Below are new Young Life discipleship resources that can help both church and parachurch ministry leaders 1) focus and synthesize a discipleship framework, 2) generate conversations about discipleship and discipling, 3) self-reflect on their own life of discipleship, 4) envision ongoing spiritual growth in those they are discipling.
[Nov 17, 2018: Purdue Football Senior Day, the final home game at Ross-Ade Stadium for all those players who graduate this December or next May. Also Day 3 of National Youth Worker’s Convention, St. Louis. In other words, my heart is divided across state lines.]
Graduation is a big deal. No more classes. No more quizzes. No more exams. No more grades. No more oral presentations. No. More. Group. Projects.
But also: no more college football. And for college football players, the final whistle of that final home game will carry a deep well of memories and experiences that can’t be weighed.
For college football fans, the final whistle of that final home game will carry its own deep well of memories and meaning, shaped by circumstances and context.
In the fall of 2017, my “ENGL 264 – Bible as Literature” roster at Purdue University included 25 amazing college students, aspiring to be nurses, engineers, teachers, managers, artists, agricultural specialists, social workers, pilots, and physical therapists.
They were, each and every one of them, wonders to behold (which is exactly how I feel about middle school students as well, an unexpected miracle of my inner-wiring bestowed upon me by my Creator).
Among those 25 wonders were two young men on the Purdue football team – a system and community that had for several years weathered what we might call turbulent times.
David Blough (#11, QB) and Kirk Barron (#53, Center) sat side by side in the far corner of my classroom on day one (far corners being prime real estate on the first day of class: from first-hand observation, I tell you that it is possible for 25 college students to all find far-corner seats in a room that has only four corners, which is a testament to their creativity and tenacity).
Having football players in one’s favorite class – when one is a hard-wired football freak and when said football team has just hired a new football coach to (in the words of Israel’s King David) pull the program out from bottomless pits of miry clay – might perhaps result in Boilermaker football reascending the rungs of one’s passion-ladder (not to the very top, obviously, since the very top spots of my personal passion ladder are occupied by Narnia, Middle Earth, and napping, a reality for which I am finally old enough and content enough to offer no apologies or explanations: I read, I nap, I aspire to be Narnian and Elvish, and I love football).
As a general rule, I truly enjoy not just teaching but also knowing my students. It’s the overflow of my Young Life and youthworker self.
So last fall, I enjoyed not just teaching but also knowing 25 wondrous students, including David Blough and Kirk Barron.
After many years of not inhabiting Ross-Ade stadium on autumn Saturdays (which followed many years of faithfully inhabiting Ross-Ade stadium on autumn Saturdays), my husband and I climbed aboard the train (metaphorically) once again, attending home games, cheering on a team that was starting to emerge from the fog and find its collective feet. We did this because we knew certain players, and knowing people changes everything.
We cheered when they won, and when they lost – because there is always something to cheer (even when some refs botch calls and certain opponents are dirty rotten stinkers).
We roared with delight when face-painted fierce Barron stalked the sideline rousing his teammates and when fleet-footed fierce Blough launched breathtaking passes that connected with receivers.
We moaned with despair when Barron’s rousing roars came up short and when Blough was loaded into an ambulance with a thoroughly destroyed ankle.
We watched with joy when, after a stunning recovery and rehab by Blough, they once again both walked out to the coin toss, flanking pint-sized football fans who were special guests of honor.
We wept along with the world as they befriended, encouraged, and prayed with Tyler Trent, a young man who defies all worldly explanations of life and love and hope.
And today, we will proudly watch Barron and Blough run onto that field one last time [really truly the last time], walk to center-field for the pregame coin toss one last time, give and take the opening snap one last time, play as a team-within-a-team one last time, and (we all hope) put up a “W” at Ross-Ade Stadium [or Nissan Stadium, as the case may be] one last time.
Football is a funny thing. Some people hate it. Some people ignore it. Some people worship it. Some people bleed it. And some people simply and inexplicably love it.
I am of the latter ilk. I simply and inexplicably love football, which, being a bookish, academic, PhD-ish, theological, ministerial, Middle-Earthian, Narnian kind of person, is rather odd and unexpected.
But much of life is odd and unexpected. We can be confounded by it, or we can joyfully take it and run with it (metaphorically, that is – as a general rule and daily practice, I vehemently oppose and doggedly avoid running).
