There is a difference between teaching youth information about faith and giving them opportunities to live out their faith and minister themselves. This is the difference between teaching and training. In my own ministry and in my experience with most churches, we excel at teaching youth information about God, faith and ministry. I have had to learn the importance of training youth to lead in ministry now and in the future. Teaching focuses on developing a skill or behavior. Training means we have youth doing ministry so they learn how to disciple, organize, care and plan. In short, training means youth do the ministry.
Teaching young people information is important. There has to be a shared knowledge about Scripture, theology and life. However, if we stop there, then our teaching does not go nearly far enough. Teaching only information leads to banked beliefs, in which young people regurgitate right answers in church services, but don’t integrate faith into the whole of their lives. Teaching young people through training leads to a faith that integrates calling, gifts, vision and whole life. After all, it is called youth ministry, not adults doing stuff for youth ministry.
Imagine a church in which the pastor is in close relationship with a small group of teenagers. The teens understand that part of what it means to be a Christian is to serve Christ and the church. Each of these youth leads a small group made up of other youth. These committees do a wide variety of ministry from calling on people in the church who have been sick or otherwise absent, to helping out around the church building with maintenance, to sharing information about missionaries and helping raise support for mission efforts, to planning prayer meetings. Teens are self-organized and doing ministry. Because they are in direct connection with the pastor, they are connected to the mission of the church, have specific teaching, mentoring and coaching, and have voice into the direction of the church. They are being trained for ministry by doing it and learning to do it well.
Francis Clark, a young pastor in Portland, Maine, assembled this kind of program for teenagers. His Christian Endeavor Societies were focused on helping youth serve Christ and the church. Clark did this by organizing youth as mentioned above, into societies where they would be known, given opportunities to serve and be trained so they could serve well. These societies were incredibly successful in mobilizing youth to serve Christ and the church and grew to more than 5 million members around the world. In fact, Christian Endeavor is known as the first modern youth ministry.
What led Clark to start these societies in 1881 was a simple need in his own church: young people were disengaged and no longer impressed with the church’s attempts to entertain them. The Sunday School curriculum was for children, and people could not serve in church until they were members at 18 years old. This moved the teenagers of the church to the back pew and eventually out the back door. Young people were not seen as significant, as having any meaning or as being capable.
Christian Endeavor started and flourished in a different time and place, but there are some things we can learn and use today to help train youth for ministry. It is well documented that youth today are less mature and less adult than they were 50 years ago. As a professor who works with 18- to 22-year-olds, I see this on a regular basis. Most of the students in my classes are high achievers academically, good people and strong interpersonally. They are considered some of the best from their hometowns, schools and churches. Despite their successes, they still do not know who they really are. They have not had opportunities as have previous generations to work, take on responsibility, struggle, succeed, fail and learn by doing. Like the youth of Clark’s day, many of our young people are disengaged. Many young people are missing opportunities to develop significance, meaning and capability through experiencing their faith and leading in the church.
If Clark discovered through Christian Endeavor some ways to engage youth in serving Christ and the church that impacted the world, perhaps we can learn to engage our youth in significant ministry, as well. When I look at our current state of youth ministry and Clark’s model, four big ideas stand out that we as youth workers could implement to make a difference.
Raising a High Standard
Big Idea: We must be willing to challenge youth to step into leadership within the church.
We youth workers challenge students to leadership all the time, but Clark did this a little differently than many of us do. Clark spelled his leadership challenge out in a formal pledge that youth would sign. Every active member committed to attend church services every week, to share something every week in prayer meeting, and to serve in ministry. When Clark invited youth to join the first Christian Endeavor Society, he was not sure they would respond. After seeing 60 young people sign the first pledge and the first society in his church thrive and grow, he quickly became an advocate for the capability of youth around the world. Raising the leadership standard for students, giving them clear leadership guidelines, and inviting them to sign a challenge might sound overwhelming, but it worked for Clark.
Commit to Youth Leadership
Big Idea: We must commit to the process of discipleship and training.
