I recently had lunch with a local youth pastor. He was hoping for some insight and direction for his budding youth ministry. The good news was that he was having no trouble with attendance, parent involvement, or support from senior leadership. His trouble was getting students excited about learning Scripture, actively pursuing discipleship, retaining the information, and then acting on it. He wanted more than just attenders, he wanted kids who were thinkers. Kids who could confidently put into practice what it meant to be a disciple in modern youth culture.
If you haven’t already, you should be asking the same question.
While the answer is a bit more complicated to address than the space I have here, it does begin with one simple and very common misunderstanding with how our students learn best. If you’re a bit older, like me, then you may have been taught that the best learning comes via our head, heart, and hands—in that order. We come to know something, that knowledge therefore changes our hearts, which of course creates changed behavior. But what if I told you that was backwards and not how we actually learn?
Because it’s not.
Learning that lasts is driven from experience first. Experiences are incredible teachers. It not only captivates our attention, it engages our imaginations, stirs up emotion, causes us to ask questions, and, peaks our curiosity. Experiences creates a deeper need to know.
So here is how I suggested my pastor friend flip how he teaches his students. Begin with experience.
Learn from experiences
The first practice after a Friday night football game was Saturday morning practice. The goal wasn’t to run, or hit, or go over plays. The day after practice was designed for two specific things: to lick our wounds and watch game film. We needed to rest, but more than that, we needed to see as soon as possible what we did right and what we did wrong. We learn by doing, making mistakes, and correcting those mistakes—our brains are wired that way. So when you think of experiences to grow your students into mature thinking Christians, they need the space to try, to succeed, to fail, to review how it unfolded, and learn from the experience.
But that’s not all. Students still have to go to school, participate in sports, music, or other activities. Likely those things occur in the real world. It’s great that students can retreat back into church or amongst Christian friends for some feel-good worship and motivational teaching. But what if that time could also be used for debriefing, sharing victories, and defeats? What if students could renter their world with useful tactics?
But this isn’t only about their experiences outside the church. As leaders and parents, we need to consider the experience inside the church as well. If you haven’t yet had a student come to you in confidence and reveal they are living a transgender lifestyle, you will, and soon. How we respond to sin is critical in crafting the kind of experience that matures their faith without compromising truth.
There is genuine excitement that comes from wrestling with God. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from a faith driven by an intense desire to understand Him. Such depth only comes from the discipline of theological study. But I can almost hear what you’re thinking. You don’t need to be a professional theologian to be disciple. You don’t need a seminary degree or to read old, dusty books on exegetical fallacies or multi-volume commentaries—although the theology nerd in me would suggest that you do. Certainly, we cannot expect our students to dive that deep—although some will. Can they really handle such complex ideas? Yes, and they want to, because we are all theologians—because we all think about God—and live accordingly. No matter what level our students enter the journey, it begins when they desire to seek a deeper understanding of who God is and what it means to put their trust in Jesus. What we think about Jesus informs how we feel about Him, and how we live out that belief.
How and what our students think about God plays a critical role in their journey as a disciple. Learning to think “Christianly” enables informed Christian action. Theology sets the foundation for our desire to want to see things in a Christian way. Students’ study of theology helps them make judgments about how best to act; it encourages them to engage with the real world. In other words, theology is our discipleship in action. So don’t be fearful of introducing more complex ideas about God, salvation, theological history, and even some of the difference in theology among Christians, because we can’t imagine the deepest possible love for God without the greatest possible understanding of Him. You likely know the theological level of understanding in your students. Raise the bar. They will meet it, and in the end, thank you for it.
About ten years ago, we sounded the alarm because the Millennial generation was leaving the church in droves with no sign of return. The church tried being more relevant, created big events and the superstar youth pastor. Maybe better music would work, we thought. Or perhaps better games, and exchanging exegetical sermons for motivational speeches would do the trick. Over the last decade, none of these things have made a positive impact on discipling our students. Instead, what we discovered was that in our efforts to create specific spaces for teens—to accomplish these new-fangled goals—we siloed our youth off from the rest of the church. But what does youth leaving the church have to do with creativity?
God has gifted each of us—students included—with the ability to create. The church ought to be a place where that creativity is birthed and nurtured. But that can’t happen for students who have no place in the wide sphere of the church community because they have been separated since birth.
While it certainly is not a guaranteed fix or some kind of secret formula to highly effective disciples, helping students think in Christian categories helps them to create a framework of how both sides of their brain can work in concert to best represent God and His kingdom. It helps join together creativity and logic and puts it into action.