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How to Morph Into Student-led Youth Ministry

How one longtime youth pastor has morphed his ministry into a “student-led, adult-mentored” culture, where there are no adults leading small groups or, really, any ministry.

By Brandon Kennard
“These middle school kids have way too much energy for me; I think I may be in over my head.”And with that, my newest recruit for our adult leadership team signaled the end of his oh-so-brief youth ministry trajectory. He’d just experienced his first ministry event, where our sugar-overloaded kids played toilet-paper hockey while our student interns raced around on motorized toilets—all before our worship service even started. Just a few weeks before, this earnest new recruit had enthusiastically pledged himself to our ministry: “I know this is where God wants me.” But his first dip into the water was an icy plunge. Game over.

Of course, youth ministry requires a special breed of volunteer—nothing new about that. Over the years I’ve talked to so many youth pastors who’ve struggled, just like me, to find adult leaders who are ready and willing to invest in teenagers’ lives. It’s simply hard to find people who are genuinely committed and passionate. But about a year ago the obvious solution to this persistent problem hit me like, well, a motorized toilet.

I already had a room-full of potential leaders who were both passionate and eager to serve in my ministry.

Sure, I’d always had student leaders involved in my ministry, but what if I found ways to raise the bar so that many, many more served in roles usually filled by adults? As I started down this path I quickly realized the “chair-sitters” in my ministry seemed disconnected only because I’d given them few outlets to give. They wanted more than what I was offering them. A potent mix of opportunity and encouragement blasted them out of those seats. Soon, I’d totally recast my ministry’s structure—I call it “Student-Led, Adult-Guided.”

1. FIRST, THE PUSH-BACK
I was so excited to plunge into the possibilities with my new idea that I forgot about the inevitable push-back I was sure to get from stakeholders in the church. Many reminded me that teenagers are often irresponsible and unreliable. They are, they told me, very quick to offer suggestions but very reluctant to follow through. No argument from me—but I reminded them that the same complaints applied to many of my past adult leaders. Given our spotty success at recruiting and equipping the kind of adult leaders who would go all-in with our group, what did I have to lose?


2. NEXT, SCARED STRAIGHT

As I started preparing our teenagers to serve and plugging them into new leadership roles, I had to bite my lip and let them fail. When they tasted reality—that we had no back-up plan if they didn’t show up to serve in their area of responsibility—they quickly upped their commitment level and made sure we could count on them. For example, when those who’d committed to run A/V for our regular meeting realized our service would be in jeopardy unless we had someone running the soundboard, they took personal responsibility.

Soon I noticed something that defied conventional wisdom: the more responsibility I gave our student leaders, the more I could depend on them. In retrospect, this is no mystery. Teenagers are used to adults pushing them to be their best—in athletics, academics, and extra-curriculars their coaches and parents are not willing to accept mediocrity. Sadly, in the church we’ve decided “pushing them to be their best” is akin to making them drink poison. We fear that if we push our teenagers too much in their ministry roles, like we do with their sports and grades, that we’ll push them away from God. I now know the outcome is quite the opposite.


3. AND THEN, GIVING MUCH AND EXPECTING MUCH

The deeper we moved into our new ministry paradigm, the more two vital prerequisites for success emerged: Our teenagers needed to know that we had high expectations for them, and that they’d always have someone encouraging them. So, if their role was to lead a Bible study or our worship time, we expected them to live with integrity and to show up when they were supposed to. And they knew we’d be right there with them, offering help when they needed it and giving them the resources they needed to succeed.

Currently, we have one adult who sets up training for all of our A/V student leaders. He trains the teenagers on the team and creates a schedule for them. We’ve also created a student teaching team—they lead our small group Bible studies. Adult mentors meet with them before the weekly lesson to make sure they’re prepared, then they attend the small groups as “observers,” not teachers. In the past adults ran our preteen ministry (5th and 6th graders). Now we’ve trained leaders in our senior high ministry to take over most of the responsibilities, including teaching in their classes and running our monthly event for these kids.

We also have teenagers leading worship, organizing mission projects, and even brainstorming new strategies and ideas for our overall ministry—all under the guidance (not control!) of our adult leaders. By handing over more ministry ownership to our youth, we’re already seeing the excitement begin to boil in the next generation of student leaders who are moving through our church’s children’s ministry.

Through the one-two punch of high expectations and high nurture, our teenagers have embraced this biblical truth: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:48). Most have turned out to be just as reliable and responsible as the adults they’ve replaced (actually, many are even better!).

4. FINALLY, THE WILLING VS. THE QUALIFIED
Today’s teenagers live in a fast-paced world—it’s normal for them to feel over-committed and busy. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but I refuse to use it as an excuse for why they don’t have time to make a commitment to our ministry. Just like adults, young people will make time for what’s important to them. My goal is to move serving Christ and the church to the top of their priority list. And that movement starts by searching for those who are, first and foremost, wanting to use their skills and abilities no matter how polished they are.

We have teenagers who are incredibly tech-savvy—they may not know everything an adult knows about the Bible, but they can run any piece of equipment we have in our ministry. As they “give what they have to give” we also see them hungering to know more about God’s truths. They may not have the sharpest speaking skills, but they see that I’m excited to help them to improve, building their confidence and equipping them with the tools they need to get there.

Since we shifted our strategy, equipping our teenagers to lead almost every aspect of our ministry, I’ve morphed my role from an adult recruiter to a student-leader equipper. We still have adult volunteers, but their job is now to coordinate and mentor.

When we began this transformation a year ago we only had a handful of teenagers who were genuinely eager to dive in. Like the loaves and fishes that Jesus blessed, then multiplied, we took what we had and offered them to God’s service. Within a couple of months we had more student leaders than we knew to do with. Why? Many of our chair-sitters felt empowered and encouraged when they saw their peers leading. When our kids saw only adults leading our Bible studies they got the (unintentional) message that real teaching was out of their league. But when they saw one of their peers teaching in our small groups, the possibilities opened up to them.

Our student leaders have become fantastic recruiters as well. When they see kids who are engaged, active participants in a ministry they’re quick to encourage them to give it a shot. When one teenager takes on a new role—from giving our announcements to teaching our Bible studies—many others are quick to volunteer. Teenagers are fueling other teenagers in ways that adults simply can’t do.

And in the last couple of months I’ve seen something new surfacing in our ministry. Our kids have accepted such a deeper level of ownership that they’re now taking the initiative to meet a need when they see it. For example…

• One of our adult “observers” was sitting in her small group meeting a few weeks ago when her girls starting talking about how they wanted to get more people involved. She sat back and listened as the girls brainstormed ideas that would make it happen. At the close of the meeting they had an impressive game plan—from making videos to setting up involvement tables before our regular gathering.

• At a recent worship service I watched as a few teenagers initiated a time of prayer for some kids who really needed it.

• And just a few weeks ago one of our student worship leaders committed to recruiting and scheduling new band members.

These kids are learning that they can lead. And our adult leaders have been able to take a step back, give guidance and input when necessary, then set our teenagers loose to make their ideas a reality.

As a youth pastor I’ve always encouraged our teenagers to believe in themselves, often quoting 1 Timothy 4:12: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” It’s one thing to quote scripture to them; it’s quite another thing to actually entrust them with greater responsibilities—that’s what has truly enabled them to reach their true potential.

Brandon is a longtime youth pastor who lives in Texas.

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How to Morph Into Student-led Youth M...

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