Wednesday, May 15, 2013

12-3-1 Discipleship

Discipleship is absolutely essential in youth ministry. In a blog series on discipleship entitled Following Jesus, I answered the question: what is discipleship?
In the simplest sense, it is the title of this blog series--following Jesus. The first disciples could literally engage in this activity by walking the same paths and streets as the incarnate God. This invitation from Jesus required a response of movement, engagement, and the laying down of one's life and agenda in order to submit to the One they followed. 
To be a disciple is never a program, a curriculum, or a study. As each of the other responders indicate, discipleship is a way of life. I would contend that following Jesus is theonly real way to live; all other lifestyles are artificial and incomplete substitutes for the true life that Jesus offers. To follow Jesus is to live. He bids us to come and die, to find resurrected life in him. 
Thus, making disciples is inviting another to follow Jesus with me. It is inherently relational, reflecting the Trinitarian nature of the God we follow. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly points out that he does nothing without the authority and guidance of the Father. Upon his resurrection, Jesus breathes upon his disciples and gives them this charge: as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. 
To be a disciple is not only to embrace a way of life; it is a radical transforming of one's identity around the person of Jesus. The disciples are no longer fishermen; they are fishers of men. They are no longer ordinary individuals; they are salt, light, sent ones, ambassadors for the kingdom of God. Jesus looks at Simon and names him "Peter." In discipleship, we are inviting others to be given a new name, a new identity, a new way of being in the world.
If following Jesus is mission-critical in youth ministry, then how do we do it? What are the practical ways to invite another to follow Jesus with me? How can we create structure and pursue intentionality without become static or programmatic in our discipleship methods?

Here's an idea I'm toying with in my ministry context. I'm calling it 12-3-1 Discipleship. It's based on the life and ministry of Jesus and his twelve disciples. Here's how it looks:

The Twelve: Jesus chose 12 disciples to follow him, to walk alongside him, sharing life and ministry (Matt 10:1-4). This small group of peers were equipped and guided into the ways of the kingdom of God, and given ministry responsibility from Jesus. Our youth ministry's Life Groups are our twelve. As adult leaders, we have a familiarity and connection with each of the students in this small group; we know their names and genuinely care about them. We are their advocates and guides, having some communication with each of them once a week, and praying for them regularly. The goal for the twelve is a connection with each student.

The ThreeOut of the twelve, Jesus had three particular disciples—Peter, James, and John—who experienced a deeper intimacy and relationship, present with Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-3) and in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46). The three is a smaller group of students whom the Spirit has directed us to share in a deeper relationship. We know these students’ stories, friends, families, and have a trust and openness. We would meet with the three regularly outside of Sunday and Friday programs at least once a month, and go deeper with them both spiritually and relationally. These aren't the spiritually elite in the twelve; these are three young people at a variety of maturities and competencies that the Spirit has led us to disciple. The goal for the three is a relationship with each student.

The OneOut of the three, one relationship with Jesus stands out as particularly close—John, the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 21:20-24). Jesus also had an intimate relationship with Peter and James (particularly Peter), yet John’s gospel comes across as a description of an intimate friend and brother. The one is a particular student that the Spirit has led us to intentionally mentor. We are deeply part of this student’s life, meeting with them on a weekly basis and guiding them in every facet of their life—emotional, relational, mentally, and spiritual—as a place-sharer. The goal for the one is mentorship.

All students in our ministry should have at least one relationship with an adult, and multiple connections with adult leaders. The difference between a relationship and a connection is important, as I think we do volunteer leaders and students a disservice when we proclaim our ministry is "all about relationships" without defining and clarifying the differing levels of relational intimacy. If Jesus's chosen relational capacity is maxed out at twelve, we can't expect each of our volunteers to have uber-intimate relationships with more than that. A place-sharer is a person who is willing to stand in the place of another, acting fully on his or her behalf, refusing to run when times get dark or messy, suffering with them and offering hope and unconditional grace. (You can read more about place-sharing in Andy Root's fantastic youth ministry book, Relationships Unfiltered.)

No ministry model or structure is without flaws, but I'm hoping this paints a clearer picture of what success in discipleship can look like for our volunteer leaders. What do you think of the model? I'd love your feedback and input!


  1. I love your emphasis on defining and clarifying the levels of relational intimacy. This helps me as I think about our volunteers.
    I'd also agree that John would be logic choice as the one who got most attention. However, when I think back on the gospels (without studying them with this thought), I see Peter as the one who received the main mentorship...but I see John as one who had more intimacy "takeaways" than Peter. Like I might focus on student A, but in reality student B is getting more out of my input.

    1. I wonder if both Peter and John are, in a sense, the "one" for Jesus, though in different ways. The numbers are both helpful and harmful here--I don't mean a literal "one" for everybody, as if we can only mentor and disciple one person at a time (I'm mentoring and discipling high school teens, young adult volunteers, and my own two children.) It's such a good question, because Peter's interaction with Jesus in John 21 is so intimate that he frequently seems to get more attention than John.

    2. ...another thought: since Jesus was prayerfully intentional, I bet Peter got the kind of one on one mentoring he needed for his future ministry (mobilizing the church), whereas John got the one on one mentoring for his unique ministry (unifying the church in love).

  2. I like where you're going with this, but the problem is-- when are you ever going to have one adult leader for every three students?

    What do you think about the idea of empowering students to disciple each other? As far as I can tell, discipleship has no age limit attached, and it seems silly to me that we would have students go until age 18 before encouraging them to follow the great commission.

    1. "When are you ever going to have one adult leader for every three students?" It's a goal to aim for, recognizing that it may be impossible to hit. I'd love for teens to disciple each other, and encourage them to do so. However, I also recognize that adults have some maturity and experiential perspective that allows them to disciple teens in a way that peer discipleship simply can't do. This is true for me too; I have peers who pour into me and spur me on towards Christlikeness, but it's my elder mentors, the ones who have years of life and ministry experience beyond me--those are the mentors who challenge me the most.

  3. Hello Joel. I realise this post was written a while ago but I wondered how you got on with this model? I'm a youth pastor at a church in Guildford UK and we are exploring a very similar model. We have youth collectives which I guess are similar to your life groups. We find we get varying levels of engagement though as our young people are quite spread out. We get lots of the local kids engaging but the ones who live further out or have more complicated school schedules don't really come along much. The next step for us is thinking about smaller groups (the 3s). There a couple of reasons I think it could work well - i think it would mean that the young people already in collectives would be able to build much closer relationships with a small group of friends and also with an adult leader, and also i think it would help to draw in the young people who find it difficult to get along to collective because the meeting times could be much more flexible. Anyway, I was just wondering if you have thoughts a few years on. Did you stick with the model? Did it work? Were you able to recruit enough leaders etc? Thanks! Matt

    1. Hi Matt! Apologizes for a delayed response--your comment was somehow lost in a "spam" folder. I've adjusted the model according to the context, but am still convinced that this is a beneficial structure for a larger youth ministry. I believe it was a solid model when I was in a ministry with 100+ students and over a dozen volunteer leaders. Right now, I'm in a smaller ministry context with about 20 students and 4 volunteer leaders. So, we don't really have the "12" component as much as we have the "3" and "1" relationships, and we've had to rethink how small groups really look. I would take some of the ideas or principles from this model and adjust it accordingly to your context--what works in a US or Canadian church may be different for a UK church! Thanks for your great question!