It can’t be THAT hard, I reasoned, paddle in hand. I’d once managed to balance on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) at a residential lagoon in Canada, so paddling on the Arabian Sea should be practically similar—right? Besides, I would only be circumnavigating a small man-made island, not crossing the entire ocean.
Ditching my shoes, I waded into the saltwater, stepped atop my noble craft, and pushed away from the sandy shore. Piece of cake.
The sea seemed as smooth as a Persian turquoise, glimmering in sunlight of a brightness I hadn’t experienced since Australia. The SUP glided across this idyllic scene for three quarters of my journey, my confidence mounting with every paddle stroke. That’s when I hit the windy side of the island.
*Whap. Whap. Whap.*
The choppy water sent wave after little wave lurching sidewise against the SUP. Even if the waves didn’t look that big, they sure felt unstable—like I may as well have been rollerblading across a field of half-buried bowling balls. Worse, despite my best efforts to correct my course, the wind seemed bent on driving me closer and closer to the island’s cement seawall.
The board tottered under my feel like a three-wheeled skateboard.
But I’m still standing. Ha.
The next thing I knew, the ocean leapt up and engulfed me in a blender of salt and bubbles.
Well THAT happened, I scowled underwater.
Despite the inconvenience of falling fully clothed into the ocean, I resurfaced smiling. A plunge like that can’t help but exhilarate.
Still, the whole experience seemed vaguely symbolic of what I wanted to learn about: how churches and families can help students keep both feet planted in Christianity while navigating the choppy waters of higher education. A Biblical worldview is an incredibly stronger foundation than a shaky SUP, of course, but just roll with the analogy. I’m trying to make a connection to discipleship here.
A UAE Church’s Discipleship Model
Discipleship has been a major theme surfacing in every culture I’ve visited, but practical explanations of how to effectively disciple students have been harder to come by. A few days before my impromptu swim in the ocean, however, a young adults’ pastor broke down the nuts and bolts of his church’s intentional discipleship model.
“Between the time youth stop high school and start working,” he began, “the church loses a lot of young people. I’m not saying that numbers are everything, but they tell a story: there’s a disconnect, a leak in the pipeline somewhere.”
Here, he arose from his chair, crossed to a whiteboard, and drew four boxes with arrows leading from one to the next.
“When a Christian young adult walks into the church, they’re in one of these boxes, or stages. When we meet young adults, we want to move them forward through each stage. The first stage is believing in Christ. The second is belonging to a Christian community—feeling like part of a family of believers. The third is becoming disciples of Christ. At this stage, we meet with students separately, help them open up, and show them what following Christ looks like. The fourth stage is being sent. In this step, we want to place students in the perfect ministry for them to serve God according to their strengths.”
He drew an arrow from the last box back to the first one, representing the point where the disciples become disciple-makers. “The cool thing about this is it keeps going around and around.”
How to (not) let a student down
All too easily, however, ministries may leave students stuck in the first stage by focusing on making Christians instead of making disciples.
“Once someone says ‘I believe,'” he explained, “we’re totally complacent with that instead of giving them a challenge every single time we meet, telling them, ‘This is where you are now; how can we help you move forward?‘”
Without this emphasis on personal growth, ministries are in danger of holding students to unhealthily low expectations instead of harnessing their capacity to develop leadership skills, practise servanthood, and build personal foundations. As the pastor mused, “One of my mentors says we fail because we ask too little of young adults or college students in the church.”
One especially prevalent—and perilous—way ministries may ask too little of students is by neglecting to help them develop strong intellectual foundations.
“Not only are more and more young people questioning their faith,” he said, “but we are also not equipping them enough to stand firm when their faith is questioned. For example, many youth groups might tell students, ‘don’t ask how God created in 6 days, because that’s not important.’ But the first question they get from a nonbeliever at campus is, ‘Really? You believe God created the world in 6 days?’ They don’t have a logical answer, because they didn’t get one in youth.”
