Making disciples

I Remember That Conversation

The story of why I became a youth pastor—and how it's still shaping me today.

I met Jesus when I was six years old. Our family was driving home from church one Sunday, and I was sitting in the rear-facing back seat of our old Caprice Classic station wagon. We called it the “way-back seat.” I didn’t mind sitting back there because it gave me the opportunity to make faces at the driver of the car behind us. 

On that Sunday, I was too busy thinking about what I’d heard in church to bother with the car behind me. I had this sense that Jesus was talking to me, and I was listening. I remember that conversation, and I responded with a six-year-old’s understanding of the gospel. I told Jesus I wanted to give my life to Him. I wanted Him to always be with me, like I knew He was on that morning in the way-back seat on the drive home from church. 

My first discipleship experiences

I grew up in an EFCA church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I loved our church. It was there I learned to love the “big C” Church. My earliest memories of church include my dad serving as an elder—in fact, he was chairman of the elder board for years. I grew up watching my dad serve faithfully—he was constantly involved in important “church conversations”—but I didn’t have the greatest relationship with him. We were never that close. He was closed-off and distant, and I was happy on my own, personally as well as spiritually. 

Discipleship happens best in the context of relationships. One could argue that discipleship only happens in the context of relationships.

And then I entered high school. The summer before my freshman year, our church welcomed a new student pastor. Brent showed up at our house on his first Sunday on the job to shoot hoops with me in our driveway. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my first experience of discipleship. 

Discipleship happens best in the context of relationships. One could argue that discipleship only happens in the context of relationships. 

Throughout my high school years, Jesus used Brent to teach me many life lessons. When I was a sophomore, he drove me to downtown Chicago one morning. He dropped me off in Daley Plaza and told me he'd pick me up after I shared the gospel with three people (not necessarily a strategy I would recommend to student pastors today, but…). It took me all morning to get up the courage to talk to three people, and I remember the conversation with Brent at lunch afterwards:

How was that? It took you a while to have three conversations. 

I hated it. I didn’t know any of those people, and they had no reason to listen to me. 

So I guess it’s easy for you to share your faith with your friends then? People who know you and trust you. 

I see your point… 

Jesus, through Brent, helped me understand I did not need to be ashamed of the gospel (Rom 1:16). 

When I was a junior, we had a weeklong lock-in at our church. The problem was I had tickets to go to a rock concert in Chicago that Wednesday night, so a friend and I snuck out of the church (without permission) and went to the concert (which was awesome). We got back after midnight, and Brent was waiting up for us. He let my friend go to bed and took me aside for a conversation about leadership and influence. That was years ago, and I still remember that conversation. 

Jesus, through Brent, showed me the importance of stewarding my influence to lead others toward Him (1 Tim 4:12). 

I decided to become a student pastor for one primary reason. I wanted to do for one other person what Brent did for me. What Jesus, through Brent, did in me.

My senior year, Brent took me to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. On the drive, he explained there was a conference for student pastors happening, and he wanted me to talk to the group about what teenagers needed from their pastors. I don’t remember what I said in that talk, but I do remember going out to lunch afterwards with Brent and Dann Spader from Sonlife Ministries. I remember our conversation about calling, about how to discern if I should pursue a career in vocational ministry. 

Jesus, through Brent, confirmed in me a calling to a career in ministry (2 Tim 2:2). 

Equipping student leaders through conversation

I decided to become a student pastor for one primary reason. I wanted to do for one other person what Brent did for me. What Jesus, through Brent, did in me. I've had the privilege of serving as a student pastor for several years, and for even more years as an executive pastor, in several different church settings. I've had the privilege of creating moments and having conversations with students, volunteers and especially youth pastors. Conversations I hope they will remember. Conversations I hope Jesus could use to form Himself in them. 

Students are not the “future” of the church; they’re the church right now.

And now years later, I have the privilege of serving with ReachStudents and the EFCA national office. As a team, we get to help EFCA churches become transformational ministries. We get to help student pastors lead their students toward fullness of life in Jesus. Students are not the “future” of the church; they’re the church right now. They’re ready to be discipled, and our focus is on equipping student leaders for those disciplemaking relationships. 

At ReachStudents, we’re committed to an ongoing conversation about who we want to see our students become by the time they graduate from high school. Here are six statements that reflect our prayers for discipled EFCA students: 

  1. Discipled students are lifelong learners. They realize the importance of having a “church home” and give priority to participating in weekend services to receive and grow from biblical teaching. They also seek to grow through personal spiritual practices like prayer and Bible reading. They have a basic understanding of the gospel and know what they believe. Romans 12:1, 2 Peter 3:18 
  2. Discipled students engage in a lifestyle of worship. They give God honor in all things and humbly connect their hearts to his. They can discern and surrender to the Holy Spirit’s voice and leadership in their lives. Colossians 3:16, 1 Corinthians 10:31 
  3. Discipled students connect in community with other Christians. They understand we all need encouragement, support and accountability. They are intentional about finding and developing these relationships, often in small groups offered through the church. John 17, Romans 15:5-7  
  4. Discipled students invite people to Jesus. They invest in relationships with people who do not yet know Him. They are motivated by how their own lives have been personally transformed. They look for opportunities to develop friendships, hear stories and someday introduce their friends to Jesus. Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8  
  5. Discipled students serve in the church. They are committed to discovering, developing and deploying their spiritual gifts. Service is not seen as an “obligation” but rather as an opportunity for Jesus to work through them to make a difference. 1 Peter 4:10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-31  
  6. Discipled students grow their hearts for the world around them. They think beyond themselves. They prioritize living and displaying the gospel, pursuing justice and mercy both here and around the world. Acts 4:32-25, Micah 6:8 

Looking at that list, you might think, “That’s not just a discipled student. That’s a mature disciple.” And you'd be right. Graduating from high school is a step into “adulthood,” but it’s also just another mile marker on our journey with Jesus. 

Now, let me encourage you to have a conversation. Take those six statements and have a private, honest conversation with Jesus. How are you doing on your journey? Where are things going great? Where might you feel a little stuck? And what would be a great next step for you to take? 

It just might be a conversation you remember for the rest of your life. 

Paul Miller

Director of Student Ministries, EFCA

Paul Miller serves as the director of student ministries for the EFCA. Paul most recently served as executive pastor at Hopevale Church (Saginaw, Michigan) and before that, spent 12 years in various ministry roles in Western Michigan and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Paul grew up attending Crystal Lake Evangelical Free Church (Crystal Lake, Illinois) and studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Paul and his wife, Bobbi, have been married for 30 years and have five kids.

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