The Role of the Church in Youth Discipleship

by Matthew Hoskinson

Note: See his other articles on youth ministry: The Primacy of Parents in Youth Discipleship and The Centrality of God in Youth Discipleship.

That trampled mass of red, white, and blue underneath King James (the basketball player, not the 1611) is what remains of the Detroit Pistons. As a lifelong fan of the team, I watched in stunned amazement as the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off a six-game sweep. Nothing left but the crying. And the fingerpointing.
734161_church_pews.jpgAs one might assume, the blame quickly landed on the coach, Flip Saunders, and calls for his dismissal were heard even before the final buzzer sounded. After all, isn’t he the one who is primarily responsible for the success of this team? And if the team didn’t succeed, shouldn’t he be fired? If you ask their star player, Chauncey Billups, the answer is no. According to an AP report, Billups said, “I don’t think it was all his fault. Players not playing great, had a lot to do with it.” Just because one person is primarily responsible does not mean that no one else is.

My previous article asserted that parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of their children. From Deuteronomy 6 to Ephesians 6, this parental responsibility has been the plan. An exception clearly exists for children of unbelieving parents since an unregenerate person cannot disciple a child of God. But in most of our congregations, that status accounts for the minority of our churches’ youth. The believing parents in our congregations must take an active role in “tell[ing] the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord” (Ps. 78:4, ESV).

Two questions immediately surface when one considers the parents’ responsibility. On one hand, if parents are thus responsible, is the church absolved? Perhaps it would be satisfactory for pastors merely to exhort parents to disciple the next generation. And if the youth turn out bad, then the parents are to blame. On the other hand, if parents are thus responsible, is the church expendable? Perhaps parents would best be served not by having their children participate in the discipleship avenues of the church but by keeping all proactive discipleship in the family and (as one article puts it) letting family time trump church time.

The answer to both questions is no. The church is neither absolved nor expendable. Instead, God’s design is for the church to have an active role in instructing the coming generations. While parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of their children, the church has a secondary—but no less necessary—role in that task.

A key text that must drive our thinking is Ephesians 4:7-16. At the time of his ascension, Christ “gave gifts to men” (v. eight). Paul identifies these gifts not in the way we typically think of spiritual gifts, that is, as gracious endowments for particular acts of service. Other passages affirm that truth, but in this passage the apostle identifies the gifts as people: “apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers” (v. 11). Their job is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry” (v. 12a). That task of equipping includes many aspects: leading them to give to God by the entirety of their lives the glory due His name, training them in the Word and sound doctrine, teaching them to take advantage of every opportunity to testify to the gospel of Christ for the ongoing spread of His fame—and the list goes on and on. One aspect that is patently in view is discipling people to become disciple-makers within the body. Notice how the saints are not only the ones who work the ministry (v. 12a) but also the ones who receive the benefits of that ministry (vv. 12b-14). By thus discipling one another (“speaking the truth in love” to one another, v. 15a), the body causes the body to grow (v. 16).

Two conclusions emerge from this passage. First, pastors have a responsibility to equip parents to be effective disciple-makers at home. As parents, they have been charged with the primary role of shepherding their children into mature believers. As saints, they have been placed under the caring oversight of shepherds who are seeking their growth in Christ. The opportunity pastors have to shape the next generation, therefore, is great. Seizing that opportunity requires careful thought, but the fruit of that labor will last a lifetime. Second, the church—by that I mean the people of the church—has a responsibility to everyone else in the congregation. The dozens of “one another” passages testify to our obligation (e.g., John 13:34; Rom. 12:16; 15:7; etc.). God expects believers to live out their union with Christ in the context of other people (their “neighbors,” Luke 10:29-37). And this opportunity to disciple one another transcends generational lines. Not only are parents to disciple their children (Eph. 6:1-4); the older are to mentor the younger (Tit. 2:1-8). All adults in the congregation, then, ought to sense some measure of responsibility toward the coming generations.

God plans for the church to have a significant role in the lives of its young people. While the church is not primarily responsible, one cannot deny that each assembly bears a corporate responsibility to the next generation—secondary, to be sure, but no less necessary. What difference does this make in the church’s practice? Some implications for church leaders and parents follow.

Implications for Church Leadership: The Church Is Not Absolved

1. Church leaders must put philosophy ahead of practice. Far too many churches are merely satisfied that they have a children’s program. It may include good elements—Sunday school, Frontline clubs, VBS, a week at a Christian camp—but the critical philosophical question hasn’t been seriously answered: “Why are we doing this?” If the underlying reasons for our children’s ministries are no more than that they are a longstanding tradition (“We’ve always done such-and-such.”), that they are a break for the parents (“It keeps the kids busy.”), or that their curriculum has a sharp appearance (“The visuals are dazzling.”), then we ought to admit that our practice does not have much to stand on. We must take the time to write down and implement a biblically saturated philosophy for reaching the next generation. In the end, that might mean that some elements remain. But we cannot be afraid to pull the trigger on something that is philosophically vacuous. If it doesn’t square with a biblically saturated philosophy of ministry, it should be lopped off.

2. Pastors should work to connect all aspects of youth discipleship to one another, grounding it in the church’s philosophy. The list of activities that fall under the category of “children’s ministries” can be lengthy, even for a smaller congregation. Too often, those activities are dictated by the weekly calendar (i.e., “We need something Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.”) rather than by a solid philosophy of youth discipleship. The result is a potpourri of programs that have neither synchronic nor diachronic integration with the others. By synchronic, I mean that the programs for one particular age are not integrated. A third-grader has one series going on in Sunday school, another one (or two) in children’s church, and yet one more during a midweek club. By diachronic, I mean that the programs do not connect from one age level to the next as a child grows. The result is an approach that is choppy rather than seamless, overlapping rather than contiguous, fragmentary rather than thorough. Instead, we should work toward having all aspects of youth discipleship connected not only to our core philosophy but also to one another so everything would be integrated. This process may take years of thought and labor, but its rewards will be far-reaching.