Today is a celebration for and about many people.
But these words right here are a celebration of two particular young men who in some odd and unexpected way have become “my” players for these past two years – the two players I watch most carefully on the field and on the sideline, the two I cheer for most enthusiastically, and the two I know most personally. And that last one, I would argue, is the most significant thing.
When you know people, things matter in different ways and to different degrees.
Knowing is the secret sauce of almost everything. Not knowing about, but knowing.
I know, in small ways and in small degrees, David Blough and Kirk Barron. They make me proud. They make me laugh. They are men worth knowing.
Today, I celebrate them. I hope the final whistle of this final home game brings them not just a victory but also joy, energy, excitement, anticipation, and wild hope for all that lies ahead.
The Bible is a book of both concrete truth and creative metaphors. God is gentle and God is a rock. Jesus was born of the virgin Mary and Jesus is living water. Humans are selfish creatures and humans are branches. Yahweh is faithful and Yahweh is a shepherd. God is divine and God is a king. And metaphor within metaphor – God’s kingdom has arrived and it is a mustard seed.
As words, metaphors give shape to non-concrete realities. As images, metaphors invite us to see, discover, understand, and experience the embodied truth.
One of the most commonly mentioned things in the Bible is also one of its most powerful theological metaphors – trees. (Check out this article for more thoughts on trees in scripture.)
God’s expansive story begins with all kinds of beautiful trees, and also two very specific trees (Gen. 2:11). It ends with two healing trees of life flanking a river of living water (Rev. 22:1-2). Within the story, both God’s people and God himself are described as trees (Ps. 52:8, Hos. 14:8). Wisdom is a tree of life (Prov. 3:18). Isaiah tells trees to sing and clap their hands. Those who love, fear, and hope in Yahweh are trees planted by a riverbank (Ps. 1, Jer. 17). Those who love, trust, and follow Jesus are deeply rooted in him (Col. 2).
Deep roots, strong trunks, healthy branches, flourishing fruit, and sometimes beautiful flowers are concrete earthly realities that reflect profound spiritual truth.
Discipleship can be visualized in countless helpful ways: four chairs, a wheel, a directional triangle, a roadmap, and more.
In my new discipleship job with Young Life, I recently worked with some people to create a visual metaphor of discipleship intended to foster deep dialogue and encourage focused intentionality.
The image can guide every follower of Jesus as we:
carefully contemplate what it means to follow Jesus in both general and specific ways
honestly reflect on our own personal lives of discipleship
prayerfully consider our discipleship hopes and desires for those in our ministries, our families, our small groups, and any other community of believers.
Here are some reflection questions and dialogue prompts to get you started:
How do the three main tree elements relate and work together?
roots – which are “time in scripture, time in prayer,” etc.
trunk – which is a strong core of love, trust, etc.;
branches – which are expressions or displays of specific behaviors and attitudes repeatedly highlighted throughout scripture
In your current season of life, how do engage in, experience, or express each of the different elements in the tree?
What specific areas (within trunk, core, branches) of your personal discipleship are most in need of attention, guidance, or challenge?
How can you lean into those things intentionally and purposefully?
What specific areas of your personal discipleship (within trunk, core, branches) do you naturally embrace and dig into? Why? What does that look like?
For those involved in Young Life or youth ministry, think about your specific ministry focus (WyldLife, Young Life, YoungLives, Young Life Capernaum, Young Life College) and your specific ministry context (community size, location, primary culture, specific sub-cultures, socio-economics, etc.). Based on those realities, what are your hopes and desires for your students’ growing life of discipleship? For example, what do you hope “time in scripture” will begin to look like for those in your small group of teen moms? Or how do you hope your 7th grade WyldLife Campaigner guys will begin to display “faithful witness”? And so on.
How will you intentionally disciple your students with these things in mind?
(A version of this article originally appeared here.)
The following was written by Elton Trueblood in 1971. It could have been written yesterday, today, tomorrow. It still rings true in many contexts, even as it is clearly shaped and influenced by its immediate context.
A lot was happening in the early 70s at the intersection of youth and religion. This was the era of The Way Bible (the green paperback [blue if you were Catholic] with artsy black and white photography) and the Jesus People movement; of Larry Norman, Petra, Andre Crouch, and Keith Green.