That’s the same point a university chaplain in Canada made, I grinned to myself, right down to using evolution as an example. Though it’s worth noting that equipping students to think through difficult questions is more than a ‘youth pastor responsibility;‘ it’s the combined job of the students, their families, their pastors, and the Christian community that surrounds them.
On the bright side, this pastor offered some practical examples of ways his church challenges students towards personal and spiritual growth—in other words, disciples them. Once a month for instance, the church arranges “Man Cave” nights to connect young guys with older Christian men over pizza. The goal is not only for the men to encourage each other, but also to find mentors. In fact, the pastor informs each guest speaker ahead of time that a younger man could approach him and ask to work together more closely in the future.
Previously, the pastor had also been a part of an initiative his church called “Hold on to Twenty,” where 20 business leaders agreed to meet with one young person for one hour every week for one year. This way, the business leaders helped prepare students in their final years of university to enter the workplace better equipped in matters of both career and faith.
“The business leaders were always available,” said the pastor, “but the students sometimes weren’t. So, there needs to be initiative from both sides. Still, it’s a simple thing that any church anywhere can implement.”
What mentorship looks like: Stories from students
“What is something encouraging about being a Christian student in this country?” I asked these new friends in the living room where we’d gathered.
“I think our student small groups play a big role,” one of the students replied, pointing to another young woman. “She’s my mentor, and she discipled me to mentor other youth myself. Now I have my own small group. Our pastor is also mentoring us so that we can mentor others. Meanwhile, our church gives us tasks like youth ministry and worship ministry, and encourages us to share our talents. That boosts our confidence to do what God is telling us to do.”
As an example, she shared a story about how she became involved in youth ministry.
“The first time I came to the church leaders, they said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be a youth leader! We’ll assign you a group of younger people to work with.’ And I thought, ‘I don’t know how to do this! I’m just 17, I can’t disciple other people. I don’t think I’m qualified.’ But I was so blessed by how God spoke to my church leaders. They told me the verse from Timothy,
‘Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.’” (1 Timothy 4:12, NIV)
“When I was growing up,” her mentor pitched in, “I didn’t have a mentor. But God brought along people to teach me, even indirectly. I remember that when I was in high school, for example, one of those people told me, ‘I believe that God will use you for bigger things. I believe in your leadership abilities.’ I was very young and didn’t have any experience, but because someone believed in me, I felt like I could do it. Now I want to give the same encouragement to other young people God brings into my life.”
“How did you start?”
“With love,” she answered. “I didn’t used to have a passion for young people, to be honest. But I prayed for that love, and God gave it to me. Next, I prayed for God’s direction and guidance, and asked Him to speak to the youths’ hearts. Then whenever I found a young person to mentor, I’d talk to them, get to know them, and ask ‘What is your aspiration? Who do you want to become, and how can I help you become that person?’ I’d look for lessons to use to help that person move forward, using a different approach for each person because everyone has different needs.”
As part of the mentorship process, these girls’ church empowers youth to use whatever skills, strengths and abilities they have to serve the body of Christ.
“I started serving as a little girl straightening chairs in church,” one student said softly. “Later, the leaders encouraged me to join the worship team. I think the opportunities the church gives us are really important.”
Along the way, the leaders learned the importance of delegating responsibility to students, even when the leaders might have been able to do it ‘better’ themselves.
“We had an evangelistic conference where leaders used to do everything,” said the students’ mentor, “but later, we learned to delegate tasks to the youth. They tell us their plan, make sure it’s okay with us, and ask for our advice. It turns out that they can all do well! It’s not perfect, but we can trust them with the task.”
Taking the plunge
As these stories show, discipleship can feel like a plunge into unknown waters for students and the adults who support them. From diving into deep questions to navigating new responsibilities, there is room for risk on both sides. But for students preparing to paddle into secular education’s choppy waters, what could be more valuable than stretching their spiritual muscles, developing their intellectual stability, and otherwise honing their “paddling skills” alongside a godly adult who has charted the same waters? The journey might not be easy, but going together is certainly safer than paddling alone.