Which of us has not finished our training and entered the workforce of the Church with great dreams of helping young people “find Jesus” and move on to become giants of the faith, filling their personal pews for years on end, serving God’s children from a purity of heart, and raising themselves a whole new generation of disciples, and on and on and on …
Sadly, many of us have a very poor understanding of what takes place in the life of an individual that brings them to that point of finding Jesus, then living out a lifelong faith. Much less do we have an understanding of what must take place in ministry to nurture that process along.
Every Person Is Different
We have to start here. No two people are alike, and just because we find some similarities in the spiritual development of all, that doesn’t mean that doing the same thing over and over with every individual will result in each one developing as a fully engaged, inspired, connected disciple. The work of youth ministry is much more in meeting the person, understanding the needs, hurts, and hopes of the individual, helping them come to see how deeply God loves them, and learning how they might share their faith to transform the world.
And Yet… We Recognize Commonalities of Experience
The turn of the 20th century gave rise to the development of theories regarding psychological development, particularly beginning with Freud, and the last century has seen an expanded understanding of how individuals develop psychologically, socially, cognitively, and spiritually. While the latter will be more helpful than the former, a familiarity with the work on personal development by Sigmund Freud (psychosexual development), Erik Erikson (psychosocial development), James Fowler (faith development), and M. Scott Peck (faith development) are essential for the youth ministry professional to have a strong grasp on how academics have provided a context for an understanding of the development of faith in the individual. Each portrays a developmental process made up of a progression of stages leading to maturity of the self.
But What About Youth Ministry?
In the 1980s Duffy Robbins and others began to talk about youth ministry this way in a funnel-shaped theory of youth discipleship. (I like to flip the funnel and talk about it as a mountain.) It consisted of four stages — come-level, grow-level, disciple-level, and multiplying-level.
The concept starts by recognizing that youth ministry begins with ALL of the young people in a community… then…
Come-level — These are the young people who come through the “door” of your youth ministry for whatever reason. Maybe they like the pizza. Maybe they have a boyfriend or girlfriend who attends. Maybe they think the youth minister is extraordinarily cool. (Okay, maybe that’s doubtful.) Or maybe they’ve heard that the World Champion Boston Red Sox are going to show up that night! But for whatever reason they come through your door …
Grow-level — Young people on the Grow-level have somehow been intrigued by the life of faith. Some have never heard much about God or Jesus and are fascinated by the story. Some are finding something that helps them to make sense out of life. Whatever it is, they want to hear more and learn more, may even become a part of a Bible study or discussion group, and just might become ready to make a profession of faith.
Disciple-level — Disciple-level youth are learning how to “do” faith on their own. They are hungry for scripture and for learning what it looks like to be an everyday disciple of Jesus. Many in this stage are taking on the tasks of leadership though they may not be ready to go it on their own.
Multiplying-level — One or two young people out of 100 may get to this Multiplying-level while they live within the auspices of your youth ministry. They are self-initiating in their faith and are likely leading others into lives of faith. They attend the settings of your ministry less because they want to gain and more because they want to give.
… and then they are on their way into God’s good world.
There are many, many versions of these stages out there, and they use different words. But they all express that we see a progression of stages in faith development, and your youth ministry needs to be ready to nurture each young person through this process of development.
Some Ideas for YOUR Youth Ministry
- So maybe Come, Grow, Disciple, and Multiply might not be the words for your youth ministry? That’s fine. But you do need some words. How would you characterize the work of discipleship that you are doing? What are the words for what you are trying to do? Try some of these — connect, engage, become, commit, mission, profess, learn, invite… the list is almost endless. Maybe it’s four words… maybe five… maybe three… but if anybody asks, you’ll be able to share those words to tell them what your ministry is about.
- Go crazy with the idea and develop a graphic illustration of what growth in discipleship looks like. Pick an image that shows progression, like a mountain climb, a rafting trip, or a youth group bus ride, and incorporate your words into the image. Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a couple of examples.
- Build your ministry to nurture young people in the various stages. A good youth ministry is going to have a balance of programming to address the needs of young people at different stages of development.
- IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: The number of young people at each stage grows smaller the further up the mountain you go. You don’t have to be happy with that, but it is the reality. And it is important that your ministry and church recognize that.
- Ministry settings geared for one stage provide a golden opportunity to issue an invitation to next-level settings. For example, every young person at a fall kickoff carnival should receive an invitation to your youth ministry’s fellowship setting. Or at your largest weekly youth group gathering, you should invite participation in deeper level Bible study opportunities.
- Celebrate the growth that you see through rites of passage and personal affirmations. A card that encourages a growing youngster is far too uncommon these days.
One of the best things you can do in youth ministry is to help young people understand that the life of faith is a process. It won’t happen all at once, and the journey happens over a long, long time. But if you can help them see it in a way that grabs them, they’ll be much more likely to make the journey with Jesus and to thank you for walking along with them.