While Trueblood’s message it timelessly prophetic, please note these two things:
Many churches today have vibrant, growing, Christ-centered youth ministries where kids are challenged, discipled, fully integrated into the life of the local church, and significantly involved in and serving their local communities. Some of my dearest friends lead those ministries, and I am humbled and awed by their dedication, passion, and commitment.
Many parachurch youth organizations are reaching disinterested and skeptical kids, building relationships with them, loving them, and introducing them to the Savior who desperately loves them. Some of my dearest friends lead those ministries (Young Life, WyldLife, Youth for Christ, FCA and others), and I am humbled and awed by their dedication, passion, and commitment.
Even so, there is a long way to go – as there always has been, and as there always will be. As a youth worker/WyldLife leader/historian/medievalist, I can tell you that this same conversation has been happening throughout the centuries. Preachers in the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s were saying and asking many of the same things found in the following excerpt, i.e. how do we relate to, embrace, invite, integrate, disciple, and raise up the next generation of radically devoted and world-changing followers of Christ?
[from The Future of the Christian, by Elton Trueblood, Harper & Row, 1971]
“Young People constitute not only the greatest challenge of the church of the future, but also its greatest hope. The evidence of the probable continuance of the Church in succeeding centuries is valid, but its validity depends on the possibility of attracting a far larger proportion of young people. There is good reason to believe that this can be done, but it will not be done unless we meet the conditions. One of the conditions is an honest admission of how radically we are failing in gaining the participation of youth at the present time. There is, as anyone can see, a vast reservoir of moral idealism, a fervent eagerness to participate in liberating causes, and an almost unlimited willingness to engage in sacrifice if the cause justifies it, but, in the eyes of the majority of young people, these features of contemporary living have no connection with the church of Jesus Christ. There are of course youth programs in most congregations, and many of these are generously financed but there is little doubt that most of them are failing to do what needs to be done. The modern Church involves the very young, as it involves a fair proportion of the mature, but the failure in regard to those between these is almost total. This is what must change!
When the failure is so great, it is reasonable to look for some really serious mistake. We soon realize that such a mistake, if it exists, is probably entailed in our philosophy rather than in our methods. Actually, our methods are reasonably good. We provide excellent quarters; we establish coffee houses; we organize camps; we employ counselors. Necessary as these may be, they are grossly insufficient if we start with the wrong major premise. We begin to see how wrong our basic approach may be when we realize that most of our youth programs are set up to serve youth. The young people, of course, sense this at once. They know that others are paying for their refreshments and their entertainment. But the tragedy is that entertainment is precisely what they do not need, because it is what they already have in superabundance.
What young people need is to be needed, and to know that they are needed. If they could be convinced that the world is plagued with a sense of meaninglessness, and that they can have an answer to confusion and perplexity, their relationship to the church might be altered radically. In short, the only way to attract youth is to draw them into a ministry! They are now trying, in great numbers, to minister to physical hunger or to overcome racial discrimination, but few have been helped to see that the deepest problems of men and women are spiritual. They have not been told that the human harvest is being spoiled for lack of workers, and that they can be the workers. They have not been told of the toil in which they must engage in order to prepare their minds so that they can be effective in reaching others and particularly those of their own age, who are harassed and helpless.
The Christian faith does not need to go outside itself in order to find a principle which can produce a radical change in the attraction of young people. The principle which is effective, when seriously applied is inherent in the moral revolution which Christ came to inaugurate. There is no way to exaggerate either the theoretical or practical importance of the words, “The Son of man also came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Modern youth will not be enrolled in the Christian Cause until they are recruited as members of the servant team, ministering to the varied needs of God’s children.The motivations for this service is greater within the pattern of the church than within that of any social agency, because Christ speaks to inner as well as to outer needs. Preparation for this kind of ministry is necessarily difficult and long, but that only makes it more appealing to the best of our young people.
Though great numbers of young people are wholly outside the life of the Church at this moment, this can change rapidly, as it has changed before. In many areas the moral debacle is so great that a shift of the pendulum is almost inevitable. The obvious weakness of a permissive morality, which is ultimately self-destructive, may lead to a new Puritanism. If it is a Pruianims like that of John Milton who “was made for whatever is arduous,” that will constitute an advance of genuine magnitude. Already there are signs that this is beginning to occur, and frequently the young people are more advanced on this road than are their teachers. Some who have discovered at first hand the fact the the pseudo-gods, such as drugs and promiscuity, are fundamentally delusive, are turning, with open eyes, to the Living God.” (pp. 36-38)
(Much less than I love Jesus – but true love for both, nonetheless.)
