For many of us, leadership is a by-product of youth and children’s work. But we want to lead well, so each month we unpack an issue we face as leaders, and offer some guidance to traverse it.
When I was twelve years old, someone gave me the opportunity to play drums in church. When I was 18, I started a band that would release records and tour the continent sharing the gospel.
When I was 15 years old, someone gave me the opportunity to preach in a Sunday morning service. In my 20s and 30s I would preach at churches, conferences, schools and events all over the world.
When I was 25 years old, someone gave me the opportunity to lead as an elder in a local church. When I was 30, I began to lead a national youth and children’s ministry.
Forgive me if this sounds like boasting, my intention is quite the opposite. The point of these short illustrations is that none of this would have been possible for me without the people who gave me the opportunity to do something before I was very good at it.
These people saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. They saw potential before they saw excellence, they took a risk on me and the opportunity they created for me when I was young and inexperienced forged a direct pathway to what I would go on to do in later years.
The point of these stories is this: there is a direct correlation between the opportunities my leaders entrusted me with and the entire future trajectory of my life. If you didn’t feel the weight of the responsibility of youth and children’s ministry before, you must surely feel it now! Because you and I are entrusted with that very same privilege: we get to create pathways for our children and young people that will shape their futures, just as those people did for me.
And this is indeed the work of every Christian leader. Not to get a vision for their own ministry and recruit volunteers to help make it happen (which is what we sometimes pass off as ‘leadership development’ in the church today), but rather to help other believers identify the gift of God within them and use it to serve the kingdom (which is not always the same thing as serving the ministry programmes of the local church!).
Of the fivefold ministries, the apostle Paul writes: “…their calling is to nurture and prepare all the holy believers to do their own works of ministry, and as they do this they will enlarge and build up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, The Passion Translation, emphasis mine).
Our job then, as youth and children’s ministry leaders, is to nurture and prepare our young people to do their own works of ministry, to discover the gift of God in them and the call of God over them and to and forge the trail ahead of them.
“Nobody becomes excellent at anything without somebody giving them the opportunity when they’re not”
But here’s my concern, somewhere in the time between twelve-year-old me being given the opportunity to play the drums and today, the western Church began to value excellence over opportunity. Perhaps due to the influence of large and growing churches overseas, our approach to church gatherings migrated from a family of learning that we actively engage in to a production that we passively watch.
And I get the motivation entirely – we wanted to create services that unchurched people could attend and engage with (which is a wonderful aspiration), but feared that an average twelve-year-old drummer would put them off for good!
But here’s the problem with that: If twelve-year-old Tim doesn’t play the drums on a Sunday, he doesn’t end up using his musical gift to share the gospel all over Europe. If 15-year-old Tim doesn’t get the opportunity to preach in his local church, he doesn’t end up preaching and teaching at churches and events around the world. There is just no getting around the fact that nobody becomes excellent at anything without somebody giving them the opportunity when they’re not.
The work of the Christian leader is to ‘equip the saints for works of ministry’ (Ephesians 4:12, ESV). Thus, when we extinguish opportunity in the name of excellence we cease to be Christian leaders and instead become production managers. But our job is not to put on a show, it is to raise disciples.
This is why the apostle Paul would implore us to employ a model of youth and children’s ministry that makes room for ‘every member’ of our groups to ‘operate effectively’ in their gifts: ‘every member has been given divine gifts to contribute to the growth of all; and as these gifts operate effectively throughout the whole body, we are built up and made perfect in love’ (Ephesians 4:16, TPT).
Therefore, if children’s and youth ministry is working right, it is not something we do at them, or even for them, but with them. Or, as a friend of mine once put it: “If the youth aren’t doing the ministry, it’s not youth ministry.”
We can no longer entertain models of ministry that choose the quality of our programmes over the development of our people, because there are children and young people in your youth ministry right now whose future may be shaped by the opportunity you create for them.
So be bold. Take a risk on someone. Forge a pathway for their future. Because your greatest contribution to the kingdom of God will not be a programme that you run but a disciple that you raise.
Questions for reflection
- In what ways are we helping our children and young people discover and develop their gifts?
- What pathways for participation are we creating for our children and young people?
- Is there an area of our programme that may need to take a hit in quality in order to create opportunity for our children and young people?