Discipleship is the process of freeing young people from the things that hold them back from fully following Christ. Training is the active ministry participation that comes out of the teaching and instruction. The church seems to understand teaching information, but we need to embrace the training model where youth are doing ministry. By allowing youth to participate in discipling other young people, they are transformed into leaders for life.
Adults need to focus on training youth to be the leaders of the ministry. When people see our youth ministry programming, they should see youth doing ministry, not adults. Instead of taking on the entire ministry themselves, adults need to teach and equip youth to do ministry. Clark understood that training was the fundamental piece that led to the worldwide success and growth of Christian Endeavor. Clark understood that by training youth to lead, they no longer were passive back-pew spectators but active, vital parts of the church’s ministry. When Clark saw young people leading, organizing and planning, he knew the church would flourish and that these young leaders would be leaders for life. When youth are being discipled and taught to do ministry by adults, their faith sticks. As a result, Christian Endeavor alumni were found in every kind of leadership from pastorates to business leaders to the secretary of state in U.S. government.
Big Idea: We immediately need to provide opportunities for leadership.
Find and create places for youth to serve. Allow them to help you see the areas where there is need and where they can help. Give the leadership to them in such a way so they have communication and support from adults but also are allowed to do the ministry.
Clark started Christian Endeavor with just a few committees with youth as leaders. His first committees met the needs of the church that Clark, as pastor, could identify quickly. The lookout committee, for example, had the job of caring for young people who were slipping through the cracks and for finding other young people in the community who did not go to church. It then became clear that if he could make room for new innovations, youth would determine the needs of the community and the types of work the youth-led society could do to help the church grow and minister. All kinds of different committees and societies were developed this way, including societies in prisons, on ships and to support missionaries.
When we allow youth to lead in ministry, this gives young people permission to pursue ministry in areas where they see needs. It truly becomes God’s ministry through youth. One young man who is a youth leader in his church came to his youth worker with the idea of providing a concert venue for the youth bands of the area. While the youth worker had no idea there was a need for a concert venue such as this, he was committed to allowing youth to lead and supported the idea. The young man gathered a group of friends, who were previously not active in serving, and they planned and ran several youth band events for the community. These became a huge outreach for the church to the youth of the community—all because the youth worker was committed to allowing youth to lead ministry.
Party Through the Mistakes
Big Idea: Celebrate success, teach through failure and expect leadership.
The success of Christian Endeavor came as generations of leaders were raised in Christian Endeavor and understood its purpose. That can be true today, as well. Youth will make mistakes in this process just as all of us do. Be willing to teach through these opportunities. When we invest in young people, allow them to try (and sometimes fail), and make space for their ministry, God will work through them in ways beyond our imagination. Expect leadership to happen. Create a culture of investing in the next generation. The second leader of Christian Endeavor prayer meetings was a 14-year-old. When put into leadership of the prayer meetings, he made mistakes, but he learned from them. Clark was committed to youth leadership and not stepping in to take control. One of his rules was that the pastor could attend youth prayer meetings but was not permitted to speak at them. Perhaps most important, this young leader learned he could and should lead. He eventually became one of the worldwide leaders of Christian Endeavor International.
When Clark first started Christian Endeavor, he discovered that other adults often did not believe youth could do significant ministry. He realized one of his biggest jobs as an adult leader in his church was to help promote youth doing ministry. In a world where almost every message about teens is negative, he promoted a constant source of good news about youth. After hearing Clark’s stories and seeing youth leading, the church changed its view of youth. What if your church became an advocate for youth in your community?
By learning from one of the great youth movements, the body of Christ can train up generations of youth who are leaders now and in the future. By shifting our ministry focus to training, we will move our students from passive spectators to active participants in the work of the church for Christ. Imagine if the teens in our youth ministries right now became the leaders of the church today and tomorrow…That sounds a lot like a group of 12 young men 2,000 years ago, who changed the world with the story of Jesus.
Brian Hull is the associate professor of Youth Ministry at Asbury University in Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and four children. Brian is passionate about connecting people to each other and to the best kind of life found in Jesus…and a former member of the Lone Ranger Fan Club.