The biggest discipleship lie in youth ministry is that discipleship should be separated from evangelism.
The thinking goes that we must first disciple our teenagers for months, even years, before they’re ready to share their faith. The failed premise is that if teenagers have enough Bible teaching, small group instruction and leadership training then, and only then, will they be ready to share the Gospel with others.
How’s that worked out for the adults in our churches? Answer: It hasn’t. The average Christian adult has never shared their faith.
Jesus forever linked evangelism and discipleship when he told his soon-to-be-disciples, “Come, follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people” Matthew 4:19.
When you truly and fully follow Jesus you go fishing…for people. As sure as the sun shines and dogs bark, disciples declare. The first sign of the indwelling Holy Spirit in Acts 2:1-5 is that their tongues were set on fire for the Gospel. As a result 3,000 were added to their number that day (Acts 2:41.)
As my good friend Doug Holliday says, “Any disicpleship strategy that doesn’t begin with and end with evangelism is not Biblical discipleship.” Of course this doesn’t mean that teenagers become “master fisherman” like Jesus out of the shoot. That takes time and effort.
What it does mean is that teenagers can and should start sharing and declaring the good news of Jesus as soon as they believe. In a sense that’s what baptism is, a visual and verbal declaration of the Gospel in front of one’s peers. Remember that originally most of these baptisms took place in public places (rivers, lakes and mikvahs.) They took place in front of one’s lost friends and peers. The original baptismal declaration, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9) was, in a sense, a mini Gospel declaration.
With all of this as a backdrop, evangelism must be reframed as key to the discipling process…especially in youth ministry. Here are four reasons why:
1. It forces teenagers to pick up their cross and die to themselves.
“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Mark 8:34
I believe it’s virtually impossible for a teenager to share the Gospel, especially with a friend, without denying themselves on some level. They are denying an opportunity to be accepted and applauded when they share the controversial message of the Gospel with their peers. When a teenager shares the Gospel he/she is picking up a cross and risking a social death.
But it’s this very risk that is core to the call of discipleship. There is no growth without risk and steps of faith. There is no greater step of faith than relational evangelism… especially for a teenager.
2. It puts them in a position where they are forced to depend on God.
I’ll never forget a Tweet I read from Tim Keller, “Teenagers have more information about God than they have experience of him. Get them in places where they have to rely on God.”
Once again, evangelism does this. It causes them to be dependent on God because, quite honestly, most of them are scared out of their wits the moments right before they share the Gospel with someone.
For twenty five years I have trained teenagers through Dare 2 Share how to share the Gospel. Often, after I do, I have them take out their cell phones and call or text a friend a Gospel conversation starting question. When I tell teens we are going to do this they often look at me in disbelief (at first) then shock and, finally, flat-out fear.
But before we make the call or text the question we all pray together for boldness to share Jesus with our friends. You can hear a pin drop as I pray for these teenagers to have the right mixture of courage and compassion as they take this step of faith. I know that these teens, some for the first time in their lives, are being put in a position where they are utterly dependent on God.
Jesus told his disciples in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Evangelism helps teenagers connect to the Vine deeply and immediately. It gets them in a place where, in Keller’s words, “they have to rely on God.“
3. It helps them understand, own and keep their faith.
“And I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” Philemon 1:6
When teenagers share their faith they begin to really know their faith. They begin to understand it in a deeper way. They start to gain a “full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.”
I’ll never forget experiencing this when I was in middle school. I was sharing my faith with two other teenagers and vividly remember thinking to myself, “I really believe this!” As I preached to them I preached to myself. The truth of the Gospel was being driven deeper and deeper into my heart, soul and mind with each word that I spoke.
There is something about sharing the Gospel that seals and steels this message in us and in our teenagers. If we want to get them to know their faith, own their faith and keep their faith then we must help them share their faith.
4. It shows them the power of God in the miracle of changed lives.
In Luke 10:17 the Bible tells us, “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” After the 72 disciples went on a “fishing trip” for lost souls they were mezmerized by the power of God on display. Jesus reminded them, “…do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Jesus helps them realize that the biggest miracle was not lepers being healed or demons being expelled but souls being saved! When teenagers share their faith they, like the first disciples, witness the power of God in display in the form of changed lives.
We all want to see our teenagers grow spiritually. We want them to deepen their fellowship with God and each other. We want them to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word and obedience to it. But if we really want to see them grow then we must help them go…and make disciples.
Don’t buy the biggest lie in youth ministry when it comes to discipleship. Help your teenagers grow deep in Christ and go wide with the Gospel…at the same time.