Sep 09

The biggest threat to your youth work


I was away over the summer at a youth conference and heard a story that reminded me of what must be the biggest threat to any Christian youth work. It is something that I see happening much more than I should. It is an all-too-common story.

threatThe story was of a youth group which grew really quickly to over 100 young people coming each week. However, when the youth leader left, so did the majority of the young people. The truth of the situation was that the youth leader was a very charismatic person, trendy and relevant to young people, so they were naturally attracted. The leader had relied on his personality to attract the young people rather than introducing them to Jesus and that being their primary attraction.

Many churches seem to fall for this mistake when they try to recruit leaders for their youth work. I am often told that you need to be young to be a youth leader or the young people won’t connect with you. Yet the best teachers in many secondary schools are the older teachers, who have the experience and wisdom that comes with teaching for a long period.

Why is it that we rely on human personality to attract young people more than we trust that Jesus is sufficient for everyone, even young people? What do we fear?

Some youth work can look great on the outside, especially if we look at numbers, but it is worth digging a bit deeper to find out what is actually going on each week. Does the youth leader need to be the centre of attention? Does everything revolve around what they do, what they put on, the game they run? Or is it a more shared experience, where different people lead different elements, and the leader is pointing people to God.

Of course, we all want to be liked. It would be immensely difficult and depressing if no one in our youth group seems to like us. But there has to be a balance. Much of this has to do with our own heart: do we live for Jesus in a way that matches what we believe? Do we get our assurance and acceptance of who we are from God or do we need to receive this from the young people?

From time to time, I meet a youth leader who says something like ‘I get much more from leading the youth group than the young people probably get from my leading’. On the surface it is a nice, humble statement but when you think about it, it is not what we want from our youth leaders. Jesus’ model of leadership is sacrificial. We need leaders who will lead sacrificially. If we are getting more from it than those we serve, then I would suggest we might like to try harder.

If you are a youth leader, let’s take a moment to consider truthfully where you fit in on this scale of attraction. Use the following questions to help:

  • Are you happy to sit quietly and let others lead the conversation?
  • If another leader gets praise for something, are you delighted or jealous?
  • Do you talk more about yourself than you ask questions of others?
  • Do you give good ideas for games, activities and sessions to other leaders or do you have to lead them?
  • How often do you pray for the young people, both with them and in your own private times?
  • Do you feel you should be able to answer every question and resolve every problem a young person has?
  • How are you investing in your own relationship with Jesus? Are you growing here?
  • Are you louder than the loudest youth group member?

If you are a church leader, you may want to think more about what kind of people you want to have on your youth team. Do you want those who will attract young people to themselves or to Jesus, and what might be the differences between the two. It isn’t about personality, but about character. So we can have extravert and introvert leaders; thoughtful and spontaneous leaders; strategic and relational leaders. But we must be more careful on our choice of character: youth leaders must be following Jesus, humble, teachable, faithful and prayerful, and so on.

Most people come to faith in their teenage years. We cannot afford to not put our best leaders to work with this age group. We do everyone a disservice if we don’t, and people’s souls rely on us.

Take some time out to reflect on this post. Ask God to show you where you fit in this and if there is anything you need to do differently as a result. You might like to take some time at your next team meeting to discuss this as a group of leaders.