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Student-Led Youth Ministry: How to Morph Into That Framework

2. Next, scared straight.

As I started preparing teenagers to serve and plugged them into new leadership roles, I had to bite my lip and let them fail. When they tasted reality—realizing we had no backup plan if they didn’t show up to serve in their area of responsibility—they quickly upped their commitment level and made sure we could count on them. For example, when kids who’d committed to run A/V for our regular meeting realized our service would be in jeopardy unless someone ran the soundboard, they took personal responsibility.

Soon I noticed something that defied conventional wisdom. The more responsibility I gave student leaders, the more I could depend on them. In retrospect, this is no mystery. Teenagers are used to adults pushing them to be their best. In athletics, academics, and extracurriculars, coaches and parents don’t accept mediocrity.

Sadly, in the church we think “pushing kids to be their best” is akin to making them drink poison. We fear if we push teenagers too much in student-led youth ministry roles, as we do with sports and grades, we’ll push them away from God. I now know the outcome is quite the opposite.

3. Giving much and expecting much. 

The deeper we moved into our new student-led youth ministry paradigm, the more two vital prerequisites for success emerged. Teens needed to know we had high expectations for them and that someone would always be encouraging them. So if their role was leading a Bible study or worship time, we expected them to live with integrity and show up on time. And they knew we’d be right there, offering help when needed and providing the resources to succeed.

Currently, one adult sets up training for all our A/V student leaders. He trains the kids on the team and creates a schedule for them. We’ve also created a student teaching team that leads our small-group Bible studies. Adult mentors meet with them before the weekly lesson to make sure they’re prepared. Then they attend as “observers,” not teachers.

In the past, adults ran our preteen ministry (5th and 6th graders). Now we’ve trained senior high leaders to take over most of those responsibilities. That includes teaching classes and running monthly events.

Teens also lead worship, organize mission projects, and even brainstorm new strategies and ideas for our overall ministry. This is all under the guidance (not control!) of adult leaders. By handing over more ministry ownership to youth, we’re seeing excitement boiling up in the next generation of student leaders moving through the children’s ministry.

Through the one-two punch of high expectations and high nurture, our teenagers have embraced a biblical truth. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:48). Most have turned out to be just as reliable and responsible as the adults they’ve replaced. (Many are even better!)

4. Finally, the willing vs. the qualified.

Today’s teens live in a fast-paced world. It’s normal for them to feel over-committed and busy. I’m not saying this is a good thing. But I refuse to use it as an excuse for why they don’t have time to make a commitment to our ministry. Just like adults, young people will make time for what’s important to them.

My goal is to move serving Christ and the church atop their priority list. And that movement starts by searching for those who, first and foremost, want to use their skills and abilities. no matter how polished.

We have teenagers who are incredibly tech-savvy. They may not know everything adults know about the Bible, but they can run any piece of equipment in our ministry. As they “give what they have to give,” we also see them hungering to know more about God’s truths. They may not have the sharpest speaking skills. But they see that I’m excited to help them improve, building their confidence and equipping them with the tools they need.

Effects of Student-Led Youth Ministry

Since we shifted our strategy, equipping teenagers to lead almost every aspect of our ministry, I’ve morphed my role from an adult recruiter to a student-leader equipper. We still have adult volunteers, but their job is now to coordinate and mentor.