“Let’s have the youth do it.”

This is a phrase that is heard often around churches. At face value, it seems like a very empowering phrase from people who understand that youth are the church today, not the church of the future. However, a closer look at the context of this phrase in most cases gives a little different picture. We have chairs that need to be stacked up…let’s have the youth do it. Hey, we need babysitting for this event…let’s have the youth do it. There are rocks that need to picked up or leaves that need to be raked…let’s have the youth do it. Do you know who would probably really love shoveling that dead animal off of our property? Let’s have the youth do it! That last one isn’t actually something our youth got asked to do, but I did have an incident with a dead raccoon at the church parsonage that I had to take care of (that I thought about asking some youth to come witness).

The underlying thread behind all of these is that youth are asked to do tasks and be involved, but almost all of them are basically just manual labor. It’s as if the youth group is this army of free labor robots that can be programmed to do tasks that no one else wants to do. I would argue instead, that the youth are robots that can be programmed also to do meaningful work and to lead. Wait, no, they’re not robots at all—though that would put a new spin on the phrase “youth group programming.” So now that we’ve established that most of our youth are clearly (probably) not robots—what are they? They are gifted children of God who are meant to use their gifts to build up the church and world in the name of Christ.

What does this look like?

What can a church or ministry do to give leadership and responsibility to youth in a way that is beneficial to them and to the ministry? I don’t think we have to look very far to find a few models that currently work. In fact, perhaps we just look no farther than our local high schools and see the various ways that young people are given opportunities to lead and see the results therein. Over the course of this blog series, I’ll use a story from my own high school years to illustrate this point and glean a few nuggets of potential insight into how we as the church can help youth lead better.

This idea of youth leadership is a big, important topic that I don’t want to cram into one marathon post, mainly because either you won’t read that much or if you do, you won’t retain any of the info. (Side note, perhaps this is why a 10-minute message with a discussion afterwards is educationally a better option than one 30-45-minute talk by the group leader.) Hopefully each of the posts in this short series will be more of a bite-sized morsel where we can key in on one or two important ideas or questions.

For part 1, here are a few questions to consider as you think about youth leadership in your context:

Where are youth currently allowed to serve and lead? Where are they currently asked to serve and lead? Where are they currently actually serving and leading?

Where would we like to see youth serving in capacities they currently aren’t? What kind of an impact do I think leadership and service can have on our young people? What am I willing to do to see that impact be made?

“Let’s have the youth do it.” We started with that phrase, which is normally used in the context of some rather impersonal task. First, how can we use those tasks that have to be done as a way to develop servant leaders in our youth ministry? I don’t think we need to turn down every service request regarding the youth group because they can get something out of those times, for certain. However, I’d challenge you to stretch your and your church’s expectation and context of what the youth can do. So that over time, maybe we start hearing this phrase used in new ways. We have an opening on this board or leadership team…let’s raise up a youth to be a part of the team. I’m working on planning some games for the upcoming youth events…let me get a few youth to help come up with the game ideas and help lead them the day of the event. Our church is looking for stories of God at work in the lives of our members…let’s have some youth share how God has been working in their lives. We need help training the incoming acolytes…let’s work with a few high school youth on that training program.

The list can go on and on, but I encourage you to dream in your context: What could youth leadership look like for us? How can we get our young people more involved in serving their church and world? A youth ministry that has those questions answered or is at least working on developing ways for people of all ages to get plugged in using their gifts is one that is built to last. I’m excited to keep digging into this topic in the upcoming posts, looking at what we can learn from the ways that our students are involved in leadership at their schools. Stay tuned!