When I picture the disciples, my thoughts usually turn to the stained glass windows of old men in flowing robes and graying beards. What if, instead, those cathedral walls were lined with awkward young men just escaping the gauntlet of adolescence?
Someone once laid out a case for me that Jesus was the first youth pastor. They pointed to Matthew 17, where the disciples arrive in Capernaum and are accused of not paying the Temple Tax. Jesus instructs Peter to go catch a fish in a nearby lake and in its mouth he will find a silver coin (apparently, Jesus couldn’t just carry a wallet like the rest of us). He tells Peter, “Take it and pay back the tax for both of us.” The text seems to indicate all of the disciples were together, why would Jesus use his aquatic coin purse to only pay for him and Peter?
If you hop back to Exodus, where the rules of the Temple Tax are found, it states “All who have reached their twentieth birthday must give this sacred offering to the Lord.” This suggests the reason Jesus only provided a coin for himself and Peter was the other disciples were benefiting from the “Kids are Free” provisions of the temple, meaning they were likely teenagers.
It’s possible this explanation involves some exegetical gymnastics but at the very least it provided an interesting thought experiment. If you re-read the Gospels and re-cast the disciples as teenagers, a lot of things start to make sense. The blank stares after parables, the arguing about who is greater, the fact Peter (the eldest) was the first to speak, presumably while the other disciples stared at the ground avoiding eye contact. There is a convincing case to be made for disciples as teenagers, which would make Jesus the first youth pastor. It also begs the question, why did Jesus pick teenagers?
Now, I am certainly biased, but I can’t think of a better group to recruit if you‘re trying to change the world. Old enough to reason, young enough their worldview is still malleable, full of boundless zeal, desperate to be a part of something big, optimistic and wide-eyed looking towards the future. Teenagers are ideal candidates for spreading transformation.
Every healthy church is striving to be more Christlike, I wonder how many of them are willing to follow Christ down this missiological path.
What would it look like if a church was committed to helping teenagers be their primary means of spreading the Good News?
Invited Into Something Greater
A teen-focused church is quick to invite teens into the work of the church. They can run the sound or give the announcements or sit on a planning committee. They can greet, or teach Sunday School, or play in the worship band. When we make teens wait to participate in what the church is doing, we convey they don’t matter, at least not yet.
Teens Sharing Their Story
Young faith is inspiring. When a teenager catches a vision for the life God wants them to live, it serves as a powerful reminder of the invitation that is out there for everyone.
Every Adult A Youth Leader
This doesn’t mean every adult needs to attend youth group, but every adult would sense a personal responsibility to know the teens of their church. They understand that it takes a village to raise a disciple, and each of them has a role to play in encouraging faith growth in adolescents. Whether they lead a small group or just take the time to learn a teen’s name when passing in the hallways. Teen-focused churches are full of adults reinforcing the idea “teenagers matter here.”
Any church that is presenting a watered-down Gospel to teens is doing them a disservice. Jesus wasn’t afraid to confuse and confound his followers from time to time, letting the big concepts hang until a disciple mustered the courage to say, “We don’t understand.” Teen-centric churches take the time to teach the complex concepts, and in dong so bring stability to their faith.
Teen-focused churches end up in a beautiful cycle. Adults helping teens mature in their faith, which almost always requires the adults to grow as well. It gives a mission to the older members and a purpose to those who are younger. If a church wants to spark a healthy spiral of growth and enthusiasm, I can think of no better way than enlisting teenagers to do the work of the Kingdom. It’s possible Jesus thought the same.