In September of 2005 I was asked by my friends Phil and Nick if I wanted to help them with the youth group at our church. I had just gotten to the church a few weeks prior because I'd just moved to town as a Freshman at Wartburg College. I was only 18 and had no idea what I was getting myself into and I had very little to offer the youth I was working. Now, nearly ten years later I'm starting to almost understand be getting the hang of youth ministry.
Over the past 10 school years I've matured as a youth leader and learned some skills for the position. I've met amazing kids and leaders. I've lost sleep from lock-ins and worries. I've confronted kids about sex, drugs, alcohol and the like. I've looked at students knowing I was looking at a future leader in the church. And I've looked at students and wondered if they were even listening. I've been the cool college kid leading youth and slowly I'm becoming someone "so old" that I just couldn't possibly imagine what it's like to be a teen (or so I've been told, although I know I'm still extremely young).
Working with youth has given me some of the biggest highs and the biggest lows of my life. I'm far from an expert and won't pretend to be one, but I feel I can offer three tips to my fellow youth leaders.
1) Don't assume the students know something.
Bible literacy appears to be low and getting lower. It's not your students' fault, but they might not get what you're talking about if you don't explain it well. You can't just say, "It's like the story of Gideon" and simply move on to the next point. Many of the students you lead have never heard of Gideon, let alone know his story. So, don't treat your students like they're stupid, but don't make them feel lost because you assume they know something they've never been taught.
2) Don't assume your students can't do something.
This may seem to contradict the previous tip, but it doesn't. Don't assume a student knows something, but by all means believe they can do something. Often I've thought that a subject was too deep for teens. Often I was wrong. We shouldn't look down on students because they are young, we should be some of the first people in their lives to challenge them. When I've not underestimated the students that I lead I've been blown away by the things they can do and the thoughts they can think. Don't underestimate your students.
3) Don't neglect praying for your students.
This is by far the most convicting tip, mainly because I've had times when I've excelled at this and times when I've been lacking. Prayer is the youth leaders most potent weapon. I'll take the praying youth leader over the youth leader with the best games and lessons any day. If there's one thing that I've learned in youth ministry it's that I can't make a kid love Jesus, I can't make a young man or woman desire to obey. But I know someone who can. Take your concerns, hopes and dreams for your students to the One who can do something about it. Don't ever neglect praying for your students.
Over the years I've done well with those three tips and I've failed miserably, too. I'm far from perfect and sometimes I'm a long way from good, but God has blessed my efforts. Don't get me wrong, I still worry about some of the students who seem to want nothing to do with Christ and His Church, but I trust that my work in Christ will not be in vain. And don't misunderstand me, I have several current and former students that I'm simply happy to be in their story because they amaze me.
So, youth leaders, keep plugging away. We don't always get to see fruit in the lives of students, but trust that the Gardener does good work. Work hard in youth ministry and take those three tips to heart today.