Discipleship Is Not a Program


I once attended a Christian ministry conference and since I am me, I scoured the listing of workshops to see what I could find that was related to Next Gen. Bingo! “Holistic Discipleship for the Next Generation.” That sounded perfect and right up my alley so off I went.

The session started with some brief introductions and testimonies from the leaders, one of which was a young man who had been influenced by the program they were going to talk about. In his introduction he mentioned a number of things that were most influential on him as he grew up and all of those were people. He talked about the adults and mentors that came alongside him and spoke into his life; how they showed up at his games and took him on family trips and spent time talking to him and engaging him in his growing faith.

In most Christian circles, we’d call that discipleship.

So, I got excited because surely if one of the main presenters spent most of his introduction talking about the discipleship relationships he had experienced and the deep impact they had on his faith and spiritual formation, then this workshop would most certainly include these things in their “holistic” approach.

Unfortunately, that did not happen. In fact, for the remainder of the workshop, the words “discipleship”, “mentor”, or “intergenerational” were never mentioned. Not even once. We did talk a lot about programming, curriculum, activities, and fun and creative ways to teach kids about God. We practiced some fun imagining, talked about format and presentation, ran through some kidmin scenarios and were given insight to a lot of content.

But never once did the presenters talk about ways to encourage intergenerational connections with children and youth outside of the programmed times. There was no conversation about mentoring and the importance of giving kids access to those who are more mature in the faith to help them to grow or about how we could put into practice activities or even programs that were geared toward growing those relationships and creating intentional space in our churches for them to mature and develop.

Discipleship was described as programmatic, aimed primarily at increasing knowledge and, frankly, getting kids to say a prayer so that they’d be “saved” with little to no conversation about how to take that faith deeper through intentional relationship.

Please don’t hear this as me knocking this group. They are doing great things in their city and God is using them.   But if we are talking about “holistic discipleship” and we are not talking about actual discipleship, mentoring or generational connectivity, we are missing the mark.

Our faith is primarily passed from one generation to another and it’s not passed in a class or an after-school program or a club that meets once a week.

All of those things are good and helpful and even needed, but those things are not discipleship.

Discipleship is first of all relational; it requires time spent building in relationship, learning and growing and worshipping together. Generational connection has to be more than just someone who volunteers to teach a class or host a club once a week. It must cross over into a meaningful relationship where love is experienced and pain is processed and life is shared.

Holistic discipleship had to be more. It has to take the next step.

Covid-19 has both complicated and simplified this reality. In the absence of our normal schedules, we have been pushed to expand our discipleship options. However, I still see so many trying to find just the right curriculum or program or activity to make discipleship happen.

But at this time, perhaps more than any other, we need the community of faith to step in and begin to press forward with intentional relationship. This is our chance to connect one another in new ways as we are not held back by long-held traditions, rigid schedules and age-specific classes and curriculum. Many people have multiple generations present in their own home and others can connect virtually, but relationships can be built around faith, even during Covid times.

What are some ways we can encourage this to happen?

1. Bible Study or Book Study with multiple entry points (Zoom, phone, or safely in-person). Instead of focusing on a specific age, focus on a topic and allow multiple generations to join. For best results, invite a youth or young adult to co-lead with a member of an older generation (40+).

2. Church Family Movie Night  – Some streaming platforms allow for groups to watch a movie at the same time. Put together a discipleship movie guide (You can get a FREE example by filling out the form below with the Message: Movie Guide). This would be good for January when cold and dark outside.

3. Prayer Meeting – Sometimes, I think when we hear “Prayer Meeting” we think Wednesday evening service. But even if it’s just a 15 minute check-in or a simple 30 minute guided prayer time over Zoom, gathering for prayer is a way to begin to build relationships, especially if the chat feature is used to share requests. Zoom Rooms are a great place to pair people up to prayer for each other as well. Families could be recruited to lead prayer once a month.

 4. Dinner Together – Put out a Zoom invitation for church members to eat dinner together over the internet. Make it even more fun by having the church help contribute part of the meal such as pizza or chicken or dessert for everyone. Set it up so that three families/individuals from different households would eat together. Provide Ice Breaker Questions and a suggested Scripture to read and common prayer to pray so they can participate in communal spiritual formation as they eat together.

5. Fort Fellowship – At the beginning of Covid-19, one of our church members organized a time for families with kids to gather once a week and study a Scripture together and catch up with one another over Zoom. Families built a blanket fort somewhere in their house, crawled inside with the computer and shared about 15-20 minutes together with their friends. This would be a great Advent activity to read through the Christmas story together!

8. Get to Know Me Videos – Ask members of different ages to send in videos of themselves sharing their favorite winter activities, recipes, family game, or stories about past faith or family experiences around a theme. Don’t worry about quality; focus on story. Each week, spotlight one or two people and share their video with your church family. Who knows? Some people just might “meet” a member of their church family for the first time!

The reality is discipleship can’t just be found in a Sunday School class or an after-school club. It is found when hearts connect in a relationship that leads to faith formation and spiritual growth both in the home and in the church.

It’s found when we get outside the program or curriculum or church walls and learn each other’s names and eat a meal together and show up to cheer each other on.

It’s found when we take time to develop our connections and move beyond the starting point that classes and clubs might be and into relationship.

That’s how Jesus did it with his disciples and that’s how they did it with their disciples and that’s how we must do it with the next generation.

Holistic discipleship is not a program. It’s so much more.

This article originally appeared here.