Then suddenly it was all over. Rich announced that he was leaving to pursue his true (if never before mentioned) calling to the creative industry, and after a few heated discussions with the church’s leadership, he was gone by the end of the week. One Sunday, Rich was leading from the front, calling teenagers to a higher lifestyle and leading them in worship, the next he was notably absent as the volunteer team did their best to cover the multitude of Rich-shaped gaps.
The young people were devastated. Some felt betrayed, others were simply disappointed that the standard of teaching and music was about to drop back down to pre-Rich levels. Young leaders who were being mentored were left hanging; eager new musicians suddenly saw a big full stop in front of their aspirations to play in the worship band. Whatever their reasons, they quickly stopped coming. Within a month, the youth group had shrunk, and by more than it had grown under the new youth worker.
It’s best not to get hung up on the details of this sadly true story, or to focus on the failings of an individual. I retell it because it’s the most painful and pertinent example I’ve ever witnessed of what happens when you pull a charismatic youth worker out of a ministry that has become centred on them. And having observed this disaster from fairly close-up, I think I can draw a few important learning points from what happened.
The youth group became ‘The Rich Show’
Rich was great at preaching, singing, leading worship, inspiring volunteers and mentoring young people. So perhaps naturally, the church allowed him to do all of these things, instead of empowering others to learn from his expertise. That made him front and centre at every moment, and as the young people listened to, met with and sang along with him, he became their heroic role model and leader. His job was to introduce them to the glory of Jesus, but actually he overwhelmed them with his own impressive charisma.
Let’s be honest, sometimes we just enjoy being the centre of attention
No one asked the tough questions because the group was growing
Lots of volunteers and other adults saw what Rich was doing, and none of them stopped to ask if his character quite matched up with his skills. Instead, they were dazzled by the sudden and unexpected growth of the group. The church’s youth group was becoming one of the most significant pillars of youth culture in the town, and while that had long been prayed for, it felt almost miraculous. Like the young people, the adults started to see Rich as a messiah figure.
Too much value had been placed on charisma and experience
The young people loved Rich because he was somehow able to bring the ‘festival feel’ to the youth group, where previously they’d grumbled about the apparent disconnect between what happened at big events, and what happened at church. The culture of the group valued the wrong things: experience rather than genuine intimacy with God; that was true even before Rich, and only exacerbated by his arrival.
Of course, the biggest problem was that Rich didn’t really want to be a youth worker at all, and was only using his amazing gifts to play the part of one until his dream opportunity came along. There will be many more of us however who recognise some of the weaknesses in that youth group from our own ministry, even though our intentions might be rather more pure.
If that’s true of your group, then there are some practical steps you can take to correct your course. Aside from heeding some of the mistakes listed above, it’s important to really understand that your role as a youth or children’s leader is about making disciples of Jesus, not growing your own tribe of followers. That’s not meant to sound flippant, but sometimes in our attempts to persuade teenagers that Christianity is a great life choice, we accidentally insert ourselves as a kind of relational high priest between them and God. And let’s be honest, sometimes we just enjoy being the centre of their attention. I know I do.
Instead of investing ourselves in this then, or making sure that our own skills are used to the fullest capacity, it’s important to devote our time to building a whole team of volunteers and young leaders who share the focus of the ministry. By doing this, we create a culture where no one is irreplaceably located at the centre, and in turn, where children and young people are more likely to try to replicate Jesus than a charismatic but flawed leader.