During the past 15 years, in my work as a youth ministry trainer and cheerleader, I’ve said THANK YOU to countless youth pastors – thank you for loving our kids; thank you for all the unseen hours of ministry in your day; thank you from every parent who’s forgotten to say it, or who doesn’t understand why you do what you do; thank you from every adult in your congregation who watches from a safe (and often disinterested) distance; thank you from every teenager who grows up under your love and guidance; thank you for ushering in the next generation of The Church with dedication, energy, creativity, and passion; thank you for leaning in to your sacred calling with joy and grace; thank you for sticking with your vocation for the long race; thank you a thousand times over.
My single thank you can’t begin to express the true depth of those sentiments – but I offer it with sincerity.
During the past 25 years, in my role as a Young Life spouse (and other YL things), I’ve said THANK YOU to countless leaders – thank you for loving our kids; thank you for all the unseen hours of ministry in your day; thank you from every parent who’s forgotten to say it, or who doesn’t understand who you are and what you do; thank you from every adult in your community who watches from a safe (and often disinterested) distance; thank you from every teenager who sees and experiences the love of Jesus through you; thank you for believing that pursuing the most disinterested kid is worth your time; thank you for introducing teenagers to the God who created and loves them; thank you for leaning in to your sacred calling with joy and grace; thank you for sticking with your vocation for the long race; thank you a thousand times over.
My single thank you can’t begin to express the true depth of those sentiments – but I offer it with sincerity.
I also offer this – a real note from a real teenager written to a real person who was doing real ministry borne out of real passion flowing from real grace abiding in Real Love.
This camper articulated what countless kids truly experience but few actually express.
It’s good to reminded why you do what you do (because there are kids who need to be seen, noticed, befriended, loved, and introduced to the Savior). It’s good to remember what this ministry is really about (Jesus and teenagers…not me or us). It’s good to close your eyes and humbly remember that thank yous – as sweet as they are – aren’t the goal or the prize (that’s Jesus – always and only Jesus).
Even so, thank yous matter: so thank you. All of you. Each of you. A thousand times over. And more.
[Young Life camper-written notecard, c. 2010. The leader’s name has been removed – but I sent that leader a picture of this card because, oh gracious, what depth of precious and sweet grace is wrapped up in these simple 25 words?! See your name in that big white space and ask Jesus to steer you towards the kids who currently feel as this one did, because that is who we are and what we do.]
I suppose that on this day, and last week, and next week, and all throughout this summer, tens of thousands of people will at some point go home from having worked and served at camp.
Substitute “mission trip” or “service project” for “camp” and add tens of thousands more to the tally.
Re-entry into real life for campers can be tricky to navigate – metaphorically speaking, anyway. Thanks to Siri and smart phones, it’s been ages since I’ve heard of anyone actually getting lost going to or leaving from camp, which is a good thing, but also has eliminated some of the camp adventure factor. I’m nostalgic about the lack of atlases on long road trips.
But re-entry for camp workers and servers is often even trickier to navigate, for at least several reasons: we were at camp for a long time; we lived in a large community of fellow workers/servers; we are going home to a family that doesn’t understand or buy into similar beliefs and motivations; we face challenges and difficulties at home that will make ‘living out my faith’ less normative and less, well, let’s say ‘glamorous’ for lack of a better term.
Working at camp and serving campers is a thousand times more exciting, motivating, and satisfying than being at home and serving family, friends, and neighbors.
For one thing, there is always music playing in the background.Loudly. (Unless it’s time for reflection, in which case it’s perfectly subdued.)
For another, there is a large cadre of fellow workers/servers to carry you forward, pump you up, and cheer you on. (And sometimes one who gets under your skin and you secretly wish would decide to give up, throw in the towel, call it quits, and get on out of there.)
Throw in some daily devos, adventurous movie-set-ish surroundings, and some regular one-on-one mentoring from a cool and winsome young adult (or a formerly cool, winsome-ish older adult), and it’s easy to see why the thought of ‘going home’ doesn’t always lead to a song and dance.
