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Encouraging Young Leaders

Where church fails teenagers

Let's get the depressing stuff out of the way - yes, teenagers are leaving churches and no, I don't have all the answers for making them stream through the doors in their thousands. Other depressing stuff: church often fails to live up to the secular world in terms of what it expects from teenagers. Teenagers can get Sunday jobs and earn money instead of coming to church. They are given responsibilities at school or at their job but does the church expect more than a passive sitting quietly until the end of the service? In an organization where we have inherited a 'wait until you're older' attitude, teenagers get frustrated, bored, lonely and so shrug and drift away.

Good, now we can get positive. Teenagers are crucial to the church and the mutual benefits of having young people around are huge. The church needs their idealism, their refusal to put up with hypocrisy or fudge and their energy and drive, which more than compensate for their inability to emerge from bed at a sensible time or to appreciate what we are certain is the right sort of music. They are a crucial role model for the younger children growing up in the church family. They can build a very different relationship with younger children from the relationship of the more 'mummy', 'daddy', 'granny' or 'grandad'-like figures who also have so much to give. Church can be a 'healthy village' at an adolescent time of upheaval, filled with mentors, guides, role models, examples and inspirations.

There isn't the space here to go into all the many reasons why teenagers leave. However, it's pretty obvious that if we give them permission and encouragement to use and develop their gifts rather than turn them into passive consumers; if we can give them the framework to create a group identity for themselves rather than expect them to behave in an adult way the whole time; if we can work alongside them in a genuine way to build the kingdom of heaven in our patch of earth, rather than patronisingly give them the crumbs of purpose under the table, we will be helping them to be the disciples that they need to be.

This article isn't exclusively about encouraging teenagers to work with children's groups - some will be gifted for that and some will run a mile from anyone under twelve. But working with children is obviously going to be one area in which we know teenagers can bring a huge contribution.

Teenagers using and developing their gifts

Let's get away from wanting to keep teenagers in church as if we were talking about keeping wildebeest in a paddock. If a local church is being a healthy Christian community for them, it will graciously and sacrificially be giving a young person the opportunities to experiment, fail, grow, contribute, develop and ultimately to leave and be a strong disciple in another church in their own right. We don't want to keep them, any more than a parent wants to keep a growing child permanently clamped to their apron strings. We want to bless them and give them wings and enable them to be the people God wants them to be.

So when we review our work with teenagers, let's ask what will equip them, inspire them, give them opportunities that they won't find in the secular world and, most of all, give them the opportunity to know Jesus better. The responsibility of leading children's work can be a step to maturity: it requires commitment, organization, a willingness to explore the story and to lead children in worship, and it provides an opportunity to do a form of service for someone else and to serve others as Christ served us.

People grow in their faith through doing as well as being. Have you got teenagers who are gifted in any of the following? How can you encourage these gifts within the church or wider church networks?

Teenagers need to belong to a group or team

As you discern what areas to open up to your teenagers, think how this could be an opportunity to build them up together. Many teenagers - indeed people of all ages - need to feel part of a group. Can you enable that to happen? If you have two or three teenagers helping out with your children's work, could you do any of the following:

Teenagers working alongside adults to build the kingdom

Adults can give teenagers the framework to do what they do best. Adults will probably need to do the boring administrative jobs of putting together a meeting, contacting everyone, contacting them again just beforehand and going to pick them up when they've forgotten to arrange a lift. An example is a youth band that meets on a weekly basis to practise together. The adult leader keeps everyone informed as to the venue and timing of the practices, youth services and gigs, while the band decide the music, practise and bear with each other in love, and ultimately provide worship of a different style from most. The teenagers need the adult's organization or all the oh-so-loud glorious music wouldn't happen.

It's a delicate balance of giving responsibility for a job to the young people, but also being prepared to support them in the doing of the job. Many is the time I have blithely distributed jobs to a teenage drama group, only to find that 'Oh dear, was I doing publicity? I didn't know...' or 'Was I supposed to find all the props? I thought it was just the ones I had at home.' And I've had to pick up the pieces, leaving me frustrated and the teenagers feeling guilty and inadequate. Discerning just how much responsibility to give is a tough call.

Adults can also keep the main reason for doing these wonderful jobs at the forefront: they can keep Jesus firmly at the centre, encouraging prayer, being a model of discipleship themselves, reminding the teenagers just why they're all doing it.

Adults can also provide training and encourage the young people to take advantage of training opportunities. They can point out how doing this form of service could be recognized professionally or on university application forms. They can offer an arena where it is possible to try and fail, and to see adults trying and failing. They can encourage young people to build on their skills into other areas of (possibly Christian) service further afield.

Mentoring is a great way to learn in a safe environment. The CYFA Venture Holiday, to which I tag along, encourages younger leaders to play a full part: not just washing up and 'dogsbodying' but preparing and leading talks and worship, drama and quizzes, wide games and Prom Nights. Over the few years I've been helping out, I've seen the faith of these teenagers mature.

So teenage leaders need to be given opportunities and permission to exercise their gifts. They need to have responsibility within a safe framework. They need a sense of purpose and identity. And more than anything they need to be given opportunities to meet Jesus through his Word, his people and his Spirit so that they will grow closer to him and become even more of a blessing to the world.

There is a very practical two-hour module as part of Core Skills for Children's Work - find out more.

This download aims to help children's workers do the following:

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