Youth Ministries: Building Young Believers Through Nurture

Those who minister to youths (parents, pastors, youth ministry workers and youth ministry leaders) have the rewarding challenge of assisting young disciples of Jesus as they grow in their relationship with God. We refer to this essential aspect of youth ministry as nurturing believers.

In this series, we have been exploring the use of CANS—four tools that are essential for nurturing believers. Those tools are community, adoration, nurture and serving. A helpful way to understand CANS is to view each tool from the perspective of the flow of ministry:

IN: Through Community, we assist youths as they reach in to experience the love, significance and belonging found within the community of faith, the church. (See article on community.)

UP: Through Adoration, we assist them as they reach up to express to God a profound sense of wonder, gratefulness and trust. (See article on adoration.)

OUT: In the next article, we’ll look at serving—assisting young believers as they reach out to Share God’s love with people outside the group.

DOWN: In this article, we explore the tool of Nurture, where we assist children, teens and college-age young adults as they receive the nurture that comes to them from God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Through this nurture, young believers receive God’s guidance for being and building disciples of Jesus.

Early church example

In the book of Acts, we read this of the early church:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

Note how the Spirit guided these believers to reach in to one another in loving fellowship (community), to reach up to God in worshipful praise (adoration) and to reach out to those in need (serving). Note also how they were connected to the grace of God that built them up in their faith (nurture). That grace came in several ways, including through the sharing of communion and worship, but first on the list of their activity is devotion to “the apostles’ teaching.”

A vital way the Spirit nurtures Jesus’ followers is through the provision and illumination of God’s Word. Ultimately, that Word is Jesus. Jesus, the living Word of God, is the full and final  expression of God’s person, God’s will, God’s way and God’s plan. God nurtures disciples of Jesus as they are connected to his Word—a connection that comes in many ways, including through what is called “the apostles’ teaching.”

Following his ascension to the Father, Jesus sent the Spirit to minister to and through the church. Part of the Spirit’s ministry in the early church was to inspire the apostles to give verbal, and eventually written, testimony about Jesus. Their calling was to preach the Word—to proclaim Jesus and his gospel, the message of the saving grace of God in Christ.

Through the Bible, the Spirit nurtures Jesus’ followers with the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. A disciplemaking youth ministry cooperates and partners with the Spirit in this essential ministry as it carefully and continuously teaches God’s word, the gospel.

But the Bible often seems intimidating, inaccessible and irrelevant to young Christians (and some “old” ones as well). “After all,” some youths might say, “What do a bunch of stories about people who lived 2,000 years ago have to do with my life?” Our challenge is to show them—for the reality is that these stories, contained in Scripture, present the gospel and thus have profound meaning and relevance for every human life.

Scripture comes alive

In my experience teaching youths, I have found that Scripture comes alive for them when they begin to understand that Scripture is about the One who is alive—in them and for them. The Bible is not a dead book about a bunch of dead people. It is the testimony of many real men and women who through faith in God came to understand something about God’s plan for human beings. That plan is a man—Jesus. He is fully God and fully human—God come to us in the flesh. And he has come (as we sing in a popular praise chorus) “from heaven to earth, to show the way.” Indeed, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).

So, what’s the Bible about? It’s about Jesus, the Word of God. Scripture is given to testify about Jesus (John 5:39-40). Scripture contains and presents the gospel—the good news about Jesus—the good news about God’s salvation through Jesus, God’s gift of grace.

Knowing Jesus personally

Scripture comes alive as the inspired, living Word that it is, when young people find the living Jesus in its pages. Our task is to help them do so: not just to learn something about Jesus, but to come to know Jesus personally. Not just to get head knowledge about Jesus, but to be connected to the life-transforming presence and power of Jesus found in the gospel. Not just to read about that Word, but to live it—to obey it, and thus to be changed. By being nurtured in the Word, Jesus’ disciples grow to be increasingly like their Master and Teacher (Luke 6:40).

Young believers are deeply impacted by teaching that connects them to the life of Christ. I like to take them to the Gospels—the four books of the New Testament that describe Jesus’ incarnation (including his birth), his life, his earthly ministry, his death, his resurrection and his
ascension to glory. (I find it useful to use a contemporary translation with language that youths readily understand.)

In the Gospels, Jesus is directly encountered—seen clearly for who he is: a living person. From this base in the life of Christ, young believers are equipped to understand the rest of the New Testament and the books of the Old Testament, given to the church to proclaim the fullness of
Christ and of his gospel.

Small groups ideal

I find it helpful to give youths a chance to talk and pray together about what they are hearing and reading in Scripture. Small groups are ideal for such interaction. In our summer camps we have small group “debrief” gatherings at the close of the daily chapels where the campers, assisted by their counselors, huddle to discuss and pray about what they have heard in the chapel messages. In this relational setting they share and process the nurture they have just received from God through his Word. I encourage you to use a similar strategy in your youth groups and congregations.

One of my colleagues in ministry began a house church with a target audience of young adults and teens. The focus of this group’s study together was the life and ministry of Jesus. To assist in that study, each group member obtained a copy of a harmony of the Gospels (a book that places the four Gospel accounts in parallel columns). Each week they would discuss several verses from the harmony, with the discussion being led by one of the young members.

Such small-group-based dialogue is an effective tool with young people, providing a safe setting in which to openly interact with Scripture and with one another. Rather than sitting passively in a lecture, participants in small groups are actively involved in a journey of discovery. This
relational, interactive format provides openings for further conversations with the participants during the week.

Scripture is a gift of God to the church. The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of Scripture and now uses Scripture (the written word) as a primary tool to nurture God’s children. Those of us who are called to teach the written word have an awesome challenge and a profound blessing.

Young believers need far more than our thoughts—they need God’s thoughts, conveyed through Scripture. They need far more than lists of principles gleaned from human wisdom—they need to be connected to the perfect man who is the sum of all wisdom—Jesus. And Jesus is found, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Bible. The Bible is God’s Word—his love letter, through the church, to the people he created—and the focus of his letter is Jesus and our life in him.

May all of us who are called on to partner with the Holy Spirit in nurturing young believers, re-commit to keeping the Word of God front and center in our own lives and in our youth ministries. May we all faithfully, persistently and skillfully teach the Word so that God who so deeply loves them, may nurture Jesus’ young disciples.

Author: Ted Johnston

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