To be effective in youth group leadership, certain habits are critical. I learned this lesson while setting up life groups, or regular times for young adults to meet and discuss sermons, share Bible study, pray for one another, and just do life together. Trying to create this environment for young men was especially challenging because, quite honestly, young men can harbor some shallow spirits. They also can easily fall victim to the persuasion of the crowds.
So what’s the secret to youth group leadership for a successful ministry or group? (And by successful, I mean one with consistency in attendance, limited turnover, and growth in size but most importantly growth in students’ character.) During one meeting, a young person said, “This is the only place I experience real character development.” That motivated me to jot down the ideas I feel have yielded youth group leadership wins in my work with students. If you lead a youth ministry or student life group, these habits are sure to create positive forward movement toward the goal of spiritual growth.
7 Habits Necessary for Youth Group Leadership
1. Teach up
Use teachings and ideas that will challenge young people by speaking at a level above the platform they currently stand on. Challenging kids sends so many intangible messages. Primarily, it communicates that you believe in their ability to rise up to what you’re teaching. You speak not to who kids are but to who you believe they can be. What good is it to teach a standard that exists at the level young people have already achieved? Call kids to a higher standard and place a mark in front of them that’s worth achieving. When youth group leadership is consistently ahead of kids’ developmental curve, they’ll continue to look to you for the next call in their life.
2. Meet kids where they are
Not to contradict with the habit of “teaching up,” but I believe acceptance drives influence. Only once you’ve come down to meet kids at their current maturity level will you have their permission to speak to their hearts. Once you have permission to speak to their heart, then you have the opportunity to challenge them, as we just discussed. Don’t confuse acceptance with tolerance. It’s okay to accept someone without tolerating what they do. Communicating that you won’t tolerate their behavior is not an indication that you don’t accept them. When done lovingly, however, it actually communicates that you care about them and believe they can be greater than their behavior.
3. Authentic beats cool every time
I’ve seen people try everything they can to appear cool to a 13-year-old boy in an attempt to gain influence. Their motives are pure, but their intentions get lost in their imitations. Can I give you a news flash? Kids can smell a fake, and so could you when you were young. Sadly, if you’re labeled as a fake, you’ve failed. In my ministries, I’ve been told that I’m cool, to a level that I’m desensitized to it. Although I’m thankful for compliments, what I believe kids mean is that they think I’m authentic.
4. Go after kids; don’t wait for them to come after you
This should come out of the overflow of confidence you have around students. I’ve met so many grown people who’ve expressed a fear of teenagers. That’s so foreign to me! Always place tremendous importance on pursuing students on a one-to-one level. It expresses that each person is very valuable to you and that they have permission to interrupt your day at any time. Don’t be concerned with trying to talk to hoards of students all at once. Think about it: If you talk to one student a day, every single day, you will have talked to 365 students in a year. Some people won’t take the time to talk to the one student because they’re too caught up trying to economize their time and talk to the crowds. Keeping things personable sends a positive message of intimacy, acceptance and value.
5. Serve irrationally
Go hard. Instead of asking, “How little can I get away with spending?” the right question to ask is “How much do I have to spend?” With your time, give as much to kids as you can possibly budget. With your money, press up against the boundaries in your budget. You serve students irrationally by giving to them irrationally. My goal is to create a culture of serving so that one day kids will get to my age and wonder how I managed to do it. This level of irrational giving will reverberate into their adult lives and speak a message of servanthood that can’t be forgotten.
6. Speak to who kids really are, not who they pretend to be
I heard that youth group leadership lesson from a pastor who realized that responsibly pastoring a church is about gently breaking down walls and speaking to life’s easy-to-hide dysfunctions. Students have a natural self-preservation defense mechanism that causes them to live a double lifestyle. They’ll have their church life and their personal life. It’s toxic to grow up believing that your faith and your life are separate matters. If you never create an atmosphere where it’s safe to speak to what isn’t working, you’ll eventually lose your credibility as their leader. To students, you’ll become obsolete. After all, they don’t need your help with what’s working; they need your help with what’s not working.
7. Be someone worth pursuing
Consistency breeds credibility. During my early years of youth group leadership, a student asked me this simple yet startling question: “Are you the same around us as you are around your friends?” That question still echoes in my spirit and challenges me every day I wake. Am I someone worth being pursued? Have I done anything that will inspire people to be a difference-maker to the people they have influence over? Have I been a positive influence? Am I raising the standards for myself? Your life will always make more noise than your lips. The people you lead will hear what you do much louder than they’ll hear what you say. Make sure the noise you make is worth being reproduced.
May God bless you as you pursue these habits of effective youth group leadership!