But home is real. Home is where life happens. Home is where Jesus is, lives, and waits to walk through life with us. Home is sacred. Home is real. Home is blessed (even when it’s not). Home is where the biggest miracles of all happen.
Home is where we are challenged and learn to do the most difficult things of all.
Yes, getting up at 6:00 a.m. every morning to cook for 5oo people is challenging and difficult. But learning to be gracious and kind, every single morning regardless of how early or late it is, to the person in your family that regularly drives you to the edge of rationality — thatis a miracle of home.
Yes, learning to work as a unified group with 8 other distinct people (read: love some, could take or leave some, can’t stand some) every day for a month or a summer is challenging and difficult and requires you to ask for the Lord’s grace and patience each and every morning (for a month or a summer, that is). But learning to work and live as a unified group with however many other people are in your household or dorm for the rest of your time living there —that is a miracle of home.
Yes, pushing through the days when you are tired and frustrated and just want to give up or slow down or push off is challenging and difficult and requires you to dig deep down into your soul’s reserves of strength and commitment. But learning to push through the days when you are tired and frustrated with the everyday, mundane, boring, non-camp-ish, adventure-less (we think), pointless (we assume), blahblahblah (we snivel) details of life for the rest of your life — that is a miracle of home.
It’s not hard to be changed at camp. It happens all the time.
Being changed for life – that’s the point. That’s what God wants for us. That’s what Jesus does for us…if we are willing to surrender and serve and listen and obey when we get back home, just like we did when we were at camp.
Big things happen at camp. People are transformed. People meet Jesus. People fall in love with God. People work harder than they ever worked before.
But really big things happen at home. We learn to obey. We learn to listen. We learn to exercise patience. We learn to extend grace. We learn to love, deeply, truly, impossibly, faithfully, and without end.
Do not miss the miracles of home once you’ve left camp. If you do, you will also lose all the miracles of camp, and that would be a tragedy indeed.
They pulled out of camp this morning, all of those precious mamas and babies with their faithful and loving mentors.
Our hearts are full – full of joy for all those we met and loved; full of sadness for having to say goodbye; full of thanks for having been part of this amazing week; full of sorrow for the many young mamas and babies in this world who are not surrounded by a circle of loving and caring people; full of laughter for the fun and games and play we shared this week; full of tears for the broken world in which we live; full of hope because of Jesus.
We packed it all up today – all those highchairs and booster seats and pack-n-plays and swings and tricycles and changing pads and napping mats and carpets and blocks and sippy cups and dolls and trucks and playhouses and kiddie pools and blankets and toys and strollers.
It feels like just yesterday – and last year – that we were first staging the strollers for their arrival.
And already today we lined them up, washed them down, and stored them away for another year.
Those strollers rolled many miles this week, ’round and ’round the lake, up and down the walkways, back and forth across the halls.
We cleared off the clotheslines, which looked different than most other weeks at a Young Life camp what with all the tiny little bodies creeping, crawling, and toddling hereabouts.
We took our final walks through the silent prayer labyrinth of trees, soaking up the beauty of God’s creation, considering what He would speak to our hearts this week as we served – which was, in truth, a secondary task (such a difficult reality for those who “feel called to serve”) to hearing from and listening intently to His voice.
We waved goodbye (and sometimes…often…hugged and held and cradled and cooed and said, “Gracious, you are a beautiful creation of God, you and your mama both, indeed you are!) to the many faces and fingers and hearts we met and loved this week.
And we felt a little piece of our own hearts pull out of camp this morning with all those mamas and babies and mentors – because how could it be otherwise? When the Lord sends love and grace into a person’s life, how can we do anything but respond with surprise, wonder, and a breathtaking gasp of joy?
The Lord was here this week. And He did mighty things.
But the Lord is also on busses, and in vans, and in cars, and back home, and absolutely everywhere.
We would do well to remember this as we ourselves pull out of camp today and tonight and tomorrow. We were privileged enough to watch – and even be a very tiny small part of God’s big amazing work here this week. Like the disciples thousands of years ago, we were invited to distribute the abundance of his love and mercy to a hungry crowd. He did the work – we simply passed it around, as faithfully and lovingly as we know how.
