The discipleship approach that got Paul Martin fired

Paul Martin is a youth pastor who has just moved from Birmingham, Alabama to a small town in Nebraska (wow, talk about a change of scenery!) and he has recently published the brilliant book Masterpiece: The Art of Discipling Youth (be sure check out the review of Masterpiece we did). Since I only know Paul from his equally brilliant blog, I thought I’d ask him some questions about his book, discipling, youth ministry and whatnot.

A lot of books are written from what Bill Hybels calls a ‘holy discontent’, was it the same for you?

It’s true in the sense that this was a book I needed to write. I felt crazy for 15 years for how I did discipleship and youth ministry. I worked in several churches but what they said and wanted me to do, was different from what I did.

I was working in this church and at a certain point I was told that I needed to learn to perform. Only six months before I had exceeded all expectations in my review, but now they were unhappy with how I was doing things. There had been budget cuts and I had lost my staff. We didn’t have money anymore, so I started to do discipleship the way Jesus did it. And I ended up getting fired for it.

Still, it was worth it. It was one of those moments where you discover what is really important and God mattered more to me than job security. And in Masterpiece I basically wanted to explain myself, to show what I’ve been doing all these years.

There are a lot of books on discipleship already, how is Masterpiece different?

There are some great books on discipleship, I agree. But a lot of books focus on practices, on a formula, here’s what you need to do and how to do it.  I see the exact opposite in how Jesus approaches discipleship. He’s a clean slate, an open mind. He constantly responds contextual.

I think a lot of discipleship is focused on making you more like a certain predefined standard, but I think it’s about making you more like who you are in Christ. There’s a certain homogeneous picture of what a good Christian should look like in terms of loving to study the Bible, doing daily devotions, etc. Students feel like a failure if they are not a prayer warrior, or don’t love the Bible like a Bible scholar and they give up. God has created each person uniquely and discipleship is about helping people discover how God created them. Discipleship is personal and dynamic, not a static outline. You always have to look at what resonates with students, you need to draw out what’s important to them, how God created them.

What struck me when reading your book is your definition of discipleship: “Making disciples is the process where one person helps to reveal God’s created purpose in another, regardless of how that other person may respond.” With a starting point like that, your ‘route’ to discipleship almost has to be different.

I think a lot of youth pastors experience frustration when working in the church. There’s a certain expectation of youth pastors: you have to wear lots of t-shirts with Jesus’ face on it, have at least 20 WWJD bracelets ready at all times, smile a lot and in general be this energetic person.  But the bottom line for many is that they need to perform.

Well, you can’t perform in discipleship. I can’t draw people to God, only God can draw people to him. So I really met my limitations and I had to learn to work through my frustrations and come to a point where I am faithful to who I am. Youth workers should work with young people as they are. Some love doing games and that’s fine, some like to pray with teens and that’s also okay. Discipleship can happen in anything, there’s no  formula.

In your book, you advise both to be implicit and to be explicit. Can you explain what you mean?

What you tell and teach should be explicit, very clear. Too often we use vague statements when we talk about God and faith, like the expression ‘to glorify God’. We don’t make it specific enough.

But in personal conversations it’s sometimes better to be implicit. It has to be safe for young people, you have to use safe language and build a safe relationship. Then you can teach implicit. Take porn addiction for example, something a lot of teen guys wrestle with. Addressing this head on can be hard, but you have to dig deeper. What do they want from it, what is the deep longing underneath it? That often has to do with intimacy and that is something you can address.

You can ask tough questions, don’t treat young people with kid’s gloves. They want somebody to ask the tough questions. We had a guy once who came to our youth group for the first time and I asked him some really tough questions. I figured he wouldn’t come back, but he did. And then another guy actually asked me why I wasn’t asking him these tough questions. Students want to be challenged, they often don’t get that anywhere else.

You don’t have a degree in youth ministry, is that something that you miss?

I have a degree in Music and in Teaching and that’s how I started out. I just loved teens, loved working with teens and I loved getting in their world as a teacher. But I discovered I wanted to do more than that, to make changes and impact their faith and that’s how I ended up in youth ministry. I did take some seminary classes, but I don’t have a degree or anything in theology or youth ministry. I just read a lot. I read some youth ministry related books, but also a lot of secular books and often I end up learning the most from these.  Unleashing the Ideavirus from Seth Godin is such a book.

How have the reactions been so far to Masterpiece?

I’ve had a lot of sighs, like ‘thank you for saying what I’ve been feeling’. In that sense, I don’t think what I wrote is that original, I just put into words the thoughts and feelings of many youth workers. I’ve also heard ‘my pastor should read this book’, so that’s something to consider is how we get this book into the hands of pastors, or write another book specifically for pastors. It’s something I’m thinking about, but in the meantime I’m working on a book on discipleship for teens and some other projects.

My note: if you haven’t bought and read this book, be sure to do so. You won’t regret it!

Comments

  1. Claire F says

    Thanks for writing on this subject Paul! I work with incarcerated youth and it is tough to “measure” discipleship. I’ve defined it as “walking along side them for a portion of their journey, helping them find their faith, offering hope, encouragement and helpful feedback in the context of a safe, loving relationship.” It’s messy, unfinished and never wraps up with a neat little bow. I want to help them think for themselves, wrestle with what they believe and ask hard questions. It takes a greater trust to believe God is always at work and will finish what He started. Being honest and authentic can be uncomfortable in a culture that doesn’t value not having all the answers or messy imperfection. But those qualities resonate with youth who are hungry for what is real in a plastic world.

  2. says

    Paul, I liked how you talked about getting to the root of the problem. What emotional responsibility do we owe ppl we serve? What is their responsibility?
    I know you are writing about youth but I am asking from an overall ministry concern.
    Thanks,
    Nikita

    • says

      Nikita, thanks for commenting. I’m not sure I understand your question. Are you asking if we owe the people we minister to a certain level of emotional health? If so, I’m not sure I would say we owe them anything. Maybe we owe ourselves a place of health to serve more effectively. It certainly helps to be able relate from a place of health.

      Most people I meet with aren’t under any pressure to be emotionally responsible. They all fit different themes we all see. So it’s helpful to know some of their emotional baggage, but it really depends on their willingness more than their state of heart.

      I’m not sure I answered your question. Feel free to email me if not.

  3. Sabina says

    Hello paul thanks,i really enjoy every bit of what u wrote.i am starting a youth ministry,but i am nervous becos i need the right tools to get them involved inGod.to know God.i am thinking of what they will like best,like waht they ill lik to discuss,games to play.what topics that suit them more.i dont want to start up sometin that is boring,and that ill not encourage them not to come.these are myfears.

    • says

      Sabina, we all have those fears. I just started in a new church and struggle in the same way. It might not work for your context, but I’ve jus started asking students and leaders what they want from the time we have. That helps shape what we do and builds relationships as well.

      May God bless your efforts.

  4. Sabina says

    Ok thanks,i will talk to God about it.i believe when God calls us for sometin like this,he always equip us for it.God bless u too.

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