Youth in Cell Ministry
Discipling the Next Generation Now
Chapter 1- Biblical Background for Youth Ministry
Around the world, God is transforming youth through cell ministry. Grace Fellowship Church in Hong Kong develops missionaries through youth cells and sends them to unreached people groups all over the world. The Elim Church in El Salvador is turning violent gang members into disciples of Jesus through youth cells. As gang members receive Jesus, they become part of a true, spiritual family—something they had only dreamed of finding through the gangs. York Alliance Church (YAC) in York Pennsylvania, is connecting youth with adults through their intergenerational cell groups. In the process, YAC has connected the young with the old and established a mentoring process that continues after college.
What God is doing today with youth reflects the biblical pattern of God’s work in young people from the earliest pages of Scripture. God has always prioritized youth and so should we.
The names of Moses, Joshua, Abraham, Joseph, Ruth, and David are familiar to Jews and Christians alike. Pulpits worldwide proclaim these men and women of God who are found in the pages of the Old and New Testament. Their names also appear in countless Bible stories in Sunday schools, adult Bible lessons, and even in the secular media. We call them heroes of the faith. They fuel our imaginations for what God can do and challenge us to become like them.
We often overlook, however, that God called these men and women as youth. As young people, God worked through them, tested them, and then moved them on to greater influence and leadership positions. Through their testimonies, we’re reminded that youth is an opportune time period for God to start the discipleship process. God loves to do the unexpected through youth and to challenge the false beliefs that only the older and wiser can be God’s special tools.
Joseph, was a “young man of seventeen” when God interrupted his sleep with some amazing dreams (Genesis 37:5). God eventually used Joseph to save the world from starvation and deliver his family, the bloodline of Christ, to prosperity in Egypt. Joseph listened to God and remained faithful for the twenty-two years that it took for the fulfillment of those dreams and the saving of many lives.
Joshua was Moses’ aid since “youth” (Numbers 11:28). When Moses interceded with God in the Tent of Meeting outside the camp, Joshua would go with him. After Moses received the message to pass onto the people, “his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent” (Exodus 33:11). Joshua’s strong leadership was developed through the many years Moses mentored him. Joshua’s influence can be seen by the fact that Israel continued to live for God even after his death: “Israel served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the LORD had done for Israel” (Joshua 24:31).
Samuel is another excellent example of God’s calling to young people. We read that the “boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli” (1 Samuel 3:1). He first heard God’s voice and call as a child. When Samuel was “old and gray,” he testified that it was from the time of his youth that he was a leader for the people of Israel (1 Samuel 12:2).
Ruth was still a young woman when she became a widow and followed Naomi to Bethlehem (Ruth 1).
David was a mere boy when he defeated Goliath and attracted the attention of the king. David’s character development and faith exploits began when he was a boy shepherd, caring for the sheep (1 Samuel 17).
Josiah was king at the age of eight, and by the time he was in his late teens, God used him to bring a rebellious nation back to God (2 Kings 22:1).
Daniel and his friends were probably teenagers when they were led across the Fertile Crescent into captivity. We can imagine them as young men, quite possibly in their late teens, as they testified to Yahweh and interpreted the king’s dreams (Daniel 1-5).
Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 11:9,”Be happy, young man, while you are young and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.” Solomon concludes in Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1 that the ultimate goal of life is to “remember” God while you are young and can still determine the course of your life. Many adults have become entangled in the affairs of the world, missing the peace and joy of following God wholeheartedly and living according to his truth.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a mere youth when the angel appeared to her with unprecedented news of her supernatural pregnancy (Luke 1:26-38).
Some have observed that Jesus led the original “youth group,” believing that Christ’s twelve disciples were probably under the age of eighteen (note 1). Christ’s choice of the twelve gives new meaning to youth ministry and motivation to disciple those who are young.
The Apostle Paul first began to work with Timothy when he was approximately sixteen years old. Paul discipled Timothy and developed him to become the pastor in Ephesus, a very important church. He exhorted his young disciple, “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). He then told Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).
