I spend a lot of time figuring out ways of measuring discipleship, and the impact that involvement in church has on the lives of young people. Over the past year, I have noticed a trend that has to do with keeping youth engaged as they grow older. With many younger youth, an invitation to show up is enough to get them to a youth group, a bible study, or other youth ministry activity. The chance to explore and be included in a new group can be a powerful draw for the young. Yet, as they grow older and more experience, youth will tend to show up when more than just their presence is required.
It can seem intuitively backwards – that to increase the amount of participation from youth, we actually need to ask more of them.
Inviting youth to become load-bearing members of the Body of Christ can seem daunting. Not everyone will say yes to the opportunity. Yet, those who do become pillars of leadership that become more mature in their faith because of the higher level of expectations placed upon them.
One way of building up youth into load-bearing disciples is to create, what we call Covenant Discipleship groups.
A Covenant Discipleship group is usually between 5-7 youth. The group writes a covenant with each other, that outlines how each member of the group will live out their faith as a disciple. The youth leader can help bring the group together and create the covenant. The youth leader can even help train a youth or adult volunteer to serve as a leader for the group. However, in a covenant discipleship group, youth are accountable to each other (instead of the youth leader!) to report how they are growing in faith or struggles that they are having with their belief. The group should meet regularly, and check in with each other via text or other messaging service weekly, to keep each other accountable to the promises they have made.
Covenant Discipleship groups for youth today should create three things: opportunities to socialize, the expectation of mutual accountability, and a culture of support. Young people thrive in connection, in communities of support. Covenants are sacred agreements between God and people that create relationships. Discipleship is an active following of Jesus’ life and teachings. People are beings designed to be in community and relationship with each other. What better way then, to pursue a life of discipleship, than with the support and encouragement of peers in covenant with each other?
Today, youth have an increasingly diverse set of social circles begging for their participation, and the world invites them into a life of complexity. Social circles like friend groups at school, peers in extra-curricular activities and teams, as well as friends and mentors at church are among the circles familiar to other generations. Newer social circles include the networks that form using technology. These social circles are often larger, more diverse, and more complex to navigate than the in-person circles. They also expose youth to wider and wider sets of beliefs and opinions as they form their identities and grow into adulthood. Social circles are important for development, and of course will always have a place in the lives of young people. However, covenant discipleship groups are more than just another social circle.
I would make the case that youth are constantly on a search for social accountability as they use social media. A picture of an awesome meal, the first time doing an activity, a rant about belief, or even sharing that latest meme are advertisements to the world that invite feedback. Several studies have been done about the effect of feedback from social media on youth behavior and feelings. Adults can fall into the same pattern of behavior, where we post something that we think will generate a ton of likes or comments – then wait patiently, monitoring our accounts to see who engages what we post. It’s social accountability, and youth are getting really good at asking the world for feedback on the way they live their life. Covenant Discipleship groups can take that same desire for feedback, and apply it to the question of “How am I living as a disciple of Jesus Christ?”
Covenant discipleship groups meet together expecting transformation, both of the self and of the world. They are not Bible studies, not places of judgment, not a group that gets together to gossip. They are groups that help youth interpret the culture around them, bring their faith into their whole lives, provide support to live as Christians. Ultimately, covenant discipleship groups are safe places where youth can voice their experience of God. They are groups where the goal isn’t to know the most stuff about God, Jesus, or the Bible. Instead the goal in Covenant Discipleship groups is to share deeply about living in Christ, and the actions taken to gain the mind that was in Christ Jesus.
That said, it can feel uncomfortable for youth (or anyone really!) to be in a group where the expectations include sharing about their personal relationship with God. So the groundwork and preparation work that a youth leader puts into the creation of Covenant Discipleship groups is paramount. Mutual accountability in a covenant discipleship group should not create an atmosphere where youth feel judged. Instead the focus of a group’s time together should remain on stories of how the members of the group have lived their faith in the past week. As Kevin Watson notes in The Class Meeting “…the primary person judging you in a [mutually accountable group] should be yourself.” Having group members share answers to questions like: “How has my week gone?” or “What have I done or not done to live into our group’s covenant?” demonstrates a willingness to be present and share, not to judge.
Covenant Discipleship groups don’t require a lot of space. They don’t require a curriculum. The just require a little leadership to get going and a commitment to do grow together as load-bearing members of a ministry. Regular meetings and consistent action create transformation over time, and the changes in a person and in a culture that come about because of intentionality can be incredible.
This blog post is by Chris Wilterdink – Director of Young People’s Ministries Program Development in the US at Discipleship Ministries.
The blog is based on the introduction from an upcoming publication “Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship with Youth” that will be published from Discipleship Resources in July of 2016.