When I was a teenager in a youth ministry, I learned a lot from the leadership training offered to me. Training students as leaders in all areas of ministry and giving them opportunities to practice their giftings is something I am very passionate about.
Aside from opportunities to be trained and to practice ministry, there is one other thing that affected me significantly during those years:
I’ve never been a shy, retiring type. Although I can be quiet and intimidated by a large crowd of people I don’t know, most people would put me more on the chatterbox end of the scale – especially anyone who’s seen me engaging in youth ministry!
So while I did a lot of talking during my teen years, I often didn’t talk about the things that were affecting my faith the most deeply. Many of the big steps I took in my spiritual journey were heavily influenced by the words and actions of youth leaders – I listened to what they said and watched what they did. I rarely (if ever) had conversations with them about their influence, but influence me they did.
Nathaniel Hawkins was my youth leader in Connecticut, when I was 14-15. He was studying youth ministry at a Christian college an hour away (Nyack College, I believe) and drove down twice a week to lead the high school youth group and Sunday school (along with another student who lead the middle school group).
Nathaniel had a massive influence on my spiritual growth. He was the first person to challenge my opinions (as he did so I discovered that my opinions weren’t really my own – I was parroting what I’d heard my mother say) and the first person to talk to me about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
While I never talked to him about the struggles I was having and the ways I was growing in my faith, his loving questions and openness about relating to God personally were instrumental in my decision to follow Jesus as my Lord and Saviour.
As youth leaders, and especially as leaders of TCKs, we get only a short window of opportunity to feed directly into the lives of the teens we work with. It’s rare to have more than 3 or so years of closeness with any given kid. If we use the illustration of a person’s life as the growth of a tree, perhaps our task as youth leaders is to plant a seed, or water it, or put fertiliser on a young sapling.
We are mostly engaged in the business of preparation. We don’t always see the fruits of our labour. The kids we work with are young and still developing; they are just beginning their walks with God, just beginning to develop spiritual maturity. With some kids we are allowed to see growth and development – and doesn’t that just warm your heart and make you glad to be alive?? Still, a lot of the time we walk through questions with them, model integrity and authenticity to them, but see little response to our efforts.
And you know what? That’s okay.
Our kids are each on their own journey. Their lives don’t look the same. They have different preparations to undertake. Some, like Joseph, will have a long road to walk before fulfilment of the potential we see in them begins.
If we as youth leaders measure our “success” by what our kids are doing with their lives, I think we’re missing something.