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Characteristics of a Healthy Youth Ministry: 12. Youth-led

Leadership responsibilities, training and opportunities to serve are given to young people.

“The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’ (Matthew 25:23)


When we consider that our purpose in youth ministry is to make disciples it’s possible to make this primarily about teaching young people to know and understand the Bible. Of course, that’s an important element of discipleship, but on its own it’s inadequate. As well as deciding what to teach, we must also ask, “How can I give them experiences that will deepen their faith and shape their character?”

If you were to ask me what has inspired me to grow as a Christian, I would have to say it’s been my involvement in serving God through youth ministry. Leadership has taught me things about faith and about myself that have been hugely formative.

Yes, Bible study, prayer, worship and fellowship with other believers have all been significant but serving God has motivated me to find answers to my questions and forced me to confront my own sinful attitudes. It has inspired me to keep going through tough times knowing that others depended upon me and that God was using my experiences to deepen my walk with Him.

In the same way, providing young people with opportunities to participate in God’s mission is a powerful tool in helping them grow.  A healthy youth ministry will see young people as not just “people to be led” but as “people to lead”.

Such a youth ministry will adopt a youth-led mentality that consults young people, offers opportunities to serve and lead, and trains them to be effective. In the process, it will teach young people that church is not something we attend in order to have our needs met, but something we participate in, in order to meet others’ needs and to glorify God.

A friend once commented to me that many people view church as they do movie theatres. They see what’s on offer and choose to attend one based on personal preference. When the credits roll they walk out without any sense of loyalty or commitment to return to that same theatre, unless it draws them back with something equally attractive and entertaining the following week. Their commitment is not to a cinema but to a self-serving experience.

In the same way, young people tend to see themselves as consumers, expecting you to satisfy their wants and attract them back week after week. The goal must be to involve them in serving and leading, moving them from being consumers to being participants in God’s work. Consumers tend to be critical and apathetic while participants are motivated to look for solutions. They face challenges that grow their faith and, in the process, experience the joy and fulfilment that comes when we partner with God in what He is doing. 

Of course, this youth-led mentality doesn’t mean that adults take a back seat. Instead it means that adults look for ways to involve young people, giving them appropriate opportunities to lead that are in line with their maturity and gifts. As they do so they provide them with guidance and instruction, all the while encouraging them with praise when they do well, and gentle correction when they fall short. 

Additionally, it must be said that a youth-led ministry doesn’t mean that young people make all the important decisions or that their wants become paramount. Christ leads the ministry and appoints mature leaders to discern His leading, providing young people with what they ultimately need. A youth-led philosophy however, takes young people seriously and sees them as more than people to be ministered to. Instead they are people through whom God can work.

There are numerous ways in which this youth-led approach can be implemented. One way is for leaders to identify tasks that need doing that could be delegated to young people. A good motto for leaders is to “only do what only I can do!” When used as a guide, this saying can help us to identify those things that might easily be delegated to young people allowing them to take a lead.

Another way is to develop teams that young people can volunteer for such as preparing for social events, running games, planning service projects or organising suppers. While a leader may be there in a facilitating role, the emphasis is on giving opportunities for young people to lead.

As a way of implementing this, I would hand out forms at the start of each year listing ways to be involved. Young people would consider ways to participate then would fill in the form and hand it back to me. It proved a great way to encourage participation and a sense of ownership in the youth ministry by the young people.

One year we started a preaching team for young people who were willing to preach a brief message at the end of each programme. What they lacked in experience and expertise, they more than made up for in authenticity, and I soon noticed that teenagers would pay more attention when one of their own spoke compared to when I spoke!

I ran training sessions for this team over a series of weeks and soon discovered that one of the young people with the greatest potential was a fourteen-year-old. Without the opportunity I gave, we would never have realised what they were capable of.

We can easily forget that our high schools give young people many opportunities to lead and excel. Schools know that young people are often more willing and capable to lead than we given them credit for with our “sit-while-we-lead” approach.

Sure, they will mess up and let you down at times but such occasions give opportunities for them to learn and grow. Soon you will have a conveyor belt of capable leaders graduating youth group who have proven themselves with smaller responsibilities and are ready in time to step up to larger leadership roles.

A third way to implement a youth-led approach is to encourage them to share what they think your group should be doing or what they would like to see happen. They might do this through informal conversations, regular surveys, or an organised “think tank” that meets maybe once a term.

Not every idea will be a good one, but undoubtedly some will have merit. It may even be that the young people themselves are given responsibility to implement their own suggestions, thus increasing their sense of belonging and participation.


CHECKLIST: TEN INDICATORS OF A YOUTH-LED YOUTH MINISTRY

  • There is a holistic view of discipleship that includes an emphasis on what young people learn from doing, and not just what they need to know.
  • There exists an expectation in the youth ministry that young people look for ways to contribute by taking on some responsibility through which they provide leadership.
  • Young people are made aware of opportunities for service within the youth group.
  • There are opportunities for young people to contribute their ideas and suggestions.
  • There are opportunities for young people to implement their own useful ideas and suggestions.
  • Leaders adopt a “we only do what only we can do” philosophy and look for ways to delegate appropriate responsibilities to the young people.
  • As young people take on leadership responsibilities, they are given guidance and instruction to help them lead well.
  • When young people lead well, they receive praise and encouragement.
  • When they fall short of expectations they receive grace and gentle correction.
  • The effectiveness of a youth-led approach is demonstrated by a “conveyor-belt” of prospective leaders who have proved themselves faithful in small things.


CCCNZ offers a coaching programme for key youth leaders and youth pastors who would like help in implementing these principles as well as learning leadership skills. Contact us if you are interested.