In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday experiment, we explore a surprising way to “measure” and promote discipleship—or spiritual maturity—in teenagers.
Do you know how to measure spiritual maturity in your teenagers? It’s usually one of those “know it when you see it” things. In my experience, creating a set of “metrics” to gauge maturity is always inherently flawed. Attendance at youth group? It’s tempting, but no… Signing up for a spiritual retreat? Nope. Serving others on a mission trip? Not a slam dunk. Memorizing Scripture passages? Well, the Pharisees were great at that, so…nope. A determination to avoid sin? Again, the Pharisees practiced a version of this false metric.
Even though our common metrics can’t be trusted to give us a true sense of spiritual maturity, we can get a sense of what a growing disciple looks like, because we experience maturity relationally. I mean, the only way to mark maturity in a person is to be in relationship with him or her. And relationship requires conversation; it’s the only way we can really get what’s inside a person, outside that person. So conversation is key in youth ministry. No matter what the setting—including your “message” time—conversation must be happening. Check out this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday video for more about this.
Now that our discipleship metric is focused on experiencing a person relationally, how do we plant seeds in that relationship that will produce maturity? Well, here are a few specific ways to create the right “growing environment” for discipleship:
1. Pay attention to your definition and practice of grace. Not long ago I told my 18-year-old daughter, Lucy, that I’d had to deliver some very painful discipline to a person in my life who’d really screwed up. After I told her some of the bare details, she said, “Dad, I thought grace meant we give people second chances. Couldn’t you have given grace in that situation?” I told her that was a great question, but: “What if you had cancer and you went to an oncologist, and he told you the cancer was aggressive and could threaten your life. And then he told you the most aggressive treatment combined chemotherapy and radiation, but that would be like taking poison into your body and would make you really sick—even bring you to the point of death. So instead, he recommended simply changing your diet and then waiting to see what would happen. What would you say?” Lucy replied, “Well, of course, I’d want the chemo.” And I said, “Grace is always kind, but it’s not always nice. It’s intended to rescue us, not placate us.” In youth ministry, we’ve often limited our definition of grace to “super-nice”—but grace is much more than that, and it often looks like chemotherapy.
2. Never frame discipleship as a “should.” Last year, toward the end of a devotion I was leading for our interns, I looked out on a sea of eager college-age faces and suddenly got choked up. “I want to apologize to all of you on behalf of the church,” I said. The room suddenly got very quiet. “I know most of you have grown up in the church, and your whole life you’ve been told you should love Jesus because…you should love Jesus. Well, I’d like to apologize for that. Jesus isn’t trying to ‘should’ you into loving him. That’s our misguided strategy, not his. Jesus wants to invite you to know him much more deeply, then let’s see how that impacts your love for him.” Shoulds try to push kids into religious imperatives, and that’s why we’re so exhausted in ministry. Instead, a “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) approach is invitational and takes a fraction of the energy.
3. Never diminish Jesus. If we simply slow down and list everything Jesus says and does in the gospels, breaking it all down into categories, we’ll discover a Jesus who shatters our common misconceptions. So try this exercise, limiting it to a five-chapter section of a gospel, for starters. Then look at your list and ask yourself a hard question: “Is this the Jesus I’m helping my students to know and love, or would this be a foreign Jesus to them?” It’s a heresy to propagate the myth of a “merely nice” Jesus, but that’s the Jesus most kids today have heard about.
4. Avoid using “work” language to describe our relationship with Jesus. My pastor and friend, Tom Melton, has thrown so many “Tom-isms” at me over the years that have changed the way I think about my relationship with Jesus. One is a real scalpel of a sentence: “We don’t really believe Jesus is beautiful; otherwise, we wouldn’t describe our relationship with him as so much work.” Let that one cut through one of our favorite bastardizations of discipleship. We subtly treat a day-to-day relationship with Jesus as essentially a hard, thankless slog through a landscape of bite-your-lip obedience. It’s better to frame our faith as play, not work.
5. Refuse to co-mingle the message of the “American Dream” with the message of the gospel. It’s hard for us to think outside of the prevailing “success narrative” of Western culture. The American Dream tells us that our birthright is a middle-class life—a house, two cars, two kids, a vacation or two every year, and a comfortable retirement. This is such a deep-seated collective promise that we have a hard time seeing our relationship with God as anything other than transactional.What will following Jesus do for me? But Job and Peter and Paul all learned something the hard way: God longs for romance, not a business transaction. The goal of our relationship with Jesus is intimacy—to abide in him as a branch abides in a Vine—not an American Dream transaction.