Q Los Angeles 2013
Arts + Entertainment
Science + Tech
Discipling Urban Youth
While smugly sitting through Bible class in college, I couldn’t have envisioned the way my first ministry job would play out; spending large portions of my workday pacing back and forth across my rooftop in prayer. Still, my first couple of months in New York City were spent waking up early, praying the same prayer repeatedly for what seemed like hours, and, eventually, going to work at a restaurant a few blocks away. As I prayed through Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents,” found in Matthew 25:14-30, I was so struck by the simplicity of Jesus’ invitation: I entrust an inheritance to my servants, and those who are faithful with what is given to them will be given more. So here I was, praying that God would give a spiritual inheritance of a few students to begin a youth ministry in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I believed Jesus’ words, so there seemed like no other place to begin than by asking for an inheritance.
After graduating from bible college, I spent a few months preparing. I lived in my parents’ house just outside of Tampa, Florida, ordering boxes full of books on the most effective plans for youth ministry. I was confident that my experience in youth ministry had been far too based on hype and events and that I was going to somehow figure out how to minister to high school students the “right way.”
I was quickly humbled.
Everything about ministry philosophy was simplified for me when I read the “Parable of the Talents.” After 4 years of specific study and months of focused research, I realized that no amount of planning or strategy mattered in comparison to the promises of God. If God led me to New York City, surely He would set aside an inheritance for me there. A month into Manhattan life, I was still spending the largest portion of my day pacing my roof, asking God to reveal that inheritance amongst the youth of New York City.
Discipleship—literally meeting with students and leading them toward a life of following Jesus —became the foundation of Trinity Grace Youth out of necessity. There weren’t any teenagers whose parents attended the Church that hired me, so I had to go out and look for students. My early days in youth ministry were spent at the basketball courts and the public pool in the Lower East Side’s low income projects. I got to know this part of New York very well very quickly as each day was spent walking these streets in conversation with God and with the people I’d meet. The thought constantly ran through my mind, “Do I have any idea what I’ve gotten myself into?”
I met a few non-profit types and teachers working directly with inner-city high school students that were kind enough to invite me to participate in what they were already doing; to enter into the relationships with families and students that they had already invested years in. I quickly began getting to know three students, in particular, and had immediate influence in their lives for no apparent reason.
These three students were the beginning of the inheritance I am entrusted with. All three had lived in conditions completely foreign to me. They had faced challenges brought on by the atmosphere of their neighborhood that I never even considered as a teenager. When I began meeting weekly with each of these students, none were Christians and none had any interest in who Jesus is or why He could change everything for them. None were interested in being discipled. But over the course of months, through many conversations (some awkward and some natural...some pertaining to God and others about almost nothing at all) each of these students was eventually challenged by the person of Jesus.
I was praying for salvation in each of their lives because I knew the simplicity of my job. God had given me an inheritance. It was three teenagers. My job was now to be faithful with these three. As I was faithful, He would multiply. It was an incredible relief that I didn’t have to “grow” a ministry. This was God’s ministry. I was simply called to faithfulness. Over a few months time, two of these young men abandoned their lives to follow Jesus, and the inheritance began to multiply.
Those few relationships began something more beautiful than anything I had envisioned when I was pacing my rooftop in prayer. God brought increase and two lives became a youth group full of middle and high school students from some of the poorest and roughest neighborhoods found in America. Almost all of these students have no prior church experience before stepping foot in Trinity Grace Youth. Nearly every one of them has arrived here because they’ve been given the value of being a disciple. The small inheritance of three teenagers has become artists, college students, corporate business men, actors, and marketing consultants sacrificing time to make disciples amongst the youth of New York City.
Jesus’ primary model of ministry was discipleship. He often preached to the masses and even worked miracles before their eyes, but he was building His Kingdom in the lives of 12 very average men. It was the 12 to whom he explained his teachings to in depth. It was the 12 to whom he was giving the power to work miracles of healing and casting out demons themselves, rather than merely witnessing such events. It was the 12 he sent out two by two when he knew they would have some level of success and some level of failure. It was the 12 he patiently sat with while they argued pridefully about who was the greatest. It was the 12 he constantly took with him as he withdrew to seek the Father. It was the 12 in whom he built His Church, and it was the 12 with whom he entrusted His Kingdom. Jesus didn’t neglect the masses, but his primary aim was obviously to reproduce himself in the lives of these 12 misfits.
I don’t remember a single sermon my youth pastors preached. But I do remember that when a mentor met with me and two of my friends weekly at Arby’s while I was in middle school, it changed my life forever.
Disciple-making still works, but, sadly, it is largely forgotten. I have had the privilege of being a part of some incredible churches. My church experience has always been positive, and I’m so thankful for each of these communities. As I look back at my experience volunteering or serving as a lay leader in various churches, however, it seems like every church I attended and every ministry I served in had me leading some version of a small group.
Still, my years of experience leading small groups did little to teach me to make disciples. I was not equipped to enter the low income projects of New York City, meet teenagers whose hearts had been given all that the world has to offer and, over time, share with them the “abundant life” offered by Christ. I was simply equipped to moderate conversations between people who had been in American church culture long enough to get used to the idea of small groups.
The Church must be committed to raising up disciple-makers, not conversation facilitators. It seems to me the church should be leading its disciples further into abandonment of their own pursuits to live abundantly with Jesus. Are the disciples of your church empowered and equipped to make disciples in the course of their daily lives? If, instead, the disciples of your church are great at leading small groups but are not actually making disciples, is anything more than furthering your ministry’s programs happening?
The weight of Jesus’ public ministry was clearly on empowering and equipping his disciples. The fruit of that ministry began the church, brought down the Roman Empire, and spread the Gospel throughout the world.
The American church has moved far in the opposite direction. Our emphasis seems to be on immediate results, visible “impact,” or “growth strategies.” The “Parable of the Talents” must serve as a reminder to the Church that our work is faithfulness to the disciples God entrusts to us. Our work is faithfulness; growth is God’s work. Many strategies can become prayers. The small crises that often overwhelm us become reminders to trust. Our attention would belong more to God than to our particular mission. He will grow our inheritance as we are faithful.
I have only two years of ministry experience, and my start in pastoral work has been far from the norm. I have an abundance still to learn and plenty of room to mature. I have learned, though, that my role in God’s story is faithfulness. When I attempt to step out of that role - to speed up God’s work, to push the ministry forward in steady growth, or to satisfy my own version of “ministry success” - I step out of God’s peace and calling. He gives an inheritance. He multiplies.
Disciple-making is not limited to youth group. How can you be more than a conversation starter where you are currently leading?
How have you seen the truths of the Parable of the Talents applied in your life?
ALSO BY TYLER STATON
Our Unreached People Group
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by Margaret Feinberg
by Skye Jethani
by Gabe Lyons
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