There are over fifty direct references to the one anothers in Scripture, exhorting the Church to love one another, care for one another, confess faults to one another and so forth. These one another passages confront individualism, help Christ’s Church reflect the character of the Trinity, and combat increasing depersonalization. Youth, like the Church in general, are called to reflect God’s relational, triune character. Youth cell groups provide an opportunity for young people to experience face-to-face interaction and become relational disciples in the process.
Many youth, especially in the western world, experience deep loneliness. They go home to an empty house, where they are raised by the flickering blue parents called TV. They spend hours and hours alone in the little kingdoms called their bedrooms. More than any other generation, today’s young people have had to raise themselves without benefit of meaningful relationships (note 2). Youth cells provide those intimate relationships—friends with whom they can talk, listen, and share life. Seasoned youth worker, Ron Hutchcraft, says,
The number-one priority for modern young people is relationships. They will do almost anything to get one—and then to keep it. When a young person gets something that looks like it might be a descent relationship, he or she will pay almost any price for it. Relationships have become number one because deprivation creates value. Whatever you are deprived of is what you tend to value (note 3).
And it’s through these intimate connections that youth experience healing. When Charles entered the Saturday night youth cell for the first time, it seemed so strange to receive a hug and to hear the words “welcome home.” His mother never gave him a hug, nor mentioned the phrase “I love you.” She worked twelve hours each day in a “sweat shop” factory and had little positive energy to impart to her children. His dad, a construction worker, had not been around for six years.
Normally on Saturday night, Charles would go out with friends and smoke pot and take drugs. At sixteen Charles had developed a drug habit and was smoking pot several times per day. Yet, something happened that Saturday night in the cell meeting. Charles heard the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection and the possibility of living an abundant life here and now. The youth cell leader seemed to be talking directly to Charles, and he realized that he needed to change.
Charles tried to resist the cell leader’s words, but then something unexpected happened. The youth leader came and sat by Charles saying, “Jesus knows your sadness and is willing to help, as long as you will let him.” In that moment, Charles couldn’t take it. He broke down, weeping uncontrollably. He nodded his head informing the leader he wanted to receive Jesus to wash away his sins and sadness. “A tremendous peace came on me,” Charles said. “I felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders.” Charles felt love for the first time in his life as those in the youth cell embraced him, welcoming him to the family of God. “For the first time,” Charles said, “I felt like I had a purpose in my life.” Since that day, the youth cell has become a new family, a new home.
Never again did Charles use marijuana. “I was even disgusted by the odor of marijuana,” he said. He also developed a deep love for his mom, dad, and brothers and sisters. “The Elim Church is my new family, and I will continue to fight for my entire family to experience Jesus Christ, just like I have,” he said. Charles found a family through the cell group, a place to grow spiritually, and is in the process of becoming a disciple of Jesus. Relationships are at the heart of Christ’s incarnational ministry. Brian Sauder, co-author of the book Youth in Cell Ministry, writes,
For real change to occur in teens’ lives, especially in our postmodern world, kids have to experience, hear and see truth before they will believe it. In the small relational setting of cell groups, kids can be given responsibility and encouraged to take responsibility for their lives. They can learn to love God and find healing for their deepest pain (note 4).
Learning to submit to one another and practice humble service to each other pleases God because this is how the three persons of the Trinity relate to one another. Youth all over the world are being transformed to be like God through intimate connections in the cell.
Effective youth cells expect everyone to be a minister. They embrace the apostle’s exhortation in the last book of the Bible, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (Revelation 1:5-6).
This is one main reason why Jesus chose the small group atmosphere to impart knowledge to his own youth cell. Christ wanted the information to be disseminated into the lives of his disciples, so as he journeyed with them each day for three years, he not only taught them, but asked them to interact with others and apply his teachings. Sometimes Jesus would allow them to make mistakes in order to teach them important lessons and offer practical application of his teachings (Matthew 14:22ff).
