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urban saints


The opportunity to train young leaders


How can youth leaders give away responsibility and create opportunities for on-task learning? What if the young people fail?

There are, it seems to me, at least three reasons why churches empower young people by giving them roles within the children’s work.

1. The young people don’t like the church meetings or the meeting supposedly designed for them to attend, and they elect to help out with the little children.

This is not the best reason, and tends to mean that the least spiritually-minded and most dissaffected young people are the ones who volunteer. They are sometimes also the sort of volunteers who have not really signed up, and they have a relaxed attitude to serving - which means they turn up when they feel like it and they chat to each other, rather than concentrating on what is best for the children.

Our experience shows that these sorts of volunteer are not being empowered at all; they are being tolerated by the leaders of the children’s group, and they are being missed by the leaders of the youth group. In the meanwhile, they are doing their own thing, without training, help, accountability, responsibility…

As youth group leaders, we often wonder why some of our girls are apparently not attending on Sundays. In some cases we find out later that they have been in the baby room, chatting with their friends and ending up being a nuisance and distraction to the mothers, who are trying to listen to the sermon through the tannoy system (and to the babies, who, like the rest of the congregation, are trying to sleep).

2. Recruiting adults has proved difficult, but some young people are willing to swell numbers.

Once again, this is less than the best reason. Safe practice demands that we have sufficient adult staff, and a 13 year-old doesn’t count as an adult! Neither, by the way, does a mature and sensible 17 year-old, no matter how much you might think she is suitable. If an incident occurred, the insurance company and ultimately the court would be unimpressed with minors being counted as adults.

I feel the lack of training, the lack of accountability and so often the lack of permission sought from those pastorally responsible for the young person are all issues here.

3. We see the value of giving responsibility and opportunities for service to selected young people who seem to have a growing faith and a mature approach.

Now you’re talking! This strikes me as a worthwhile plan, with checks and balances, controls and accountability, where leadership skills are learned, serving attitudes are shaped and the family of God is working together.

It can be a delicate operation, selecting suitable candidates for empowerment. They tend to be the more able young people who recommend themselves by contributing positively to discussions or by being pleasant company. Naturally, they may also be fast-tracked at school or in their musical, sport or dancing activities and thus already close to over-load.

There was one young woman who looked like suitable material for this sort of empowering. But then we discovered that she was already studying for three academic exams one year early, was a member of an athletics team and was being strongly encouraged to work hard for her grade 8 music exams. She was regularly blacking out due to the pressure she was under, but hiding this from us and her parents and most of her teachers! Clearly this is extreme, but it came as a word of caution to see what else might be being loaded onto the plates of young folk inexperienced in saying ‘no’, especially when our offers of empowerment may be attractive ones.

While we wish to draw the gifted young people into responsible action and to take an appropriate level of leadership, it is important wisely to assess the degree of responsibility they can handle.

Some have the skills to run the meeting, provide the notices or announcements, play instruments for the worship time, organise the wide game or whatever. But do they have the required respect from the other young people? If they are a mouthy interrupter of leaders, giving them the microphone so that they can give dates for the next outing may be a mixed message to the others. Asking a disruptive or spiritually uncommitted young man to play his guitar while you sing love songs to Jesus may be the wrong choice (I can see that it could be the right thing to do on occasion).

My understanding of empowering a young person includes modelling the activity; letting him accompany you and see the details of the skills required; letting him have a go while you assist and critique constructively; letting him take the responsibility while you give full support and safety-net. I don’t feel I need to ‘hold his hand’ forever, as this communicates a lack of trust, but there is the equal and opposite error of abandoning the task to the young person, never checking for quality or being there to answer questions or to help when adjustments are made necessary through changing circumstances.

Extract from Children’s Ministry Guide to Building a Team by Andy Back

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