Why don’t our efforts at disciple-making result in more obvious disciples–people who live out their attachment to Jesus every day?

Part of the problem comes down to how we’ve trained our people. I’m afraid we’ve trained them, unintentionally, to compartmentalize their lives, especially their faith lives. My friend and co-worker Rick Lawrence, author of The Jesus-Centered Life, explains what this looks like in a youth ministry context. Here’s his take:

De-Compartmentalizing Youth Ministry

You’d be hard-pressed to find a youth ministry of any size that does not prioritize service as a bread-and-butter strategy for reaching and impacting teenagers. We know firsthand that service trips have a powerful ability to crack open the door to trajectory-changing moments in kids’ lives. When I surveyed 23,000 Christian teenagers serving at one of Group’s 40-something workcamp sites a few years ago, four out of five said the primary takeaway from their adventure was that “it made me feel closer to God.” In a separate survey, I asked thousands of kids what they’d like to do more of in their church’s youth ministry, and service trips ranked #4 out of 41 choices, with almost nine out of 10 (87%) asking for an increase in their opportunities to serve.

So, we know two things without a doubt…

  1. Service-focused trips create a greenhouse environment for growth in kids’ lives.
  2. The unique “stew” of influences in a service experience can open teenagers to a deeper relationship with Jesus.

With all this ministry firepower working for us, you’d think we’d be dialed-in to the discipleship possibilities that service trips generate. Instead, the actual experience most-often compartmentalizes the service part of the trip away from the “spiritual” part of the trip. I mean, the work kids do to serve is framed as simply “helping people,” while the program (morning and evening gatherings, and devotion times) is billed as “God time.”

Well, the Kingdom of God is not organized into compartments.

Around the time the New Testament letters were written, the Gnostic cults were taking root. Gnostics believed that “matter” was bad and “spirit” was good. In essence, the material world—the work we do in the world, and our everyday behavior—was acknowledged as necessary, but not spiritual. We are compartmentalized people, not wholistic people, declared the Gnostics. We have a compartment for the physical work of service, for example, and a different compartment for the “spiritual” aspects of the trip. This flies in the face of what Jesus taught about the integration of our identity: “…You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Our heart, soul, mind, and strength are simply diverse facets of a beautiful whole. In a disciple’s life, the physical and the spiritual are equally important, and equally valued.

So, in our quest to challenge and nurture spiritual growth in kids, is it possible we’re just like the early Gnostics? Do we unconsciously separate service as the unspiritual bait for a spiritual experience?

The answer, of course, is to treat everything we do as a discipleship experience—including the actual, physical work kids do on a service trip. This is the environment we’re determined to build in our new approach to service experiences—it’s called Group’s Lifetree Adventures, and we’re launching our first week-long adventures this summer. Undergirding our approach to service is this life-changing promise Jesus gave his disciples: “I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me” (John 15:15). Our passion and determination is a Gnostic-busting invitation: Come to serve, return a friend of God.

We believe every aspect of a teenager’s experience on one of our Lifetree Adventures—the heart/soul/mind/strength things they do—must work together to fuel a deeper friendship with God. So our service experiences are uniquely designed to frame everything kids do as an intentional onramp into their journey as a disciple. I invite you to give your teenagers a service experience that’s actually a discipleship experience—to leverage the inherent power of service to radically deepen their love for Jesus. Check it out here.