Discipleship that doesn’t trigger a visceral physical reaction or evoke emotion in young people won’t get past their starting gate. Current research is proving that unless we somehow get access to the brain’s emotional center, triggering the area responsible for the decisions young people make, all we’re really doing is dispensing data that’s quickly filed away in the brain’s warehouse, where it gathers dust.
The disciples’ experience of Jesus produced a wide spectrum of emotions—shock, awe, surprise, confusion, sadness, curiosity, and even terror. We can’t replicate their firsthand, flesh-and-blood relationship with Jesus, but we can teach and relate to kids in more heart-targeted ways. Our discipleship has to touch on their personal realities, stir emotions, and trigger the deeper, scarier, and more intimate aspects of kids’ lives.
We’ll know they’re sitting in the Spirit’s classroom when their fears, anger, loneliness, confusion, and blood pressure go up, not down. Peace and growth will come later. Life is messy—that’s not news to anybody, especially today’s teenagers. And that means discipleship that matters in the real world is going venture into these messy emotional places.
When we slow down to pay better attention, we recognize that God’s Word never takes detours around our shared messy places in life. Our mission is not to build guard rails of do’s and don’t’s—or to fix kids’ problems with hypothetical or rhetorical shoulds. Our mission is to invite life’s messes into the light, where we can get at them.
After the gruesome reality of the crucifixion, Thomas and his fellow disciples are left swimming in a sea of doubt. Instead of hiding his doubt, Thomas owns it. As leaders, do we have the courage to drag our doubts into the light the way Thomas did? When we open our own emotional door, our teenagers will feel safe to open their own. To teach what it means to live in faith and trust, we must put ourselves in situations that require tightness-in-the-chest moments—where our faith has to show up in the here and now.
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Emotional vulnerability creates deep bonds and authentic moments—just what the brain needs to re-wire itself, literally calming down the Limbic system. Trust in the face of our own brokenness models what discipleship looks like behind all our facades. And so, instead of skirting the hard places in kids’ lives, or stepping over the hard stories and passages in the Bible, we move into them instead. And we stay there long enough to touch the heart.
We are healed in the context of persistently trusting relationships. And that kind of trust comes only when we travel to the holy ground of the heart. This kind of discipleship will feel dangerous and personal. Real change always is.
This article originally appeared in the recently released Special Discipleship Edition of Group Magazine. To request your free copy, click here.
Steve Merritt is a longtime contributor to GROUP and a counselor whose practice focuses on teenagers. He lives in Washington state.