Why RAISe UP YOUNG LEADERS
An excellent Article from Pete Wynter, the Director of Onelife
The days of pew warming, entertaining and going through the motions of Christianity are on the wane. Young people won’t buy that any more. And we have a choice: to keep losing them to the world’s appealing offers, or to lead them into an active faith with an exciting vision.
When Jesus called the very first disciples, he had leadership in mind. ‘Come follow me,’ he said, ‘and, I will teach you to be fishers of men’. In other words: ‘If you follow me then I want you to do what I do, I want you to influence others and to change the communities around you.’ That’s leadership.
Somewhere along the line we began planning and hosting events and programmes designed to keep young people interested, pandering to their preferences, putting on a good show and tentatively hoping that they would come along so that we could report an increase in numbers. Our schedules became busy with satisfying young people and lost an emphasis on the hard graft of making disciples.
Leadership development is not something to be left exclusively to the top dogs in our society. Leadership is simply the every day implementation of influence. ‘Why not focus on discipleship?’ I hear you ask. Leadership and discipleship are synonymous. If you are intent on making disciples, then you will make leaders. So if you aren’t seeing leaders emerging around you, it’s almost certainly the case that you aren’t really developing disciples either.
The Bible is littered with characters who chose to become disciples, only to find themselves leading. And it’s no different for us today. Little did we know that when we decided to follow Jesus, we were actually signing up to a leadership role for the rest of our lives. Not every Christian will be a gifted leader, but we are all called to lead in some capacity or other.
To some this may be a new concept. The clearer we are about establishing this leadership revolution the better. If the young people we have the privilege of working with begin to understand that God has a leadership assignment for them and start to get equipped, inspired and empowered for it, then a new generation of godly leaders will emerge with the potential to transform every aspect of society.
SO WHERE DO WE START?
Three things need to happen if this leadership revolution is to become more than just an article in your monthly subscription to Youthwork. Firstly we must catch the vision. Secondly we must seek to understand some of the great advantages as well as the dangers of raising up young leaders, and finally we must make the tough decisions needed in training disciples to lead.
CATCHING THE VISION
When I first met Mark, he was quiet and lacking in confidence. Compliantly, he always came to church. After a series of youth gatherings where we discussed the kind of mission and vision God may be calling us to, he tentatively approached me in the hope that I might dismiss a growing sense he had to establish a missional community among the young people in our town. He explained that the only form of evangelism he had ever done was to wash someone’s bins on a social action project weekend.
My first unspoken response was to lament that in his 17 years of church-going he had done nothing riskier than cleaning someone’s bins anonymously. This was more a judgement on my leadership than his discipleship. Then came the quick response: ‘Great, let’s make it happen’. A year later and Mark was part of a team of teenagers leading an innovative, creative outreach for totally unchurched young people. These young people were now engaging with and responding to the gospel. Mark is now in full-time missional ministry.
Stories like Mark’s have convinced me that becoming intentional about releasing and developing leadership in young people is an essential skill of a youth leader. The most effective youth leaders I’ve met have this approach as a default. And if they’ve been doing the job for a while you can invariably see a trail of young adults who have benefited from their optimism, hope and investment.
Despite this, I still come across youth leaders who fail to see the significance of this important work, or the potential in their young people. One time, I was enjoying a pizza with a youth leader and asked him to consider bringing some of the youth from his church to a leadership development conference. He paused for a moment, took another bite of his double pepperoni and said: ‘We don’t have any young people who would be appropriate for that.’ I was so taken aback that I moved the subject on, but couldn’t shake my feelings of frustration and desperation on behalf of his young people. Could his perception really have been that not one of them had the potential to bring something to the table, to instigate or to influence others?
THE DANGEROUS WORK OF RAISING YOUNG LEADERS
One of my favourite memories as a church-based youth worker is of a Thursday evening when I did nothing. I simply spent the evening visiting four different groups in our 14-18s work. Each group had adult facilitators, who were there to tick the child protection box, and champion the cause of the team of young leaders who had planned and were delivering the evening of activities. I walked into one of the venues and recognised only about a third of the group of buzzing teenagers. I checked in with one of the young leaders who said that everything was going really well, and that all their friends had come along. I felt a self-important urge to introduce myself to everyone I didn’t know (after all, I was the youth leader), but quietly slipped away to leave them to it, knowing that the young people were in fact the best missionaries and leaders in that context, and were doing just fine without me there. My ‘doing nothing’ signalled that the young people had really arrived at taking on the leadership of our local work.
