When I first became a youth minister, I was completely overwhelmed by the task I had undertaken. I had some ideas about youth ministry, but it was obvious that the students in the group had other ideas. Wanting to give a sense of ownership in the group, I invited five of the students to meet with me once a month to help plan and execute activities for the youth group.
I didn’t know it, but I had set up a small leadership team. Being new and ignorant, I didn’t realize it, but every one of those students have the potential to be amazing leaders in whatever field they choose to go into. I only realized this fully when one of those students, who is now in college, became involved with Next in Line Ministries, whose website you’re probably reading this on. This young man, who became involved with our audio/video equipment, jumped right in to our main discussions and was showing amazing wisdom and skill in what was a very involved meeting. Needless to say, Jake has since joined our board at Next in Line.
Back when I first put together that team, I was looking for a way to involve the students and truthfully take some stress off of me. Looking back, I realize I missed an amazing opportunity to speak into a group of extremely gifted young people whom I have no doubt will be leading their churches, businesses and communities very soon.
It occurs to me that youth ministers potentially have an amazing opportunity to influence the foundation of a young person’s leadership development. Why aren’t we seizing this opportunity? Why don’t we see the moment that’s been given to us to raise up the next generation of leaders?
Don’t we see it as important? Do we view it as our job? I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even think about leadership development. It was all I could do to put together two lessons a week and plan special events. I felt like I didn’t have time to do leadership training, and honestly, I didn’t even see it as important. So why does leadership training come under the job description of a youth leader, and better yet, why is youth leadership training so important?
Consider these five reasons:
1. Current Events
2. Leadership training for youth gives them purpose
3. Christian youth are gifted by God and are intended to use those gifts
4. Most College leadership training is secular and will not use biblical models
5. Do you want young leaders to repeat your mistakes?
I know you’ve been watching the news lately. It seems that every week there’s a new story about a leader who has fallen from their position. Whether arrested for some illegality, caught in a sexual scandal, or benefitting to the detriment of their company or the people who work for it, America has had more than her share of fallen leaders.
America is left looking for a better, more responsible breed of leader. Many look to the government to fix the situation. Others look to our educational system to turn out the next generation of leaders. Why aren’t they looking to the church? Is it because they don’t want us to train young leaders? Is it because the church has had more than its share of leadership scandals? Or is it because we’ve never given the culture any reason to expect us to train ethically responsible, morally centered, Christ-following leaders?
With all of these leadership failings, the church has to step up and take an active role in the education, mentoring, and training of young leaders. To do so obviously helps the church, as the young leaders who are coming into their own will be better prepared to meet the rigors of church leadership. It also helps the culture at large if a new group of young men and women who are equipped, passionate, and Christ-centered enter leadership positions in all aspects of society.
Pastors and Youth Pastors, you are uniquely positioned to offer this training. You already have a relationship with these young people, and are (hopefully) laying a good Biblical foundation for the work you would do with them in leadership training. They trust us, and look to us for guidance in spiritual matters. They can look to us for guidance in leadership matters as well.
Leadership training for youth gives purpose
George Barna just released a report that stated that ½ of 1% of people ages 18-23 hold a Christian worldview. That’s just scary. Want to hear more? The church loses almost 80% of its young people after High School. Why? There are many reasons, but one that I’m particularly interested in is purpose. We do our best to entertain and educate youth while they are in High School, but something that we often fail to do is show them purpose. What role do I play in the church going forward? Is there a place for me in church now that I’m “an adult”? What does God want from my life? On a larger scale, “why am I here”?
Leadership training, if done right, focuses students on their strengths and the roles those strengths play in church and society. For some of your students, that will mean leadership in the church. For others, it means leadership in Government, business, or even in their households. This awareness gives our students purpose. Purpose gives students a reason to stay in church. I promise you that students will find purpose for their lives, however misguided it will be, from their friends, families, college, and culture. Sadly, most of this purpose will lead them away from the church. In short, if we don’t show them their God-given purpose, we’ll lose our students to those forces that will.
Christian youth are gifted by God and are intended to use those gifts
We read in Ephesians 4 about some of the gifts that are given to believers to promote unity, spiritual growth, and service to our Lord. I think sometimes we forget that believing youth are given gifts as well, even leadership gifts. Many times we don’t think of our students as having any of the leadership gifts because, blinded by their age and maturity, we don’t see them as leaders. Spiritual gifts don’t automatically kick in when they become adults, they are there from the time of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But, just as in adults, these gifts need to be identified, strengthened, and put into practice by the youth that possess them.
