He had no money and an unusual, ragtag bunch of followers. Yet in only three years, Jesus changed the world.

Those of us who follow Christ long to do the same: to change the world by loving our neighbor, doing justice and bringing the good news to others.
Youth share this longing to change the world, but how much impact can a kid have? How can we as youth workers help students change the world?
To find out, we consulted four experts.

Dr. Kara Powell is a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary and the executive director of Fuller Youth Institute, which leverages research into resources that elevate leaders. Kara’s commitment to justice is evident in the resources she’s helped write, including Deep Justice in a Broken World and Deep Justice Journeys: 50 Activities to Move from Mission Trips to Missional Living.

Mike Yankoski came face to face with his own hypocrisy after living as a homeless person for five months in six different cities. This journey set the trajectory for Mike’s life and sparked his desire to change the world. Mike chronicles his journey in his book Under the Overpass (Multnomah Publishers), which will be published in November 2010.

Austin Gutwein is already a certified world changer at the age of 15. As a 9-year-old, Austin saw a video about an African AIDS orphan and decided to use his love of basketball to start Hoops of Hope (HoopsofHope.org), the world’s largest free-throw marathon. In six years, Hoops of Hope has raised more than $100,000,000 to help AIDS orphans. Austin tells his story in his book, Take Your Best Shot (Thomas Nelson, 2009).

Dr. Dave Rahn is vice president for Youth for Christ/USA and director of Huntington University’s M.A. in Youth Ministry Leadership program. His book Evangelism Remixed (Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2009) explores the influence that teens have on their peers and how that influence can impact others.

YWJ: Should one of the goals of youth ministry be to help young people become world changers?

Kara Powell: Absolutely, as long as it doesn’t put too much pressure on kids. Some youth workers make kids feel that being “world changers” is just one more adult agenda they have to fulfill. Others are afraid to invite kids to engage in serving the poor. In the middle are those who have figured out how to combine grace and acceptance with the biblical calling to use our gifts to impact others.

Dave Rahn: Yes and no. We want to help every young person reach his or her greatest potential. What we don’t know is how much potential that is. One of the best ways to prepare someone in high school for a large vision is to help him or her do the small stuff well.

YWJ: What do students who are world changers look like?

Mike Yankoski: They’re humble. The necessary motivation for changing the world isn’t anger about injustices; it’s 1 John 4:19: “We love because he first loved us.” Love eradicates injustice. Love seeks the best for our neighbors.

Austin Gutwein: They’re doing something now. These kids will grow up and think, “I remember giving something when I was a kid.” Giving will become second nature to them as adults.

Dave: They’re people who have cultivated prayer as a part of their lifestyle. They’re students of Scripture. They know how to love well and how to carry the burdens of others.

YWJ: How do teens’ abilities and desire to change the world contribute to their faith formation?

Kara: Kids point to two primary paths to spiritual growth: relationships and service. Service can be a huge catalyst for faith formation. In our College Transition Project, graduating seniors reported that service and mission trips were two of the top experiences they wish they had had more of in their youth ministry.

Austin: It allows us to really trust God. Every time we do something on our own, it doesn’t work out great. Every time we let God handle it, it goes better.

YWJ: What experiences are most useful in helping youth become world changers?

Kara: Some really good research shows that short-term mission trips don’t produce the long-term fruit we’d hope for. For many kids, a mission trip takes them three steps forward, but then the pressures of home drag them 2.93 steps back. The net gain of .07 steps falls short of our prayers and dreams. We at the Fuller Youth Institute have created a “Before/During/After” model to service. It captures the reality that service needs to be a process that starts long before kids hop on an airplane. What are we doing to prepare kids for what they’ll experience before they leave? What are we doing to discuss what they’re seeing and hearing? What do we do after we get home to help them connect what they learned in Tijuana with world history class? Youth workers have to be intentional and schedule multiple meetings with kids to talk about what they learned and make sure it doesn’t evaporate after the trip.

Mike: Experiences that put them out of their comfort zone and into difficult situations—those experiences stretch our capacity to understand what it means to be Christian. These experiences don’t need to happen internationally. I’d argue for doing them in your own town. It’s easy to disconnect from what’s going on half-way around the globe when we only go for two weeks. If it’s local, it’s my town. Then we have to do something about it. Localization prevents us from compartmentalizing and forgetting our neighbors.