And now, when the week is done, we – like the disciples thousands of year ago – have been instructed to get back in the boat and go back…back home, back to the other side, back to where we came from, back to work, back to school, back to responsibility, back to daily life.
This was a powerful and amazing week indeed… because God was here. Let’s not forget that God is also here and there and everywhere, and so our service and love and kindness and caring must continue long past the moment we pull away from this place.
Young Lives is a bright and brilliant reflection of God’s love, as so many other things are.
Thank you, childcare workers, for serving so well this week.
Thank you, mentors, for loving your girls and their babies for such long and faithful weeks, months, and years.
Thank you, work staff for pulling out all the stops during this final week of your assignment.
Thank you, camp staff, for once again laying the table for the rest of us to both feast at and serve from. It took everyone to make this week happen.
But it took only God to make it real and sacred.
Bless the Lord, oh my soul – and may He bless the mamas and babies, wherever they are right now.
In some ways, Young Lives camp looks entirely different from Young Life camp. The tables are set with these:
Many of the breakfast Cheerios end up here:
There are people pushing strollers all over camp:
There are also tricycles, scooters, pedal-cars, and pedal-tractors at every turn. Add to that pack-n-plays, crates of diapers, changing tables, swings, tiny tables and chairs, napping cots, bottles, sippy cups, diaper bags, onesies, baby wipes, building blocks, exer-saucers, and a thousand other things, and it would be easy to assume that Young Lives camp is nothing like Young Life camp.
But that would be a wrong assumption.
Because at Young Lives camp, things like this still happen:
And that leads to this:
A genuine, bonafide, Young Life carnival, which is the perfect way for a young mama to end a wondrous day because – just like every other teen who visits this sacred slice of creation – she has come to experience the best week of her life. And we are going to do our best to give it to her, because that’s what love does.
There are 141 tinies and littles with us at camp this week. At about noon today, it dawned on me: that equates to 2,820 tiny fingers and little toes.
We are overwhelmed with digits.
How long has it been since you’ve seen or held tiny fingers or little toes? If you want to catch your breath with the wonder that is called life, baby fingers and toes are where it’s at. They are marvelous in their delicacy, astounding in their beauty, delightful in their miniature completeness.
These particular 2,820 fingers and toes are especially wonderful because we have been entrusted with their care for just a tiny sliver of time, six short days. We have been called to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the tinies and littles who are the embodiment of 2,820 fingers and toes.
We get to gaze at these miracles every day and be awestruck by God’s love, God’s creation, God’s goodness, and God’s deep desire to welcome each and every one of his children home – children both young and old.
These 2,820 fingers and toes are a reminder of Who made us, Who loves us, and Whose we are. These wonders of creation are … well, quite frankly, they are unbelievable. Truly.
If the fingers and toes of a tiny or a little do not stop you in your tracks, reach deep into your soul, then catch and hold your heart, then it might be time to gaze at them a little more closely.
They arrived today – cars and vans and busses of young mamas, babies, and mentors (who are women of courage, strength, and faith that none can describe fully or faithfully).
We are off and running, and the race is going to be exhilarating as these young women are introduced to love, grace, joy, and eternal reconciliation.
This week happens, in large part, because of things that are seen by only a few people, things that are astoundingly and breathtakingly beautiful –
things like moving over 100 strollers from under the rainy skies to under the dry porch to wait for their first passenger to arrive … sometimes the weather is drizzly, you see
things like stacking highchairs and patiently vacuuming a dining hall where 100 tinies and littles just ate dinner with their mamas … sometimes the food flies, you see
things like wiping down sticky booster chairs in which 50 toddlers just ate dinner with their mamas … sometimes the food spills, you see
things like holding a little for the very first time while her mama heads off for an evening of laughter, fun, and whimsical play … sometimes the littles need some encouragement, you see
things like letting a tiny snuggle in close so she can sleep peacefully, safely, and contentedly until her mama returns with a wide embrace … sometimes the tinies just need a safe and warm place, you see
things like comforting a little while he rests in a new place for the very first time … sometimes everyone needs a reassuring presence, you see.
These are the unseen things that make this week possible – these and a thousand others like them.
Our God is a God of grace, and He has surely filled this place and these people with grace unbounding. He has breathed Himself into this air and into these lives.