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Adding numbers or growing leaders?

Updated: Jan 28, 2020

One of the challenges we face in youth ministry is that effectiveness is difficult to measure. Fruit takes time to mature and consequently, the outcomes of what we accomplish from week to week are not immediately measurable.

In the absence of immediate means of measurement, we find ourselves settling for short term ways to assess what we do and to justify our effectiveness, "How many attended last week's programme?" "How many were saved at Easter Camp?" "How many are coming to church on Sunday morning?"

Anyone who has been in youth ministry for any length of time has been asked these questions by church leaders, interested adults or youth leaders from other churches.

We all too easily find ourselves asking the same questions and they have either led us to feel good about what we're doing or to despair over what we're doing... or not doing. Fortunately, or unfortunately, these questions are not the most important questions to ask.

What we need to reflect on as we approach youth ministry is whether or not we are pleasing God and doing ministry the way He wants us to.

Of course, how that looks exactly will vary from church to church but fundamentally we have the example of Jesus to look at and learn from and one thing stands out when we examine His approach.

Jesus was disconcertingly disinterested in numbers. He was remarkably apathetic about bigger and better. And on those occasions where He did draw a large crowd, He at times seemed quick to find ways to disperse or dissuade them (for example, see Matthew 8:18-22 and Luke 5:12-16).

Instead of focussing on building crowds and numbers, it's unmistakably clear that Jesus was more focussed on building the individual and the few. In fact, if there was a "strategy" at all, it was simply this - to engage the individual and invest in a few.

Even more startling was the few He chose. On the face of it, they were not the most remarkable candidates for leadership in the Kingdom of God that Jesus was announcing. They were a mix of the brash, the doubting, the unreliable, the unspectacular... and even the traitor!

Yet history shows the impact these few people had upon the world after spending three years with Jesus and then being filled with His Spirit.

As we commence another year of youth ministry, where is your focus? Have you found yourself already strategising over ways to make your weekly youth programme more appealing, more exciting and more effective in attracting outsiders?

If so, striving to improve our programmes is not wrong, but let me suggest a far more important priority, one that will in time yield much greater fruit. That priority is developing leaders.

How do we develop leaders? The first step, of course, is to accept that this a priority. The second step is to believe that anyone can become a leader. Not just the confident, charismatic, upfront young person but the one who loves Jesus but messes up often, as well as the quiet young person who faithfully attends all the programmes but has no apparent leadership desire or even ability.

What "leadership" looks like from person to person will vary greatly, but all have a calling to offer leadership in some capacity. It was true of Jesus' rag-tag leaders-in-training and it's true of the young people you lead.

If you're willing to accept that leadership development, even of the least and the least likely, is your priority, let me suggest two practical strategies for the new year.

Firstly, compile a list of all the serving opportunities in your church you can think of that young people might be willing to commit to. These opportunities may be within the wider church as well as within the youth ministry. Some opportunities will be "upfront" ones such as leading games, facilitating a small group of younger people, helping with worship or teaching.

Other opportunities may be "behind-the-scenes", such as setting up for an event, or perhaps working on publicity or social media, or operating the data projector during worship.

Some roles may be individual ones while others may involve inviting young people to join a team such as the worship team, a service team, a preaching team, or a social activities team.

Once you've compiled the list talk with your young people and encourage them to sign up for something. Don't make it sound like a job or a duty. Remember our purpose is leadership development so help them find something that fits their gifts and gives them the satisfaction of doing something for God.

The second strategy is to form a leadership development team which young people are invited to join. I suggest making this open to those in their mid to late teens - maybe those 16 or over. That way you get an opportunity to observe younger teens as they prove their suitability for such a team and are given something to aspire to.

Again, this team is not just for the "obvious" leaders, but for those with potential and even those who don't see themselves as leaders. The fact that you see the potential in a young person might be the very thing that sets them on a path to leadership.

Once you have your team, pour into them! Every member needs to have at least one sphere of leadership they are engaged in - something they feel called to and are gifted for. Meet regularly (at least once a month) with your team and offer plenty of encouragement along with leadership insights either from you or from leaders in your church. You can even read a book together or watch some leadership videos before discussing them.

Don't let lack of potential leaders discourage you. Even if you only have one person, imagine the impact you could have on them if you make helping them grow as a leader a priority.

To help you develop leaders, every Monday we will be posting a blog post for young leaders based on the book of First Timothy. We simply work through this book verse by verse gleaning from it insights especially helpful for emerging leaders. Set up a social media group for your young leaders and share these posts with them. You can view the first post here. Each post finishes with a question or two to reflect on. You can encourage team members to post their thoughts and discuss.

Finally, at times youth ministry can feel like trying to squeeze unlimited opportunities into limited time. Yes, there are programmes to be run which must be run well. And yes there is a whole community of young people "out there" that need reaching.

You can't do it all yourself, but you can focus on that which ultimately yields the most fruit: investing in young leaders who will see faith as more than a personal system of beliefs or adherence to a moral code. 

Instead, they will see faith as an invitation to participate in the growth of the Kingdom of God while experiencing the enabling and empowering of the King Himself who lives in them by His Spirit.

These experiences of being used by God draw young people closer to Him and are the best way I know to develop life long disciples.

This is fruitful youth ministry.


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