Some churches may wish to consider doing what my church did years ago when we expanded one assistant pastor’s oversight. No longer was there a youth pastor who oversaw the teenagers alone; we replaced that position with a Pastor of Youth and Young Adults, whose responsibility stretched from nursery through college. While I still invest roughly two-thirds of my time in senior-high students, I oversee all aspects of youth and young adult discipleship. Having one person responsible to the elders for coordinating all those pieces has simplified the process of integrating them into a cohesive whole.

3. Pastors ought to address parenting early and often. One of my professors opened his freshman Bible class every fall by stating the same two assumptions: “I assume that you know nothing, and I assume that you can learn anything.” This mindset ought to govern pastors as they look into the happy faces of new parents. Surely they know more than nothing. But shepherds cannot assume that parents have even a rudimentary understanding of what the Bible says concerning parenthood, love, authority, discipline, and so forth. And because we live in an age when—thanks to the Internet—anyone can read anyone’s thoughts on anything, we must be even more intentional in communicating a Christocentric approach to parenting for the glory of God. This approach might include offering parenting classes on Tuesday nights or intentionally partnering empty-nesters with young parents in mentoring relationships. But at the very least, pastors ought to give regular consideration to how to make direct application to parents in the preaching of the Word.

4. Pastors must give parents the tools they need to disciple their children. It is not enough for shepherds to exhort their flocks to parent for the glory of God. We should find every possible way to supplement the instruction on Sunday with practical helps for Monday through Saturday. This was an important factor when the curriculum development team from my church was selecting our Sunday school curriculum. Our children take home summaries of this week’s lesson with follow-up ideas for parents to use during the week—all on the back of their coloring sheet. Another way we try to give parents tools is through our weekly catechism handout we call “A Heritage of Truth.” The questions and answers are provided by Kids4Truth. We then offer a hymn that corresponds to that week’s truth, a biblical study for families to do together, and some discussion questions. Our goal is to promote the intentional theological education of our children; our prayer is that God will so use it to that end.

5. Youth pastors ought to seek to turn the hearts of teenagers to their parents. It is tempting for men in my position to try to replace a teenager’s parents. A young person’s burgeoning independence, frequent disagreements with his parents, and spontaneous respect for a younger adult may give the Adversary an opportunity in the heart of a youth pastor who desperately wants to be liked, appreciated, and heard. This insidious combination can result in a youth pastor’s either trying to be more for a teenager than God intends him to be (at best) or seeking to become God to that young person (at worst). What youth pastors must understand and communicate is that the same God who commanded, “Honor your father and mother” (Ex. 20:12), is the same God who sovereignly ordained the parent(s) each teenager has. The young people in my youth group have imperfect parents who make sinful choices, who do not understand God perfectly, and who need to be shepherded. And the same is true of their youth pastor! But long after they graduate and move on, their relationships with their parents will continue on—in God’s providence just as He planned. So I must devote the time I have with them now to shepherding teenagers and their parents, to turning the hearts of the former to the latter, and to directing the hearts of both to the Father through the Son by the Spirit.

Implications for Parents: The Church Is Not Expendable

1. Submit to your leaders. God has done such an extraordinary work by uniting diverse families into one body that the angels stand in awe at His variegated wisdom (Eph. 3:10). By His design, we are united together by His Spirit (4:3) under the authority of elders who are qualified to serve (1 Tim. 3:1-7) and who exercise oversight of the flock (1 Pet. 5:1-3). This is why the author of Hebrews exhorts us, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (13:17a). All of us are called to bend the knee to our God-given authorities as a glad reflection of our submission to our Great Sovereign. This submission means hearing our pastors’ Word-filled exhortations with regard to our families—and then heeding them. When an elder confronts us fathers about one of our children, we must pay close attention since he is carrying out the shepherding ministry of the Good Shepherd Himself. The primacy of my role in the discipleship of my children does not liberate me to make the church a disposable appendage to my family. God has called the church to be actively engaged in the life of my family and vice versa. I fail to fulfill my role as a disciple-making father if I abandon the church Christ purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

2. Seek accountability. Parents should not merely wait for their leaders to pursue them. We ought to seek out relationships within the church that will enable us to carry out our God-given responsibilities. Younger parents ought to identify older parents whom they respect, and older parents should go after younger parents. Spend generous amounts of time together. Walk through life together. Build a mentoring relationship. Christ has united you both to Himself, so you are united to one another. Live out that union with transparency, humility, and gratitude for the mercy we all rely on every minute.

3. Practice your ecclesiology. If the church is a group of people who are united by their common confession of faith in Christ, then those people ought to be a priority for your family. One empty nester recently told me that he and his wife had to make the hard decision to keep their children from participating in a soccer league after they had been in it for years. The reason: at a certain age, Sunday practices and games became mandatory. They recognized that they had an opportunity to teach their children a valuable, lifelong lesson: the people of God are a priority to us because they are a priority to God.

God designed the roles of parents and of the church to complement one another as they work together for the next generation. May He so work by His grace that our children might “set their hope in God and not forget the works of God but keep his commandments” (Ps. 78:7).

hoskinson.jpgMatthew Hoskinson is the pastor of youth and young adults at Heritage Bible Church (Greer, SC). He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). He and his wife, Kimberly, have three beautiful daughters and a Sportscenter-watching cat named Espn.
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