“Contrary to popular thinking that young people want it easy, many told us they love their church because their church inspires them to act.”

—Powell, Mulder & Griffin, Growing Young, p. 143.

After a decade of full-time ministry, one of the most consistent themes I’ve heard from parents (and grandparents) is their deep longing to see their children become lifelong disciples of Jesus. As a parent of two boys (and a daughter on the way), I’m right there with them. Chances are, if you are a parent, or church leader, or someone who simply cares deeply about the future of the church, you have a passionate desire to reach young people with the Gospel message of Jesus.

And you’re probably feeling frustrated about how that’s been going. 

Although there’s been a prodigious amount of research done on the topic of how and why so many teenagers drop out of church when they graduate high school, you probably don’t need to read that research to know it’s a serious problem. All you need to do is take a look around your church and see a (mostly) missing generation.

If you did decide to dive into this research, you’d come across this central message over and over:

“American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith—but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school. And one more thing: we’re responsible.”

Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, p. 3.

If you’re like me and feel an urgent burden from the Holy Spirit to do something about that, it’s time to take Jesus seriously.

That’s one of the primary messages in the book Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. In 2016, researchers from the Fuller Youth Institute published this groundbreaking material which explored the key commitments of churches from across the country that were successfully reaching and discipling young people. 

Growing and Going

As disciples of Jesus, we need a mix of challenge and comfort to be formed into mature Christians. In the Gospels, we see this in the way Jesus intentionally trained his disciples for ministry through a pattern of growing and going. Jesus called his disciples to him in quiet, private locations to teach them and mentor them. These were moments of growing. And then he went out with them to do real ministry in the towns and villages they visited. These were moments of going

In fact, in Mark 8:1-10:15, we see a perfectly balanced rhythm of growing and going:

  • Feeding the 4,000 • Mark 8:1-13 • Going
  • Teaching the Disciples • Mark 8:14-21 • Growing
  • Healing a Blind Man • Mark 8:22-26 • Going
  • Teaching the Disciples • Mark 8:27-33 • Growing
  • Teaching the Crowds • Mark 8:34-9:1 • Going
  • Transfiguration • Mark 9:2-13 • Growing
  • Healing a Child • Mark 9:14-27 • Going
  • Teaching the Disciples • Mark 9:30-50 • Growing
  • Teaching the Crowds • Mark 10:1-9 • Going
  • Teaching the Disciples • Mark 10:10-12 • Growing
  • Blessing the Children • Mark 10:13-15 • Going

Most Churches I’ve been part of have done exceeding well at the growing (“called in”) part of this rhythm. But for all the growing that we do through sermon and Bible classes and retreats and life groups Bible reading plans, we don’t always follow through by going out to do ministry in meaningful ways.

And that’s where we are losing young people. Young people have a passionate desire to do something significant with their lives, and they’re disillusioned by churches that focus so much on growing that they neglect the going.

But Jesus never gave us the option of choosing one or the other. Although our natural D.N.A. or spiritual gifts might favor one or the other—growing or going—we are called to do both: consistently, intentionally, and faithfully. 

And the story of Peter shows us the importance of that.

Called as Disciples, Sent as Apostles

When Jesus first encountered Peter the fisherman (Matthew 4), he calls him to “follow me,” the language of discipleship. The word disciple means a student who follows in the footsteps of their master, with the goal of learning everything they can from him. After a season of encouraging, training, and mentoring Peter, Jesus chose a new designation for him: apostle (Matthew 10). The word apostle comes from a Greek word that means to send someone on a mission. Jesus’ rhythm of growing and going from Mark 8-10 is a parallel to the ideas of discipleship and apostleship. 

Peter was a disciple (growing) and an apostle (going). Jesus spent time training him and teaching him the core truths of the Kingdom of God, and then sent him out on mission to live out those values in a practical way. 

Churches that think the key to reaching young people is by making the Gospel message as easy and comfortable as possible are misreading the desires of the young people they so desperately want to reach. And they are neglecting the rhythm of growing and going that Jesus gives us in the Gospels.

Instead, if we want to see our kids and grandkids become lifelong disciples of Jesus, we need to take Jesus seriously—not just in the truths he teaches us to believe, but in the mission he calls us to accomplish. When churches make a grace-filled appeal to live out the values and mission of the Kingdom in their local community, they not only engage the young people God has entrusted to their care, but they live out one of the most important ministry principles Jesus gives us: growing and going. 

Raising the Bar

So don’t be afraid to call your people to a higher standard of living. Raise the bar of what it means to follow Jesus, while raising the bar of grace. Your church will embrace the call to take Jesus seriously and will be inspired by their faith community that is striving to follow Jesus together.

“In short, teenagers and emerging adults in churches growing young aren’t running from a gospel that requires hard things of them. They are running towards it.”

Growing Young, p. 143.