One evening after returning from a long day at work, I plopped into an oversized chair and flicked on the television. As I was channel surfing, looking for something that I could settle in to, I happened across a cartoon that caught my attention. The program featured a family, and in this episode the focus was on the dialogue between the father and his son. “Bobby,” the father began. “I want you to go to youth group.” “Dad, I don’t want to go to youth group,” was Bobby’s reply. “That’s boring.”
Sensing that this cartoon was just what I needed, I put down the remote control and fixated on the developing plot. As it turned out, Dad was able to influence Bobby to go to youth group in spite of his reluctance. I chuckled as I watched Bobby, 10 to 12 years old, get dressed up for youth group. Dad made sure he had his best suit and tie on, and with Bible in hand, Bobby was dropped off at the meeting place.
As Bobby made his way toward the door, he mumbled about how much he detested having to go. “What a rip-off. Other kids are out having fun, and I’m having to go to this stupid youth group.” Just then, skateboarders at the nearby park caught Bobby’s eye. His countenance brightened considerably as he exclaimed: “Now that’s what I want to do.”
Bobby ambled over to observe the activity, only to learn that the skaters were also going to the youth group. In fact, this was the youth group! Suddenly Bobby’s perspective on the youth group did an about-face, and as the episode continued, Bobby couldn’t be kept from attending.
Besides being a nice way to finish off the day, this television program got me to thinking. “What is it that draws young people to a youth group or youth ministry? What is it that retains them?” This is a vital question for youth ministry leaders, pastors and parents, because it gets to the core of why any group or team exists. What is the image that is portrayed by your youth group? Is it the image that Jesus gave to his group of disciples?
What further compounds this issue is the perspective of Bobby. He approaches the youth group with a perspective that says: “This will be tedious. I can’t wait until I’m finished with this so I can get back to doing things that I want to do.”
As we study the great commission to make disciples, we recognize that an essential component is fundamental to the process. For individuals to become disciples of Christ, they must first be brought to Christ. Until then, they are lost in a sea of fatal attractions and distractions. Then Jesus beckons to them and something catches their attention, and they follow him.
What was compelling to Jesus’ own disciples? What made them want to follow him? Skateboarding? Pizza? Pool parties? Trips to an amusement park? None of these activities provide the appropriate, enduring biblical group image that Jesus gave to his group. Jesus communicated a compelling vision of his Father’s kingdom. In doing so, he created an environment of hope and expectancy. Through the power of his Spirit, Jesus’ disciples caught the vision and followed him.
Does this imply that pool parties, pizza or skateboarding are wrong? Emphatically, no! These are the things that initially beckon to a young person. Bobby was not interested in the youth group. He was interested in skateboarding. In the theoretical world of the cartoon, he became interested in youth ministry and the gospel because the intent of youth ministry was not to share skateboarding, but to share the eternal hope, joy and excitement that are found in Christ alone. Skateboarding was a means to a much, much greater end.
As parents and youth ministry leaders, we need to be constantly working to provide a biblical group image. This image flourishes in an environment of hope and expectancy that flows from a compelling vision of active discipleship. Within such an environment, young followers of Jesus become fellowship-building disciples—active participants in Jesus’ body, the church. If an activity within a youth ministry does not support and advance an atmosphere of hope and expectancy centered on following Jesus together, then we may have a group, but it’s not a biblical group.
A biblical group is characterized by loving fellowship. Youth ministry leaders can help such fellowship grow through a five-step process. First, group leaders can use icebreakers at meetings to help ensure that group members get to know one another.
Second, fellowship can be deepened through ongoing programs. Enjoyable activities (such as skateboarding) can enhance the likelihood that group members begin to open up with one another—sharing interests, hobbies and passions. Through this approach, group members move from being casual acquaintances to friends who are bonded through shared experiences.
Third, fellowship goes to an ever deeper and more fully biblical level when the group shares biblical instruction leading to an intimate biblical community.
In such a community, the members participate in the one-anothering actions that characterized the early followers of Jesus. In such a community of love and sharing, youths openly share with each other their concerns and troubles as well as their joys and victories.
At this level of deepening fellowship, the group’s leaders will give thorough biblical instruction about how to offer care to one another, including how to pray for one another. Such instruction will help transform a group of unrelated people into a team that is bound together by an outgoing concern for one another.
Fourth, the group can begin to participate in tasks or activities that use the combined resources of the group. Such challenges help the group to become a cohesive team with common goals where the members think in terms of we rather than me.
This is why service activities are important to a youth group. The fact that members work side by side to achieve a common goal of serving the community or the church (for example, in a bake sale, car wash or highway clean-up) is a good way to get the focus off of self and onto the team’s shared goals. When individuals are joined by a common goal, they become unified in a way that preaching about unity could never do.
Fifth, the group (now a team) is ready to launch into an emphasis on ministry. Leaders ask: how can our youth group best use its combined resources, talents and abilities to share the gospel? How can we reach out to the Bobbys of the world in much the same way that we were reached out to?
When your youth group migrates to youth ministry with a clear focus on advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ—watch what happens! Young people who are bound together by God’s Spirit and who share a common vision in Christ are some of the most effective sharers of the gospel I’ve ever seen. They become highly effective spokesmen and women for the kingdom, beckoning in their own way as the apostle Paul did: “Follow me as I follow Christ.”
To be effective, youth ministry leaders, workers and parents must be active in creating and nurturing a biblical group image. It doesn’t just happen. It starts with young people like Bobby and activities like skateboarding. But it matures only as it galvanizes into gospel ministry that fully involves the Bobbys of the team, just as it did Jesus’ first disciples.