What does a youth leader look like? Do they all have to wear check shirts, be between 20-29, be a spiritual superstar, drink a hipster coffee and have a strange haircut? A bundle of energy who is somehow a mix of a kids tv presenter and spiritual monk?
One of the conversations I have regularly as I visit churches, and seek to find new opportunities for children and youth ministries, goes like the following – ‘it is fine for you, but I’m not a youth leader’.
It led me to wonder – what does a youth leader look like? What counts when it comes to working with children and young people in the church?
There are many preconceptions about what it takes to work with young people, what that person looks like, and most people cannot live up to those expectations, even those of us that call ourselves youth leaders!
4 Misconceptions about working with young people
- ‘I’m too old to work with young people’ – a youth leader has to be close to the age of young people
‘One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts.’ [Psalm 145:4]
What is the perfect age to work with young people? Someone once asked me what I am going to do once I become “too old for youth ministry”. Is youth ministry a young person’s game?
I have been leading youth groups since I was eighteen, have been a youth leader all my adult life and I have worked with a youth leader who was in her late seventies. The truth is that everyone has something to offer young people. Whilst what we do, the way we work, may differ at differing ages – so too the life experiences we can offer to guide young people. My football ability has decreased at the age of 34, but I would hope the life experiences I have picked up along the way have increased and help me in my conversations with young people.
What is it we are trying to do with young people? Is it to become their mate, their bestie or is it that we want to see them become the best version of themselves, thriving in their faith and being full and active members of the church? This generation has all the knowledge of the world at their fingertips but is starved of wisdom, a wisdom that comes with experience.
- ‘I’m not a loud, energetic Extrovert’
The stereotypical view of a youth leader is a loud, energetic person at the front of a large gathering acting like a ‘Pied Piper’ figure, where young people are hanging on their every word. This extends to youth ministries where the music is loud, lights are bright and large numbers are gathered. But what if that is not the way you are wired?
What if you favour a quieter, relaxed approach? Then play to your strengths. There are as many introverted, reflective young people as those that are extroverts – young people are individuals and lots will prefer a smaller setting, a quiet approach and have the skills to work in small groups or the one-to-one conversations.
Youth leaders do not need to be brash extroverts. The Church needs all types and personalities to play their part in ministering to all types of young people.
- ‘I am not familiar with the latest trends’
Culture changes very quickly, it seems that life is constantly changing. This rate of change seems to be increasing, trends spread virally on social media – what was the latest trend last year, last month or even last week can quickly seem old hat. In this ever-changing culture it is hard to keep up, can be baffling and can be overwhelming.
It’s a good thing to be aware of the world of the young people that are in your church, but the good news is that young people aren’t expecting leaders to fully understand. Attempting to be on-trend can appear inauthentic, and what young people are looking for is authenticity.
Acknowledging that I am not always going to be on-trend is an excellent starting point for building a conversation. Ask questions, listen to the young people you are working with, talk about what they are doing, what is big in their lives, be genuinely interested and ask questions. Allowing a young person to teach you can be liberating and takes the pressure of needing to ‘know’ everything.
Asking a young person about their passion means that you are seeking to get to know them. Whether it is Minecraft, TikTok or the latest Netflix series, learning from young people is the best way to get a glimpse of their world.
- ‘I don’t have all the answers’
We sometimes think young people are in our groups to be taught. The adults in the groups need to be a teacher, imparting knowledge of faith to the young people. Does this mean that we need to know a certain amount to be able to do this? What if I don’t know enough? What if they ask a difficult question?
Rather than a teacher, maybe we should see ourselves as fellow travellers on the journey of faith with young people, maybe a bit further along the road but still on that voyage of knowing God deeper. There is a power in not having all the answers, there is an authenticity of admitting that there are some aspects of faith that are hard to understand, and ultimately it is healthy to know and acknowledge that there are parts of faith that are a paradox; that God cannot be fully known.
So, what does a youth leader look like?
Someone like you, someone like the person you sit behind in church, in short, every person has something to offer young people. Just like all young people are unique, all those coming alongside them are unique. Just as there is no set ‘type’ of young person there shouldn’t be a set type of youth leader. Be ‘you’ in all you do.
A youth leader is someone who loves young people, is willing to spend time and share life with them. A youth leader is someone who can talk about their faith, share in the journey. It’s not limited to an activity or a group but it is someone who is looking out for, being with and building relationships with young people.
Where could you fit in the faith journey of the young people you know? As the Church, we need to rediscover what it means to be family, what it means to be spiritual parents and mentors, and how we can all follow Jesus together.
Written by James Yates, Youth Mission Enabler