a deeper spiritual path vary wildly from kid to kid, how do we tailor our approach?
Here are a few (loosely connected) thoughts about junior highers and discipleship that may help:
1. Age Matters
Our first priority is to remember that middle schoolers are all over the board in their emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical and social development. Because of this, our approach to discipleship with them needs to look, feel, and be experienced differently than our approach to senior highers.
2. Simplify the Definition
I enjoy simplifying things, and I think junior high ministry is a great place to practice the art! Perhaps the best definition of discipleship (you probably disagree—see above) for our particular focus is: Helping young teenagers grow closer to Jesus. Before you accuse me of setting the bar at a staggering new low, look at that definition one more time and ask yourself if there is anything more important in your role than helping your kids grow closer to Jesus.
3. Speaking Of Bars, Set Lots Of Them
If our mission is to simply help young teenagers grow closer to Jesus, we leave open a wide array of strategies that can help this happen. Don’t make the mistake of assuming every junior higher in your group experiences growth in their relationship with Jesus the same way. Don’t set ONE bar and expect it to be universal. A bar that’s too high for one student will be too low for another. Instead, set lots of bars—create all sorts of opportunities that help all sorts of students take one more step closer to Jesus.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming every junior higher in your group experiences growth in their relationship with Jesus the same way. Don’t set ONE bar and expect it to be universal.Click to tweet
4. Everything Is Discipleship
Instead of compartmentalizing discipleship in your ministry, learn to see everything you do through a faith-growing lens. Formal teaching time? Discipleship. Games that help model sportsmanship, gracious winning/losing, and wholesome fun? Discipleship. Grace is shown to the overly-talkative kid that drives everybody crazy? Discipleship. Honoring the diversity of students who walk through the doors? Discipleship.
When we treat everything we do in ministry as an opportunity to teach our kids the norms and values of the Kingdom of God, we tear down the artificial walls we build around discipleship. We want the good lessons to outweigh the bad, and we want our junior highers to enjoy hanging around adults who love Jesus and peers who are committed to helping them grow closer to Jesus.
When the walls come down, we recognize that all of junior high ministry actually is discipleship.