Raising Up Teenage Spiritual Champions

Our liberal friends are not too keen on the idea of student achievement in schools. Last week I heard of another high school that no longer will conduct awards assemblies at the end of the year. Progressives want to pull achieving young people back into the mushy middle.

But are we doing something similar at church? In most churches, don’t we only offer foundational discipleship that leads to a mostly bland faith for the entire group?

  1. When an open Bible study group (Sunday School, etc.), or student worship, or a special event creates new spiritual hunger in a teenage believer, what comes next?
  2. When that student makes a conscious decision to become a disciple of Jesus, who begins to walk that teenager into a life of true discipleship?
  3. When that teenager is surrounded by peers at church who are not interested in things like deep prayer, the spiritual disciplines, worldview, and apologetics—where does that teenager find other students who share his or her heart for those things?
  4. What component of weekly student ministry parallels the investment of Jesus in Peter, James, and John?
  5. When a parent is ready to disciple his or her teenager, how can that parent use those same minutes to disciple a motivated teenager from a pagan home?
  6. How do we dramatically increase the number of high school graduates who adore Christ, live out of gratitude for the Gospel, take responsibility for their own spiritual growth, articulate what they believe and why, know how to disciple others, sacrifice for the poor, and live to take the Good News to the nations and the hard places in the U.S.—and later begin to impact churches, business, entertainment, and government?

Most churches provide an open-group Bible study for teenagers. Some provide two or more. The expression open group simply means any teenager can attend a group with no commitment and no expectations. The most common open groups meet on Sunday mornings, and they have names similar to Sunday School, Bible Study Fellowship, etc. A second open group each week may meet on Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, or some other time. When led well, open groups are strategic and vital to the church.

The complement to an open group is a covenant group. The expression covenant group refers to discipling groups that require more commitment and deeper relationships.

  • Rather than open and fluid participation in open groups, teenagers join a covenant group only by making a covenant with that leader and with the others being discipled for a specific period of time.
  • Rather than the foundational discipleship of open groups, covenant groups are built around deeper concepts and spiritual disciplines.
  • Rather than most study being done during the meeting times of open groups, teenagers in covenant groups are accountable for preparation and spiritual disciplines outside of meeting times.

Discipleship authority Bill Hull notes, “When churches offer only open groups, with people at various spiritual levels gathering in the same groups, mediocrity will result. It’s like throwing everyone in the shallow end of the swimming pool; everyone thinks that staying there is normal.”

Covenant group leaders disciple through formal meeting times but also by sharing life with each teenager. They are following the example of Paul who reported, “We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8, HCSB).

A covenant group leader who goes into the world of a teenager shows that teenager he or she is valuable as a person, not just a church statistic. But going to a sporting event or band concert takes time. Deep conversations with lots of listening take time. Walking together, life on life, takes time. Adults who have their own jobs and their own families cannot make that kind of investment in more than three or four.

Pastor and discipling expert Robby Gallaty reports: “So what is the ideal size of a (discipleship group)? In my experience, four total, as displayed by Jesus, is the number of choice.”

Even leaders who can visualize the value of covenant groups might be tempted to say: “With our current programs we do not have enough adults engaged with our teenagers. How on earth will we find enough to lead covenant groups with only three teenagers in each?” That is a reasonable question.

Numerically, there are enough adults in most churches to lead covenant groups. But moving adults into new leadership roles will require fresh preaching, teaching, and discipling. Arm twisting, creating guilt, and shouting “ought to” has not worked and cannot work.

We all know that teenagers are saturated with Moral Therapeutic Deism … but so are church adults. Before their hearts will embrace kingdom service, they must move from “God exists for me” to “I exist for God.” Preaching and teaching must include:

  1. Leading believers into a Christ awakening. David Bryant says, “A Christ Awakening takes place whenever God’s Spirit uses God’s Word to reintroduce God’s people back to God’s Son for ALL He is. … Whenever Christians wake up to fresh hope, passion, prayer, and mission focused on the full extent of the supremacy of Christ, they are seen to rise up to serve the King of glory in whole new ways.”
  2. Leading believers to experience overwhelming gratitude for the Gospel. Tullian Tchividjian says, “We can give people the impression that Christianity is first and foremost about the sacrifice we make for Jesus rather than the sacrifice Jesus made for us; our performance for him rather than his performance for us; our obedience for him rather than his obedience for us. The hub of Christianity is not ‘do something for Jesus.’ The hub of Christianity is ‘Jesus has done everything for you.’”

One of the most valuable roles of the senior pastor is calling out believers to serve. Pastors can proclaim from the pulpit that every Christ follower is to have a ministry. He can challenge every adult small group to equip and send out members who will teach and disciple (not sit and soak).

Spiritually alive adults who invest in covenant groups likely will lead to a new kind of teenager in the church. Because Christ is living His life through those teenagers, what they do brings Christ’s kingdom more on the earth—which can only serve to bring great glory to God. In so doing, the teenagers fulfill the reason for their existence on earth.