There is a temptation for those of us who serve the church to focus so much of our time and effort on the formation of disciples that we run the risk of missing the formation of the most critical disciple of all, ourselves. As a Director of Christian Education, I see discipleship as the fundamental center of what I do. Yet, at times in my ministry, I feel like I may not have paid enough attention to my own process of discipleship.
As Jesus’ disciples began to take on disciples of their own, they did not cease to be His disciples. They did not cease to need their Lord’s guidance. In fact, Jesus knew this and anticipated their need for His continued leadership when He sent the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). This is what sustained the long life and ministry of Christ’s beloved disciple, John. John was able to rely upon the Holy Spirit while the rest of his fellow apostles were each martyred in the name of their Lord. While he did not himself face death for his faith, he did face punishment, including banishment to the Isle of Patmos (a Greek island off the west coast of Turkey). Yet this beloved disciple provided for the church the last connection to the direct ministry of Christ, through his own disciple Polycarp (martyred in 155 AD).
So why the history lesson? What does this have to do with maintaining growth as a disciple yourself, as a youth worker who pours so much into the discipleship of others? To begin with, Christ is a model to us for how He continued to turn to His Father for support as He formed the first Christian disciples in and around Galilee. Yet we know with a slight bit of reflection that using Christ as a model is problematic. As God, His example is a bit much to aspire to. So turning to John, we see a disciple formed by Christ, remaining a growing disciple of His Master, and raising up a disciple of his own, whose name and legacy are known and celebrated to this day.
Practically speaking, how can we maintain our own growth in Christ while we serve His church? I believe this begins with being fully present for worship each Lord’s Day. As we participate in the offering of God’s Word and Sacrament, we are strengthened for our own ministry. This is fundamental. I have been blessed to have served with pastors who viewed themselves as my pastor first and ministry supervisor second. This distinction is of great help, for in this approach your pastor is able to provide the necessary spiritual care that we all need, especially as we seek to care for others.
Next we need to attend to our prayer life. This comes quite naturally for some of us. For others we find ourselves more comfortable in the public leading of corporate prayer while we neglect the more intimate time we all truly need with our Lord in private prayer. In the rush of ministry, taking time to pause and begin (or begin again) in the name of Christ and in prayer with our heavenly Father is essential. Luther talked in terms of taking additional time to pray on those days in which he had the most to get done. Behind such a comment is an understanding that as a disciple we need to be centered and re-centered in Christ. We need to spend that time coming back to the beginning of why we are in ministry in the first place, our saving faith and relationship with our Maker.
Bring someone alongside you in your prayer life. A spouse can be a wonderful complement to your prayer life, but I would challenge you to find a regular prayer partner who will challenge you to dig deeper in your time with God and to really expose your innermost thoughts and feelings to the Lord in your prayers. By having someone else present and tasked with challenging you to push beyond your comfort level you are able to really begin to grow. Like a gardener pruning a bush or a vine, we, too, need the help of the Holy Spirit, often in, with and through a fellow disciple who walks with us through our life of faith and prays us through the highs and lows of being a part of the Body of Christ.
In that relationship with that individual(s), we are called to examine ourselves and allow our fellow disciple to examine us as well through the lens of both God’s Law and His Gospel. Using Law and Gospel properly as tools for spiritual growth, we are able to examine how we live our lives and allow the Word of God to reshape us. Being a disciple as a youth worker means that we open ourselves up to this kind of self-examination, removing spiritual beams from our eyes, less we bludgeon others with them as we strain to remove the speck from theirs.
Applying Law and Gospel in our lives can function as some of the greatest therapy available. In counseling we often work our way past blocks to a healthy approach to living. Through the application of Law and Gospel we work with God’s Word to transform our approach to life spiritually. This opens up new richness in our relationship with God and with one another. As we are able to examine our lives with greater honesty, we are able to let down our walls and engage in a full relationship with Christ. This is what we call our youth to; this is our calling as well. We ought never to forget that the lessons we teach apply more so to us than those we teach. We participate with our youth in the journey of faith and growth as a disciple. Who knows, we might learn a thing or two from them!
So practically speaking, what does discipleship for a youth worker look like?
- Regular and engaged time in worship.
- Time in Scripture for your own edification (not to get ready for your next lesson for youth group).
- Develop a rich prayer life, involving others for accountability and support.
- Apply Law and Gospel to shape and re-shape the way in which you live in God’s grace.
Remember that discipleship is not a solo activity. In all the above, you are able, and I would say challenged, to not only connect and grow in Christ but to connect to your fellow disciples. Together in Christ we journey together. This is why directors of Christian education and other youth workers across the country make it a point to connect to one another in clusters. If you are not connected with a local cluster, find out if there is one in your area through your local district office. If you need help doing so, I would be more than happy to help you make a connection (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com)