Giving young people this kind of responsibility and opportunity is exciting, but there are dangers too. I’ve learnt these through bitter experiences and careful reflection, and am still on a learning curve. It’s important to share the struggles and not just the successes: often our failures teach us more about the way forward than our successes. I’d love to tell you that every young leader who I’ve sought to encourage and equip is now a living example of great Christian leadership. That’s simply not the case. I’ve learnt a whole host of essential values and characteristics to be teaching young leaders as a result, but my top two are:
1. It’s OK to fail When giving responsibility, or encouraging young people to step up to leadership, make sure you talk a lot about grace and failure. People respond differently to responsibility. Some strive to be perfect, and in so doing begin to hide the faults. If this happens they begin to lead a double life, being one thing in the presence of those they lead, and another behind closed doors. Others might buckle under the pressure and either explode or run a million miles when things go wrong. If failure is an expected and even celebrated part of the leadership journey then everyone can rest assured that it’s ok – even vital sometimes - to fail. In my own leadership development I’ve been encouraged to ‘plan to fail’ about 25 per cent of the time! If I’m not doing that then I’m staying too safe and not exposing myself to growth.
2. Beware the 'arrival syndrome' As we release young leaders, we must be careful not to allow our encouragement to become a false platform. Some young people need all the encouragement they can get, and you’ll know who they are in your youth ministry. Saying this, many young people who are keen to lead love it when they are elevated, and feel that getting into leadership or ‘onto the stage’ is reaching the peak. A subtle and slow growing sense of arrival can begin to develop. It’s often hard to see at first, but it has the potential to grow a confidence that will breed arrogance, or more dangerously, breed discontent. If a young person has ‘the stage’ in their sights, then after the initial buzz of ‘arriving’ they may realise that leadership is not always easy and become disillusioned. In a worst case scenario they may even end up questioning their faith because things aren’t quite what they imagined they would be. They fall flat or begin to set their sights on some other pinnacle of achievement to the cost of their discipleship.
Some of the best young leaders I’ve worked with have struggled with this. I have been left wondering if I had given them too much too soon, or wasn’t strong enough in challenging unhealthy motivations in their leadership. Now I try to be more discerning about the ‘arrival syndrome’, and have resolved to lovingly challenge motivations while seeking to call the very best out of every young person.
MAKE THE TOUGH DECISION
Have you caught the vision for this? Are you prepared to face the dangers?
This decision is not as easy as it sounds. It will require you to take risks, to really believe in the potential of the unfinished article. Sometimes even the most unlikely candidates will surprise you as you dare to believe that every teenager has God given gifts and the potential to influence.
The only thing now standing in the way of your young people becoming exceptional leaders is you. You will need to invest more time in the unseen work of raising others up, and will receive less public recognition as a result. You will have to change your job description, delegating roles that you enjoy and celebrating the efforts of others when you know that you could have done a better job in half the time. You’ll have to resist the temptation to step in and take control in order to help the young people grow in their understanding of responsibility. If you can do all of this, then your bravery will be rewarded as young leaders begin to emerge on the platforms you have created for them. If we commit ourselves to the raising up of young leaders, we will defy the gloomy predictions about the demise of the Church in coming years, stem the flow of young people exiting our buildings, and bring transformation to every sphere of society. It’s no small dream, but it’s one that we – and our young people - can get excited about.
IDEAS TO GET YOU STARTED
Begin looking for that leadership potential and try to find opportunities that will allow young people to explore the impact of their leadership.
Start small and don’t even tell your young people that you are looking to establish them as godly leaders. Ask one to lead a game, let another join you for a planning meeting. Take someone with you when you next go to a training event, encourage yet another to serve in an area of the church.
Challenge your young people to think about how they could lead well, even if they don’t think they are a gifted leader. One way of doing this would be to introduce a testimony time, giving them the chance to communicate and share ideas. Another would be to hold a discussion about the importance of good leadership using a example of poor leadership from the news.
Hold an optional session called ‘becoming a leader’ and see who turns up! They’ll be the early adopters and even if it’s only one, you have the beginnings of what may become a centre of excellence for training and releasing great leaders.