Austin: For me, going to Africa was incredible. There was this boy, George, who I met in a church in Zambia. I played soccer with him. When it was time for us to go, I gave him the soccer ball. I saw his mom the next day. She walked 12 miles to give me a letter from George that had a picture of when I gave him the soccer ball and said, “I love you.” Right then I knew that what’s insignificant to me makes a difference in their lives. Giving isn’t about how much you give. Just change the world for one person.

Dave: I’m committed to faith formation being packed with significant experiences. We tend to go all-in for the unusual such as mission trips, but we undermine common experiences. I’d like us to be more attentive to how we come alongside kids in their experiences. Then they can discover God in powerful, breakthrough ways in the midst of a family crisis they cannot escape or in the midst of learning how to navigate the weekend party scene. We can help them respond in ways that are consistent with the love and justice issues Jesus identified.

YWJ: What role should youth workers play in helping students execute their ideas about how to change the world?

Kara: Help them come up with a plan; make sure they have resources; recruit others who share the dream; encourage them when they’re down; and celebrate with them when they see God do great things. Process and cry with them if their plans crash, supporting them in ways that help preserve the dream and passion to keep serving even when their first, second, third and fourth plans fail.

Mike: One of the things that’s so encouraging about youth is their passion. That needs to be tempered by wisdom. That’s where youth workers come in: Enable youth to pursue their vision if it’s in the Lord. If it’s not of the Lord, then help youth discern that and redirect their vision toward something else.

Austin: Really encourage kids to do something. See what we have to say. Brainstorm with us. Ask us, “What is it you like to do? Why do you want to make a difference?” There are so many kids who want to make a difference. Sometimes it’s hard for us to say it. When kids realize adults care about us, it makes a difference.

Dave: I can imagine some kids who are ready to take on those kinds of things. They’ve sown seeds of character, diligence and perseverance. They’ve understood servant leadership. When someone such as that says he or she wants to change the world, try to open doors for that person. I also know students who haven’t done anything to distinguish themselves as reputable followers of Jesus. They’re going from not being well-regarded by their peers to wanting to change the world. In that case, our role is to challenge them not to lose sight of that vision while helping them slow them down and go through some paces to get them ready.

YWJ: What kind of church is needed to support a vision of youth ministry that includes a heart for changing the world?

Kara: A church that’s ready to be inconvenienced—kids changing the world is messy and the process of changing the world messes with kids. We have kids at our church who are choosing different majors because of what they’ve learned about justice. Sometimes it sounds like walking away from “The American Dream,” which can be inconvenient for parents.

Mike: This faith that we have in Christ is meant to be a catalyst for the redemption of the world. God uses the church and us Christians in very unique and tangible ways to accomplish His purpose. If we aren’t doing it, who will be?

Dave: It’s a church that has an external focus and routinely breeds leaders. You can point to things that are happening in their communities of which they’re a part. That’s routinely part of their storyline, as is hearing people talk about how they experience the power of God.

YWJ: What else should we know?

Kara: A constant theme in our research is the importance of teenagers experiencing intergenerational relationships. Service has become a great way to help 16-year-olds connect with 6-, 46- and 66-year-olds. There’s something about lifting plywood together or offering sandwiches to folks who are homeless that breaks down relational walls.

Mike: My experience underscores the importance of living the Christian life rather than just talking about it. Is Christianity about showing up on Sunday, or is it about a truly transformative faith that redeems us and allows Christ to work through us to love the world?

Austin: My favorite verse has been 1 Timothy 4:12. That will inspire kids to do some amazing things. Kids are never too young. They’re ready to do something.

Dave: Be cautious about the dance between a compelling vision and an humble heart. If all we can do in the short time we’ve got students is form them as young people with humility, we will have formed them well for the next stage in their journey.

Recommended Resources:
Zealous Love by Mike and Danae Yankoski
Deep Justice and Deep Justice Journeys by Kara Powell
Serving with Eyes Wide Open by David A. Livermore
3-Story Evangelism Training Curriculum Kit by Dave Rahn
Presence Centered Youth Ministry by Mike King
Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli

Leave a Reply

About The Author

Jen Bradbury serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. She’s the author of The Jesus Gap. Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal and The Christian Century, and she blogs regularly at ymjen.com. When not doing ministry, she and her husband, Doug, can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling with their daughter, Hope.

Recommended Articles