Most of the people you’ll read on this blog have a wealth of youth ministry experience. That’s something I don’t have. I’m only a couple years removed from seminary and, outside of internships and volunteer positions, I’m less than two years into my first legitimate ministry position. What I do have though is a fresh perspective and experience as a student in a couple different types of leadership groups.
I’ve been blessed to be able to work with students six days a week, as a volunteer with the youth group at my church on Sundays and as a high school teacher during the week. Something I’ve noticed across the board is that nearly all of them want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. For some students, this looks like pursuing a career in medicine, trying to start a small business, playing college and possibly pro sports, or even getting an engineering degree and working for SpaceX.
The desire to be a part of something big is a normal human desire, but teenagers are getting the opportunity to do something about it for probably the first time in their lives. When teens first encounter Jesus, they usually want nothing more than to continue to do that, even if it only lasts for a short while. Most of us know that feeling of having a powerful “spiritual high” and the immediate desire to never leave it. Of course, life isn’t lived in those moments.
We’ve been given the unique opportunity as youth workers to help our students translate their experiences with God into meaningful life practices. It’s a part of our job to help provide an environment where those students who are ready and willing can begin to explore their potential for growth and leadership.
That responsibility falls not just on student ministry workers, but for people in all areas of ministry. The Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4:11-12: “Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.”
One on one and small group discipleship in the context of a leadership group is typically how this looks in a youth ministry setting. From my experience, there are two major types of leadership groups: the closed group and the open group. I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of both types of groups as a student, and then as a volunteer.
The closed leadership group
The closed group is, as the name implies, a more exclusive group. Depending on the context, a student could get into this leadership group through either an application and interview process, an invitation or recommendation, or a combination of the two. These groups tend to ask for a big commitment from the participants. For the group I was a part of, I had to apply and interview with the youth pastor, and then commit to the group for the full school year. New students were only allowed to join the group during the month or two before the school year.
This group was an incredible growing moment in my life. There were 12 of us in the group (12 disciple jokes were made at least weekly) and I became close friends with most of them, and still am close with many of them to this day. We met weekly and were able to have focused lessons, discussions, and small groups to help us become better leaders and followers of Jesus.
One of my favorite memories from youth group was being given lead over our annual Christmas party one year with a couple of the other members of the group. Our youth pastor gave us full control over what activities we would do, how things would be set up, and the rundown for the night, only stepping in as he needed to to provide guidance and settle disagreements.
A closed leadership group gives a great space for growth and discipleship in a small group with high accountability. Just like with everything though, there are some negative aspects to this type of group.
One of the biggest drawbacks to a group like this is that it doesn’t allow for new student leaders to jump in but once or twice a year, depending on how you structure your group. There’s also the risk for an elitist mentality that can form in the student leaders. This type of group can cause a divide between “leaders” and “non-leaders” where any student who isn’t a leader can expect the leadership group to do everything while they have no need to serve in any way.
The open leadership group
The other type of group is the open group. The open leadership group that I was a part of also met weekly, but anyone could join or leave as they wanted. There was no commitment required. This was great because any student could feel safe to just show up and observe how we did things, even if they were just beginning to explore what being a Christian looked like in their life.
Although this type of group has less space for more focused discussion, it allows new perspectives to be heard in discipleship and planning talks. It also allowed for the more established student leaders to have the opportunity to disciple younger students in the group under the guidance of the youth workers. And there was never a clique of just student leaders like a closed group would create.
Just like with the closed group, there are a few drawbacks to this type of group. The lessons and discussions can lean towards being more general, focusing more on what leadership is and how to read the Bible. Depending on your group, this could be more of what you’d want anyway. This type of group made it harder to have more specific talks based on the needs of the group since there was a low commitment and students weren’t expected to show up every week. This lower commitment also made it more difficult to have a closer and more open community.
Empower your students for Kingdom work
Regardless of whether you prefer one of these types of groups, a combination of the two, or something completely different, something needs to be done. There’s no one “right” way to do student leadership groups. You may need to do different things for your group depending on where they’re at. The point is, students who want more should have a space available where they can grow and be discipled.
Most of us have heard it before, but students are not the church of tomorrow. Students are the frontlines of the church of today. Their mission field is their classrooms and their homes. The Holy Spirit can work through them just like he works through us. It’s our job as youth workers to encourage and empower our students to live for the Kingdom of God in all areas of their lives.
Those students who have a desire to grow closer to Jesus need to have a place where they can be challenged and discipled, and with our help they can be forces for change in their world for the Kingdom of God.
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