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BETWEEN THE CALL AND THE COMMISSION

Youth Sunday School as a Disciple-Maker

By Carey Huffman

When the disciples got their heads out of the clouds and realized Jesus was gone, His final words must certainly have echoed in their minds—"Go into all the world and make disciples…." Were they up to the challenge? Less than 3 years had passed since that day by the Sea of Galilee when Jesus called out to the first among them—"Come, follow me…." It was evident, even at Jesus’ ascension, that they were in desperate need of the boldness and insight of the Holy Spirit, yet the implications of Jesus parting command were quite clear—they would soon be doing with others what He had done with them. Call it what you will—what happened in the lives of Jesus’ followers between the call to come and be, and commission to go and make—it was discipleship in its purest form.

Following the example of Jesus, we must take advantage of every opportunity to impart life and learning to our students. The cliché that "discipling is better caught than taught" holds much truth. Even so, the eternal impact Jesus made on lives came not only through public demonstration, but also in private discourse—as when Jesus pulled away from ministry to the masses to teach those close to Him the mysteries of the Kingdom. In the context of the local church today, what ministry most adequately presents such an opportunity—not only in the sense of a smaller group setting, but also in the depth of teaching? It’s hard to believe that anyone who is truly serious about discipling young people could neglect the challenge to come alongside so many students at once in a regular, interactive setting that Sunday School virtually hands to us.

Challenging, equipping and providing opportunities for students to become active with their faith in every context of their lives are all indispensable parts of the discipleship process. Much of the challenge is issued through the message in youth services or rallies. Opportunities and outlets for involvement may come through the various ministry teams during outreaches and events. The crux of the whole process, however, is the equipping for service—and the biggest context for that can be Sunday school. It’s difficult enough these days to claim another night in a teen’s schedule. Effective discipleship will challenge teens, unless they are involved elsewhere on Sunday, to participate in this main day of services. The bottom line is that if you are willing to invest the time and resources it takes to grow it, a weekly Christian education hour can fulfill the greater part of your whole discipleship/leadership training process. Here are a few tips on using youth Sunday school as a disciple-maker:

  • Place strong emphasis on Sunday school as an integral part of the overall youth ministry. Some of our best youth leaders talk about their youth group as a separate entity from the Sunday school. Purpose and format may vary greatly, as well the sphere of influence of each ministry. Still, one is incomplete without the other. Promote both ministries among all youth involved in either context as part of the overall ministry. If anyone considers himself or herself part of the youth group, then on Sunday morning, class is the place to be.
  • Adopt a more aggressive enrollment policy. Pending an initial personal contact, add service and activity guests to prospect rolls where they should get immediate and regular attention regarding Sunday school. Campus missions or casual meeting with your current youth and their friends can also provide a basis for enrollment. Keeping in touch with these students allows a relationship to build – a relationship which is key to discipleship.
  • Choose curriculum or create lessons that are practical and interactive. Discipleship is not a spectator sport. Students need to participate in the process. Learn to ask questions that lead students to discover and articulate the biblical truth for themselves. Take advantage of a broad base of resources that incorporate video, object lessons, role-play, melodrama and written work into the lesson. Be specific in the application of the lesson to real life. Come up with practical ways to live out the Bible truths on Monday morning—ways that can be prayed for as class ends and accounted for as next week’s class begins.
  • Cover key subjects that equip teens to become active with their faith. Students must learn to build, share, and defend, their faith throughout life. Courses should be offered regularly on the basics of discipleship (the Word, prayer, Scripture memory, evangelism); devotional life; missions; the work of the Holy Spirit; the life of Jesus; personal evangelism, campus missions; spiritual warfare; and prayer. Find and utilize the most practical, creative and biblically solid resources available on these subjects. Offer some courses as student leadership elective. Teach other subjects in combined sessions, giving potential leadership the option of outside work projects. Vary this format so as not to keep student leadership separate from their peers for an inordinate amount of time.
  • Involve peer mentors in the discipleship process. Offer an ongoing 4-6 week course that students can join at any time. Here, student who are new believers can spend time—with a friend, youth leader or ideally, those who led them to Jesus—working through a question/answer booklet on basics of the faith. Outside of class, the students and mentors should be accountable to each other through personal contact each week. Leadership should also follow up on these individuals to encourage continued involvement in the rest of the youth ministry.
  • Keep classes small. Place youth who are active in any capacity of the youth ministry on a Sunday school roll. Refer to this listing each week for contacts. The advantage of using Sunday school as the source of contact and emphasis is that those who can be tied into Sundays will likely attend youth services and events as well. On the other hand, those who enter the fellowship through services and activities may not make their way into deeper discipleship opportunities without strong encouragement. No matter how dynamic youth services may be, student cannot be thoroughly discipled in that setting.
  • Utilize Sunday School rolls as the main reference for weekly contact. Discipleship is birthed out of relationship and is best nurtured in smaller group settings. Depending on the availability of quality leaders, structure your Sunday School with levels or electives, so that classes do not get too large. The same principles that make cell groups effective also apply to Sunday School. Classes can still be effective with 20-30+ if they remain interactive, but it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to receive the personal attention.
  • Keep student accountable for what they learn from week to week by having them complete outside projects and by allowing them to take part in teaching what they have completed. Maintain regular personal contact with all students by phone, postcard, visit, or school activity. If all teachers, assistants, adult and student leaders help in the process, each needs only to make a few contact every week allowing the interaction to be more in depth than just a quick "Will you be there?" call.
  • Give students a wide variety of outlets for ministry so they will not become complacent. Let them see for themselves why they need to study the Word, pray, and demonstrate their faith. Plug the whole Sunday school process back into the rest of the youth ministry by allowing trained students to fill leadership roles in ministry teams, serve as small group leaders, assist in teaching, and serve on the youth council or core leadership team.

Remember that discipleship is an ongoing process that takes young person from the point where they respond to the call to follow Christ, and comes full circle when that young person is commissioned to lead another. Don’t be guilty of under-challenging young people or yourself along the way. Growing an effective Sunday School is hard, but rewarding work. If you take seriously what Jesus commanded us, as record in Matthew 28:19-20, to "go and make disciplesteaching them to obey everything I have commanded…" you must conclude that discipleship is not possible without a broad base of teaching. Sunday School can provide this as effectively as any other ministry of the church. It can indeed bridge the gap between the call to come and be, and the commission to go and make disciples.