Young people hear many sermons, but those messages are often difficult to apply until they are discussed. Small groups allow for discussion about how truth can be implemented in students’ lives. For example, if the church teaching is about witnessing for Christ, a student in a small group can talk about particular ways he can share Jesus with his classmates. The teaching moves from an impersonal, platform presentation to the small group and into the student’s lifestyle.
Many youth are not challenged. They are caught up in the vicious cycle of low expectations. They are not asked to do the hard things. No one expects much of them, and they even expect less of themselves. Cells are uniquely positioned to challenge youth to grow in their faith, develop relationships, disciple other youth, and reach a lost world for Jesus.
Alex and Brett Harris wrote a successful series of blogs called The Myth of Adolescence that eventually turned into a bestselling book entitled Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. They point out that teens desire deeper meaning and should be challenged to fulfill their dreams (note 5).
The Holy Spirit is able to do amazing things through young people who trust in him and are willing to step out. A cell church pastor in Africa, referring to student leaders, said, “While they may be young the Holy Spirit in them is no child.” The same Holy Spirit works just as powerfully in youth as he does in adults.
Thayana, one of the youth pastors over cell groups in a Foursquare church in Belem, Brazil, is helping to break the mold of traditional youth ministry and showing others that youth can accomplish a lot. Thayana led her first small group at the Foursquare church in Belem when she was fourteen. She excitedly talked about Jesus at her school—inviting her friends to her cell group. Her group led so many people to Jesus and water baptism that in one year it had multiplied into two groups and then two more the next year. By the time she was sixteen, she already had five small groups under her care. When Thayana was nineteen, she became one of the network pastors. There are now more than 200 small groups from the one she started. She personally supervises a network of eighty-three cells.
Thayana is exceptional in her leadership and coaching skills. She is also in a church that allows youth to thrive. All Christians are encouraged to actively participate in cell ministry. In fact, youth cell ministry stands against the idea that only the youth pastor does all the work while the rest of the youth sit and listen—and perhaps engage in a few programs.
Participation is at the core of the cell. No one sits as a spectator only. As youth share their stories, ask for prayer, and minister to one another, they are transformed in the process. They become the ministers and grow as Christ’s disciples. The best cell leaders, in fact, empower others. They are facilitators. The word facilitate means to make easy, and the best facilitators make it easy for others to participate. They unwrap the gifts and talents of those in the group. They only talk some thirty percent of the time and encourage those in the group to speak the remaining seventy percent. Talking, of course, is only one aspect of cell life. Participation is far broader and involves active engagement in each part of the cell group.
The gifts of the Spirit are freely given to all, regardless of age, gender, or race. 1 Peter 4:10 tells us that all those born of the Spirit have at least one spiritual gift. Youth, in fact, are prime candidates to use their spiritual gifts because they abound with energy and are ready to practice what God has given them. They expect God to move and unlike many adults, have not become hardened and limited in their thinking about God’s power and willingness. Kara Powell writes,
There is no Scriptural evidence that gifts are given to believers at a certain age. Rather, they are granted when any child, teenager, or adult surrenders his or her life to Christ. The church, Christ’s ongoing body, requires its members of all ages to exercise these gifts in order to remain healthy and productive (1 Corinthians 12:14-20) (note 6).
Antioch Community Church, based out of Waco, Texas, began as a youth movement on Baylor University campus and now plants churches worldwide, focusing on young people who in turn will reach a lost world for Jesus. It is not a traditional Pentecostal church, but they do encourage youth to use their spiritual gifts. My 22-year-old daughter, Nicole, recently opened a high school group at an Antioch Church in Fullerton, California. She describes her experience,
Each youth that walked through the door at the life group was in tears during worship as we prayed over them, spoke prophetic words over their lives, and listened to their hearts. One student’s head was healed, another girl decided to give her life to the Lord fully for the first time, and all were deeply touched by Jesus. At the end of the night, one of the students began weeping and declaring that, “Surely, this was the start of a youth movement!” The weeks that followed were just as supernatural as the students began to minister to each other. We walked away each week more amazed at the beauty and power of God (note 7).