The leadership gifts, as those mentioned in Ephesians 4, are those most often overlooked in youth groups, because the youth group already has a leader (s). So many times we think of youth ministry as top down (and we youth leaders are at the top), ignoring the fact that we may have many gifted youth that are just itching for a chance to lead. A leadership development team is the perfect place to develop youth with the leadership gifts. The youth ministry is also a wonderful place for those students to begin trying their leadership gifts, under your supervision, of course.
Those youth with the leadership gifts need to learn about and use those gifts. Anything else is unwise stewardship. Just as any other believer with a gift, we were given the gift to be exercised. For a youth with a leadership gift, there is no time like the present to begin using it, practicing it, and honing it for God’s call on the student’s life. Most College and High School leadership training is secular and will not use biblical models
There are other sources of leadership development. Most of them are good, and some of them are excellent. The college where I did my undergraduate studies is well known for its leadership studies programs. Many larger High Schools have leadership development programs as well.
Many of these leadership programs revolve around making right choices and warding off peer pressure, but are not based on biblical leadership models. Often , these programs are underpinned with developmental psychology and the newest philosophies of business leadership. Those things can be helpful, and any leadership program that lacks a notion of developmental psychology or that doesn’t pay attention to new leadership trends is bound to be lacking, but these programs are not based on God’s Word, and therefore lack Truth. The world’s notion of leadership differs from that of the Bible. I probably don’t have to tell you that.
The Bible promotes a style of leadership that is counterintuitive to almost every model that our culture has produced. Being last, serving others, working for the benefit of all but yourself; these are but a few of the leadership qualities that Jesus promotes as necessary for Christian leadership, but that the world has a hard time understanding.
While I am elated that more colleges and High Schools are offering leadership programs, they can never replace Biblical leadership training or excuse us from training other leaders. In fact, in light of knowing that this other training exists and is influencing our young people, now more than ever I think we’d see the importance of leadership development in youth.
Do you want young leaders to repeat your mistakes?
All right, time to dig deep. Do you remember when you were just starting to take baby steps in your first leadership position? It was a truly awkward time for me. Being thrown into a place of leadership with little or no training freaked me out enough. Mistakes had very real consequences not only in my life, but in the lives of those I ministered to. I remember talking to my pastor and some other leaders about my struggles. Basically, I was told that “we all pay our dues”. Every one of them had gone through the same thing, and had learned through trial.
I was quite disturbed at this. Why do we have to pay our dues? There’s no doubt we learn through mistakes, but if we can keep from making a few of them because we learn beforehand, wouldn’t that be better? Wouldn’t it save us some heartache? Wouldn’t it save our congregation some heartache? Couldn’t it save some ministries and ministers? I think it would.
I don’t wish those first days of ministry on anybody. I have always wished there was a primer for me to look at as I began my journey in Christian leadership, some way I could have been prepared for what was in front of me. As a leader looking back on this, I want desperately to spare new leaders some of the pain inherent in the early days of my ministry.
Youth Leadership development can lay a foundation of information and experiences that will give a new leader some idea of what they are facing. They might not be spared all the new experiences (and resulting pain), but they will have a better idea of what’s happening , what to expect, and what not to expect.
Students that are allowed to make mistakes under someone else’s guidance are better prepared for when those mistakes are costly. Better that those mistakes are worked out now where a real support group and structure can help diffuse some of the consequences, than when the new leader is on their own in a ministry.
We can also use our experiences to mentor the youth under our guidance. They can be told what to do and what not to do until they can repeat it back to you in their sleep, but when they see real life consequences involved, and the chance to miss some of that pain, they will take it to heart and guard their hearts and steps.
Put very simply, the youth are the future. That seems pretty broad, and it is, but it is no less true for leadership. The youth that are leaving your youth group today will emerge from wherever they go as tomorrow’s leaders. The fact that youth will eventually lead hasn’t changed since the beginning of time, and it seems our response to that fact hasn’t either. We’ve sat by and watched our teens march into the unknown for years. We’ve let them repeat our mistakes. We’ve let the secular system have its way with them for too long.
The world is screaming for new leadership. It yearns for integrity, morality, ethical behavior, and responsibility. Those are things that we believe in, things God has written on our hearts as a saved people. We are already teaching young people how to lead a Christian life. Why can’t we teach them to apply it to their leadership? It won’t be easy, it won’t be quick. But we can do it, and we should. After all, who are those most in the wrong: the leaders who fail, or the people who fail to train those leaders?
I hope you join a growing movement across the world that capitalizes on the opportunity we have to speak Christ into a group of emerging leaders. We need to band together, learn from each other, lean on each other when things get tough, and encourage each other along the way. I hope this article has inspired you a bit, and I hope that student leadership development becomes a priority in your ministry.