Due to inclement weather, the 9 a.m. service for Sunday, Jan. 20 has been cancelled. We will have one morning service at 10:45 a.m. as road conditions improve.

The First Youth Pastor

by Matt McClay

As the student pastor at Lewis Memorial, I am often intrigued and entertained when fielding questions from well-meaning people who are curious about the day-to-day life of a youth minister. Such as, does it involve a significant amount of pizza? Are disc golf skills a prerequisite for the job? Others question the philosophy of student ministry: Are youth ministries an advent of the postwar days of the 1950s and 1960s?

While questions about pizza and disc golf are up for debate, the Bible provides believers with solid answers regarding the historical importance of youth ministry within the family of God. The Apostle Paul instructs Titus that older believers within the church have the responsibility to teach younger believers in the area of doctrine and to serve as godly models for Christian living (Titus 2:1-8). Paul modeled this truth in his own life, as he took a young man by the name of Timothy on a missionary journey, giving him “on-the-job training” and releasing him to serve the Ephesian church as their pastor. Paul anticipated a third and fourth generation of disciple-makers would be brought forth by Timothy when he wrote, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Not every Christian is called to be a youth pastor; however, every Christian is called to participate in making disciples of the next generation.

So, if youth ministry is as old as the faith itself, who was the first youth pastor? Would you be surprised to learn that the answer is none other than Jesus? There is an excellent case to be made – and many Bible scholars do make the case – that, of Jesus’ twelve disciples, all were likely in their mid to late teen years, except for Peter. Other than Peter, it appears as though Jesus’ disciples were unmarried, which is significant compared to the first-century Jewish tradition of men receiving wives when they turned eighteen. Additionally, when required to pay the temple tax in Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus miraculously provided the funds to pay for both his and Peter’s tax, but not for the remaining eleven disciples. The Jewish law stated that every man over the age of 20 was required to pay a half-shekel when visiting the temple
(Exodus 30:13-15).

Whether the disciples were teenagers or not, it is all but certain that most of them were still in their youth and looking for purpose and meaning in life. If Jesus was the first youth pastor, what can we learn from the way he taught, led, and shepherded twelve young apprentices during his last three years on earth? How can we model the way of Jesus as we endeavor to fulfill our God-given responsibility to make disciples of the next generation?

Consider these seven rhythms we find in the life of Jesus…

#1 – Jesus sought out young disciples.

In the first century, it was common practice for Jewish Rabbis to have a sort of application process by which potential apprentices could apply to learn under their teaching. Jesus flipped the script on tradition in this area by approaching potential disciples rather than waiting for them to come to him. Are we actively seeking out younger believers to build up in the faith and practice of Jesus?

#2 – Jesus set bold expectations for his young disciples.

Consider Jesus’ “sales pitch” to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Jesus asked them to follow someone they didn’t know, leave a comfortable and predictable life, and learn a skill with which they were unfamiliar. Even more bold, perhaps, was his prediction that, at the end of their training, they would be ready to train others themselves, becoming “Fishers of men.” Teens are so resilient in that they love rising to a challenge. We challenge students academically, athletically, and creatively, so why don’t we challenge them spiritually?

#3 – Jesus ate with his young disciples.

In the first century, sharing a meal was a very intimate experience. It’s hard to make it very far in the gospel accounts without running into an instance where Jesus is breaking bread with his young apprentices. Some of the most pivotal moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry, from the feeding of the five thousand to the last supper, occurred when Jesus shared a meal with his disciples. Food was a big deal in the first youth ministry. Jesus invited the first disciples into his day-to-day life. They saw him pray. They witnessed the ups and downs of his earthly ministry. Many sweet memories from my teenage years come from times when people in our church invited me to go fishing or watch a football game together. Are we living in such a way that teens can see us modeling Jesus in the highs and lows of life?

#4 – Jesus created a safe place for the disciples to ask questions.

Having the full account of Jesus’ life in view today, it’s tempting to belittle or mischaracterize some of the questions asked by Jesus’ disciples in the gospels. They struggled to understand exactly who he was and what his mission entailed, so Jesus went to great lengths to open their hearts and minds.  He wanted the disciples to understand who he was, why he came to earth, as well as what to expect when they saw the kingdom of God. When students have questions about God and life, how do we respond? Do we chastise them for their lack of knowledge? Do we turn the occasion into a debate? Do we become bogged down on petty, non-biblical issues and problems? There is much we can learn from Jesus’ gracious response when questioned by his disciples.

#5 – Jesus took his young disciples on mission trips.

The term “mission trip” often elicits ideas of suitcases, passports, and learning new languages. Interestingly, Jesus took his disciples on many mission trips, but many scholars believe his earthly ministry to have been confined to a 100-mile radius. At various times, Jesus allowed his young apprentices to take the lead, giving them authority to cast out demons and heal diseases (Matthew 10:1). We also know that Jesus gave his disciples important responsibilities such as keeping charge of the money and securing food and provisions for the first youth group as they traveled. The thought of taking a teen on a mission trip can seem daunting until we remember Jesus’ example. Missions can happen within a 100-mile radius of Huntington, WV, and could even be as close as your own backyard. What if we invited our kids and teens to be a part of our “Love Where You Live” effort by partnering with us to reach our neighbors for Christ?

#6 – Jesus forgave the young disciples when they failed.

Ironically, a cursory reading of the gospel reveals that the oldest disciple (Peter) was the one who most often reacted inappropriately to the ups and downs of life with Jesus. However, a closer look at Jesus’ time with the first disciples exposes a litany of missteps and failures on their part. From their constant misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching, to quarrels and rivalry over the pecking order, to abject failure in casting a demon out of a young boy, Jesus had every reason to become frustrated with the twelve and throw in the towel. Instead, in his grace, the Lord addressed the problem, forgave their error, and coached them on avoiding the same failure in the future. In our culture, people often celebrate when students excel and achieve but run away when they stumble along the road of life. The truth is, if Jesus gave up on his first disciples, we wouldn’t be followers of Jesus today. It was through this ragtag youth group that the gospel spread across the world. Are you willing to overlook a student’s occasional missteps and point them to who they can be as a disciple of Jesus?

#7 – Jesus released the young disciples to change the world.

The disciples spent three years of life-on-life training with Jesus. They heard his teaching. They saw the miracles. They watched him crucified, buried, and risen again. They experienced the joy of walking and talking with Jesus after the resurrection. Their training was complete, and it was time for them to change the world for Jesus. The disciples look on as their Savior, Friend, and Teacher prepared to ascend to his rightful, exalted position in Heaven. Jesus’ final words to the young disciples, his Great Commission, likely rang in their heads for the rest of their lives. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”
(Matthew 28:19-20).
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