In the cell group, each person plays an essential role. In fact, those who have a more visible role are not more important. The parts that are unseen are given special honor. The body needs each other to be healthy and whole. The goal is for everyone to participate, discover their gifts, and minister to others.
God sets youth in his supernatural, organic body according to the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12-14). In all three of the major passages in which Paul talks about the body of Christ, he defines each member’s part in the body by their corresponding gifts (Ephesians 4; Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12-14). The teaching that the Church is the body of Christ is to remind the Church that every believer is valuable and essential and needs to exercise his or her gifts (note 8). Those in the early New Testament church had the opportunity to interact among themselves as they met in house churches. They grew together as disciples as they exercised their spiritual gifts and ministered to one another.
Small groups are an ideal atmosphere to experience God’s power, discover spiritual gifts, and minister to one another. The Spirit-filled small group, in fact, was the “normal” church in the New Testament; it was never seen as an “addition” to the “real” church. The small group was the church. These small house churches would meet together in a larger group for corporate celebrations whenever possible, but the small, Spirit-filled house churches were the main vehicle through which Christ’s body grew in the New Testament period.
Effective youth cells and youth cell leaders make disciples in the same way Jesus made them. The cell is small enough to mobilize each person and to get them involved in using their gifts and talents. Ginny Ward Holderness echoes this, “Experience has shown that young people will be actively involved in youth ministry if they have ownership in it. They need to feel that youth ministry is theirs, that whatever happens at their church belongs to them. They need to own it, drive it, and care for it” (note 9). When the group is small and intimate, people are confident to participate because of face-to-face involvement.
My good friend, Daphne Kirk, runs a ministry called Generation to Generation. She believes that preparing the next generation is God’s major emphasis in Scripture and his primary objective in the Church today. As the Psalmist declared, “One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts” (145:3-4). Not all generations are successful in doing this. The generation that followed the Exodus of Egypt, for example, “knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). Their parents failed to instill in their children the true knowledge of God and his great acts.
Reaching the next generation compels youth ministry. It’s the zeal to pass on God’s truth to those who will be the leaders of tomorrow’s Church. Paul’s plea to Timothy to pass on his knowledge to faithful people is what youth ministry is all about (2 Timothy 2:2). Each generation must be taught who God is and what he has done for humanity. It’s false to assume that future generations will fully embrace Christianity because their parents were Christians. The reality is that faith tends to dissipate and lose its excitement in the next generation.
Prioritizing the future generation means preparing youth now. Just as New Testament house churches developed future leadership in a warm, intimate setting, the cell provides an ideal environment to develop the next generation. There are many youth right now who could change the course of history in our cities, countries, and nations. God wants to give us a new vision for making disciples of youth in order to equip them to change the world and reshape the future.
1. There is no indicator in Scripture of a specific age for any disciple, but the historical context gives clues.
In the time of Jesus, a Jewish man received a wife after the age of 18. Ray VanderLaan gives various arguments for the young ages of the disciples here: https://kbonikowsky.wordpress.com/2008/08/20/jesus-disciples-a-teenage-posse/
2 Ron Hutchcraft, The Battle for a Generation (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1996), p. 20.
3. Ibid., p. 20.
4. Brian Sauder and Sarah Mohler, compilers, Youth Cells and Youth Ministry (Ephrata, PA: House to House Publications, 2000), p. 56.
5. Alex and Brett Harris, Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2008), p. 12.
6. Kara Eckmann Powell, “Chapter 12: Focusing Youth Ministry through Community,” in Kenda Creasy Dean, Chap Clark, Dave Rahn, editors, Starting Right: Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001), p. 201.
7. Personal email to me on June 10, 2016.
8. George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 545.
9. Ginny Ward Holderness, Teaming Up: Shared Leadership in Youth Ministry (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 38.