3 misconceptions about youth ministry leadership

I stood on the starting line thinking to myself why am I doing this again? I was moments away from the sound of the starting gun in my first competition of the 1500 meters a.k.a. the metric mile. As a pole vaulter the longest I had ever run in a competition was about 150 feet. However, I found myself in a long distance race to help friends fulfill the requirement for the number of athletes to make this race official. The atmosphere was intense because these decathletes were trying to qualify for the upcoming USA Outdoor National Championships. The term excruciating pain just begins to describe my experience.

Though I tried as hard as possible, I can confidently say that I did not contribute in anyway, other than just being there. However, I am still convinced that someone strapped a large appliance on my back for the last lap of the race. In short, though I tried very hard my lack of training was the key missing factor.

Many youth leaders today try very hard to serve God in youth ministry. However, because of there lack of training, they end up feeling frustrated. Thousands of youth workers give it their all every week and are left feeling like they didn't impact or influence as much as they had hoped. I tried just as hard as all of the other athletes in my race however; they had a significant amount of training to accompany their effort. Thus, the outcome of their race was MUCH more effective than mine. While they focused on strategy and preparation, I focused on survival. I wonder how many youth workers serve students week after week, trying as hard as they know how, but ultimately they're just trying to survive.

I have the privilege to travel all over the US to work with youth leaders and I have observed 3 major misconceptions in regard to youth workers trying to serve rather than training to serve. The following 3 misconceptions are not designed to be an either/or proposition but rather promote balance and bring attention to following neglected areas of youth leadership.

1) Youth leadership is about trying to have all of the answers rather than training to ask the right questions, in the right context at the right time.

Through out the Gospels Jesus life and ministry were full of answering questions with questions. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus asked more than 50 questions during conversations. Jesus exemplifies the ministry of active listening through probing questions that allowed/forced people to come to their own conclusions. Rather than spoon feeding answers Jesus shows us how to challenge peoples world view by going beyond the easily articulated snap shot version and exploring the foundation and ramifications of their belief system. Ron Martoia (pastor, author, speaker, and my boss) said it this way Our leadership post is more agitant and irritant than encyclopedic. He wrote an article on this subject for Rev. Magazine in the 2003 Nov/Dec issue called From Gladiator to Irritator.

It seems that youth leadership has embraced Jesus example of servant leadership by washing feet however; has seemingly avoided Jesus' example of going into the Temple and questioning what is being done, how it was being done, and demanding that the Church return back to what it was designed for? Don't most people in the Church view leaders as spiritual and biblical answer people? Is this not why most phone calls and appointments involve the leader being the answer person? Could this be why many leaders are frustrated that the people around them don't take initiative and think for themselves? Have you sought out people who will consistently ask you the hard questions?

2) Youth leadership is about trying to complete goals rather than training to be a cultural and environmental architect.

Very rarely did Jesus discuss strategic plans or objectives with his disciples. Jesus seems much more concerned about the feel and acceptance issues of the community. For example the Sermon on the Mount seems to be much more focused on helping people change their focus and attitude through character development and thus, creating a healthy community. In comparison to setting organizational and systematic goals that he was trying to propel people towards. While every healthy organization must have vision and direction, this seems to be a secondary issue. Without an environment where a team experiences loving, connective, intimate relationships then hiking to the top of the mountain can become empty and unsatisfying.

Could it be that God is looking for men and women youth leaders concerned with creating environments where God can have some intimate time with his students? In other words, youth leadership is about creating environments to engage human beings rather than human doings. If we allow God to intercede independent of us to deeply impact a student's perception of being the motivation of the doing will more naturally occur.

If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, You have faith; I have deeds. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. James 2:16-18

A youth leaders training regiment is to make sure that a life of loving God and loving others flows in and around our teams. When it flows, motivation and momentum create velocity for the team and the individuals toward the summit.

3) Youth ministry is about trying to create a place where students fellowship and are discipled rather than creating a place where students can belong before they believe.

It seems that many youth groups are more concerned with what students are not doing rather than what they are doing. In other words the practical definition of holiness is defined in terms of sin management and separation rather than what they have committed to. There are no examples in the New Testament of Jesus leading someone in a sinner's prayer to signify that person being born again. Jesus primarily spoke in terms of lifestyle and relationship and allowed people to be in the process of discipleship. Could it be that the process of discipleship begins before and continues after evangelism? The goal seems to be more of helping people take an honest inventory of where they are and then encourage, equip and empower them to take the next step forward. The goal then of teaching/preaching is not to say something novel, profound, or has never been said before. Instead, it is to help students obey the things Christ has commanded us. The intake of information does not necessarily equate into transformation. The reality of our situation is that people want to sample something before they buy it. This makes the authenticity and environment of a youth ministry the utmost priority. I have done hundreds of surveys of visiting students over the years and ask them to describe their experience with us. In short, the majority of students describe their experience in terms of how they felt during their visit and what they felt from others.

This who is in and who is out mentality was exactly what Jesus constantly challenged the Pharisees with. There are churches in our area where the youth pastor would be fired if he was caught smoking a cigar on the golf course. However, his termination would be implemented by the Senior Pastor that is 70 pounds overweight. Scripture is clear in regard to gluttony, but I'm still searching for the cigar reference. Is it any wonder why so many non-believers feel distant, unable to connect, and unworthy to be a part of the community. We need to invite students onto the same path that we are on. Students are looking to see if we are fellow travelers, if our Christianity really works for us, and if we truly believe and experience that in which we are inviting them into. Only this kind of authentic training will help us in our efforts to try to include and invite students into a community of believers.

Genuine transformation is what creates an environment where students can come investigate and really see something happen in other student's lives. If all we do flows from who we are, then this must be our starting point as youth leaders. Ultimately we must remember that God is more concerned with custom imprinting our souls as youth leaders rather than building a youth ministry through us.

For further research Dr. Ron Martoia's book Morph! The Texture of Leadership for Tomorrow's Church (Group Publishing, 2003) goes into detail on the above topics and provides further insight into these misconceptions. Special thanks to Dr. Martoia for teaching and mentoring me in the above concepts.

Simply Youth Ministry is here to equip, connect, and recharge youth workers with the tools, relationships,
and confidence they need to help teenagers develop a committed relationship with Jesus Christ.

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