Think about the teenagers in your church who you believe love God the most, the ones that would be most likely to serve in your congregation. Can you see them in your mind yet? These are the “good” kids, right? At least these are on the correct path, right?
Don’t be too sure.
These are the exact type of teens who go on mission trips with my team each year. More than 72,000 of them have shown up over the years ready to explore South American jungles, trek through Himalayan mountains and journey inside cultures unlike their own, all for the chance to tell people about Jesus. At least that’s what I thought, until I made a shocking discovery.
The greatest legacy my mother gave me was a legacy of holiness, of integrity, of a life well-lived and of exemplifying the Word in action.
Simply put, Alice Gray stood out among the crowd. Many of the people I grew up around attended church. But looking back, there were very few whom I would classify as true Christ-followers. That’s not to judge them and say that they were bad people. But there’s a difference between those who follow a religion (which simply involves rote repetition) and those who are committed to growing and developing in their relationship with God.
The final words of Malachi’s prophecy say the hearts of the fathers will turn to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. The church is at its best when we see that Scripture being lived out among the generations in our local congregations. It isn’t easy with a widening generation gap in a rapidly changing society. But it can happen when it’s modeled within church leadership.
As a youth pastor, I know I’m able to lead a younger generation toward God because of the people who paved the way for me, believed in me and gave me a chance despite my failures. I’ve been blessed to have a great relationship with my senior pastor, David T. Demola, who taught me the true meaning of ministry.
What do mission legends Mary Slessor, Hudson Taylor and Cameron Townsend share in common? They were all impacting nations and reshaping mission paradigms before they were 30 years old.
The gospel’s march has often been carried on the backs (and in the backpacks) of young people. The golden chain of mission expansion has been forged by teenagers and young adults. And whether or not they realize it, on-fire youth today add to a train of faith centuries long.
It begins with a lump in the throat, followed by a cold sweat and clammy palms, and it finishes with a sinking feeling. It’s the moment you realize you’ve “failed” in youth ministry.
Today I thought I would share some of my most cherished moments from the “How Not to Be a Youth Pastor” handbook.
1. The "unbroken arm." Imagine your student who is “that kid.” You know—the one who needs to push all of your buttons, and you are too proud to admit it? At camp I say four times, “Don’t stand on the trash can that is 5 feet in the air. We are playing basketball, and you could fall off.” Fourteen-year-old Malcolm ignores me. He falls, then grabs his arm, screaming, “It’s broken!” Me, in an award-winning moment: “No, it’s not. Go play basketball like you were asked.” Malcolm finally begs me to go to the nurse.
Why Teen Mania’s Ron Luce is compelled to engage America’s next generations like never before
I recently wrote a heartfelt letter to someone very close to me. She’s 18, fresh out of high school and over the years has lost her way. She grew up in a normal home with parents who love her, and she never had any real problems at school. But somehow she faded away, slowly and quietly.
Looking back, I realize now that while home was a safe place, it never offered a solid foundation. Values weren’t instilled, and church was more of an occasional event she was forced to attend rather than a community in which she freely participated and found acceptance. Rarely, if ever, was she in a life-giving place that facilitated God conversations or where she built relationships with youth leaders.
Our guest editor for this issue, Ron Luce, knows this scenario too well. As co-founder (with wife Katie) and leader of Garden Valley, Texas-based Teen Mania Ministries, Luce spends his time engaging today’s teens with the gospel, partnering with thousands of churches nationwide through the ministry’s Acquire the Fire youth events. For the past 27 years at these weekend events, Luce has stood face to face with more than 2.7 million teens to bring them a relatable and gospel-filled message. As a result, he’s very much aware of the “slow fade” happening among emerging generations, both churched and unchurched. Throughout this issue, Luce offers a prophetic message and challenge to church leaders, reminding us that, “it’s going to take all hands on deck to see a turnaround in this generation.”
Luce knows firsthand the power of a church and its leaders focused on youth. Raised by his mother in a broken home, at age 15 he ran away and began using drugs and alcohol. A year later, at rock bottom, he went with a friend to church. The church’s youth pastor reached out to him, and the senior pastor “drew me to the deeper things in Christ,” Luce says. Ultimately, after discovering that Ron had been kicked out of his house because of his faith, the pastor invited him to live with him and his family during Luce’s senior year of high school.
“This man took a risk on behalf of the younger generation,” Luce says. “Since then, Christ has inspired and compelled me to love people the way He loves them, and I’ve realized that the whole point of my life is to point a younger generation toward Him.”
However, Luce didn’t start out with a vision to have an international ministry. “I didn’t really want to start a ministry,” he says. “I just wanted to preach and get young people saved and go on mission trips around the world. When God gives a dream and the tools to pull it off, He will bless it.”
To date, Teen Mania has sent more than 70,000 teens on mission trips with its Global Expeditions arm (see p. 42), and more than 6,000 have participated in the Honor Academy, a yearlong internship for high school graduates and young adults providing leadership opportunities and opportunities to grow in God (see p. 34). Since its inception, hundreds of thousands of teens have accepted Christ through Teen Mania programs.
In his cover story (p. 16), Luce offers practical counsel for real issues, such as equipping teens to speak intelligently and confidently about their beliefs in a culture where absolute truth is mocked and social media offers constant distraction. In light of these issues, Luce identifies two essential questions church leaders should be asking: What are the most poignant challenges to reaching an ever-changing group? As leaders of Jesus’ church, how do we confront those challenges?
I thought a great deal about my young friend as I read through the articles in this issue, about how potentially life-changing it would have been if a local church leader had taken a risk on her like Ron Luce’s pastor did for him. I pray this issue challenges and inspires you to take similar steps for a fading generation.
In John 21, Jesus referred to youth “engagement” as “feeding the lambs.” Notice that, of the three different references to taking care of His flock, Jesus told Peter to feed and take care of the sheep two times, but He specifically called out the lambs. It’s as if He was telling Peter, “Don’t forget the young ones!” One-third of his exhortation was aimed at the lambs!
This is a topic that freaked me out my first year in youth ministry. As a young parent myself, it’s not easy telling grown ups how to deal with their children.
So, it took me a while to really get to a place where I was comfortable with talking to parents. I’m sure I’m not alone in this area. I thought I’d list some principles that I’m learning along the way that has helped me navigate dealing with parents.
Know your role to parents. We are support to parents first and foremost. Let them take the lead. My value is in being another voice for the student to hear the same message that their parents give. It may sound different and even be presented differently, but it should be the same message—unless, of course, the message is contrary to God’s word.
I love the community that has formed on my blog. There are several people who are regular commenters; they have become a part of my blog's family, and I feel like I know them.
Some of them come to the blog in affirmation of what I have written. I am always grateful for such encouragement. But some visitors disagree with me. I gladly post their comments for two reasons. First, I want to be fair to all who take time to read my blog. Second, I am wrong some of the time and I need to be corrected.
How This Story Began
Sometimes, however, people come to my blog hurting deeply. They need a place where they can be heard, and they need a place where they can share your pain without fear of retribution. That is why I allow them to comment in anonymity if they so desire. My only requirement is that they enter their legitimate email address in case we need to confirm that they're not hiding behind a fake address. But we will never publish email addresses.
Being a leader is not easy. Not by a long shot. In fact, with all of the hard work and criticism we face, sometimes it can feel like a lonely, thankless job. At the same time, we were never made to go this alone.
Here are eight relationships you can’t live without as a leader:
1. Mentor. Having someone who believes in you and cares deeply for your life as a whole is vital to your success as a leader. I can’t imagine my life without the mentors God has given me. If you don’t have a mentor, don’t wait for one to come to you. Seek one out.
Look for someone who is a believer in others and will take time for you and look to your interests.
I’ve learned that relating to students is more about what you do than who you are. I wrote a post a while ago called “The Bs to Being a Great Youth Leader,” and it was about clearing up the misconceptions of what a youth leader has to be in order to relate to students. I believe the misconceptions of who a youth leader has to be cheapens youth ministry in general.
I believe the focus of a youth minister should be on what they do and not on who they are. Because I believe youth ministry is mostly about relationships, the fact that God created us to be in relationship with Him plays a huge part in that idea. Jesus was a walking relational powerhouse.
I’ve never considered being called average a compliment. I think it means you’re just as close to the bottom as on top.
I don’t believe God meant for you to be average. I don’t think God meant for you to live a so-so or bland, mediocre life. As a leader, I don’t think God intends for you to be an average leader.
I believe every human being was designed for excellence—that you’re not one in a million; you’re one in 5 billion. And as the book In Search of Excellencestates, “The average person desires to be excellent in many different ways.” There is no one else like you in the universe.
Alisha’s life was a mess. Her family was dysfunctional and broken. Her past was littered with poor choices, shattered promises, substances and illicit relationships.
She hated her parents, despised authority and was angry with God ... that is, until she met some people who saw beyond her exterior and realized the beauty that lay deep inside.
When she arrived on the campus of an international boarding school in the Caribbean, she was greeted by people who refused to evaluate her by what they saw. They did not judge her by her beauty, her height, her build or her features.
The longer I run the race of ministry, the more I realize it is prayer that keeps me going and produces results that last. It's not uncommon that as a young leader, I “ran” more than prayed. As I’ve matured, my understanding and practice of prayer has strengthened.
I have also learned, however, that my prayers are not enough. I need others to pray for me. In fact, I believe this so strongly that I think it’s dangerous to lead in a church without having specific people pray for you with great passion and consistency.
For the past 12 years, I’ve had seven prayer partners—one for each day of the week. Many wonderful people pray for me at 12Stone Church, but these warriors are the ones I count on, each on their day. When I was at Skyline Church, I had 30 prayer partners, one for each day of the month.
It’s easy to tell whether a person is giving an excuse. Whether you’re a teacher, a parent or a leader, we’ve all heard excuses from other people that don’t quite add up.
While determining the validity of someone else’s excuse is fairly black and white, it’s not so easy when it comes to the excuses we give ourselves. Oftentimes we give ourselves a lot more slack with our own excuses. It’s taken me years to realize that the excuses I often find “acceptable” can possibly destroy the influence, leadership potential and personal growth I want to accomplish.
Here are three of the most common acceptable excuses I’ve found myself giving over the past few years. But I have recently realized the danger of using them:
This is not a good story, and I apologize in advance.
In between my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked the call-in desk for the Seaboard Railroad ticket office in Birmingham. Located downtown on 20th Street South, this was an attractive office with pleasant people.
The year was 1960 and during the heyday of Jim Crow laws. The police commissioner in the city was named Bull Connor, a man destined to make headlines a couple of years later when he turned the fire hoses on blacks (and maybe a few whites; I’m not sure) protesting the harsh laws and customs in our city.