“They don’t know everything!”: Steps in youth leadership development
You can’t do that!” came the reply—almost in unison— from the church board. I had just informed them that I was interested in having youth from our youth group not only regularly teach Sabbath School but also act in the capacity of assistant leader. When I asked for their main objection, they— again, almost in union—whined (not as loudly this time): “But . . . they . . . don’t know everything!”
I have observed that this collective attitude encompasses the main obstacle keeping young people from being effectively involved in ministry. Many people feel that young people have to be like “mini-adults” in terms of their biblical knowledge before they can be allowed to teach; that for some reason, they are expected to be fully mature Christians before they can begin leading others. A story in the New Testament book of Acts would beg to differ.
“Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
“When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah” (Acts 18:24–28, NIV).
This biblical story embodies a progressive framework of five specific principles that will help us more effectively develop youth for leadership:1
1. Recognize God-given gifts. Aquilaand Priscilla recognized God-given gifts, abilities, and talents in Apollos (vv. 24–26a). Luke tells us that Apollos had six qualities that were unique to him:
- Was an educated person
- Had a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures
- Had been instructed in the way of the Lord
- Spoke with great fervor
- Taught about Jesus accurately
- Knew only the baptism of John
Although Apollos—though naturally gifted as a powerful preacher and effective Bible teacher—had been initially taught by somebody (maybe his parents or a rabbi), he still had huge gaps in his spiritual knowledge base. I find it interesting that Priscilla and Aquila (a Jewish married couple, v. 2) recognized and confirmed Apollos’s gifts.
2. Build effective and authentic relationships. Aquila and Priscilla not only recognized Apollos’ gifts, but they took it a step further—and this is the hard part—they used hospitality and built an authentic relationship with him (v. 26b). Commentator Richard Strauss states, “Aquila and Priscilla may not have been accomplished public speakers, but they were diligent students of the Word, and they loved to share it with others. They were even willing to invest the time necessary to take one young man under their spiritual care and pour into his life the things of Christ.”2
It makes me very happy to know that, even back then, this couple understood the power of a couple/family getting involved in youth ministry. We do not know what kind of history or home life Apollos had, but in today’s culture, not only do our youth need to be encouraged and have their gifts of leadership and teaching affirmed, but they also desperately need to see the example of a godly, loving, healthy Christian marriage and family life.
There is no need to publicly berate young people’s morals or privately pry into their home environment and life; just befriend them—with no strings attached. Invite them over to your home for get-togethers. Get to know and love them. If you love them, feed them (physically and emotionally), nurture, and pay attention to them, then just like a flower, they will eventually open up. You will not be able to stop them from talking with you about who they really are, their hopes and dreams, and what their biggest stressors and fears are. Why? Because they know that you care about and love them—simply for who they are.
3. Lead them into a deeper relation-ship with Jesus. Within the scope of that relationship, Priscilla and Aquila taught deeper information about Jesus (v. 26b).
Here is a powerful truth: youth will not care what you know unless they know that you care. There is a simple and organic progression of the relation-ship that Aquila and Priscilla had with Apollos. First, they recognized his gifts, then they really got to know him, and then—and only then—did they begin to teach and instruct him about the full way of the Lord.
Their relationship with Jesus will be modeled upon your relationship with them. If you try to present a truth without a relationship, there will be no connection. You have to temper and pace the amount of information that you are sharing with a youth based not upon what grade they are in school but upon who they are—both spiritually and emotionally. If you have kids of your own, as a parent, you already know this. You cannot just give somebody some-thing difficult to understand until you are sure that the relationship you have built can withstand the stress of that new piece of information. Youth ministry is about relationships. They come first and foremost. Never forget that!
4. Allow them to choose their own ministry roles. As Apollos matured in his spirituality, relationship with God, and understanding of Scripture, they allowed him to choose where he wanted to get involved (v. 27a). This is an important truth that needs to be understood by youth leaders. You can encourage, educate, equip, and inspire your youth who are interested in leadership, but ultimately the choice as to how they want to get involved has to be theirs and theirs alone. They must own it, or they will not be motivated to do it and do it well.
5. Encourage and support their ministry roles. Aquila and Priscilla honored and supported Apollos’s choice (v. 27b). Once youth choose how they want to lead and own it, we must support them wholeheartedly. We must do our utmost to make leadership successful and effective for them. We must cheer them on to victory. What does cheering them on look like?
For some, it may mean advocating for them by educating church and/or school boards and families of origin about the realities of youth culture, youth ministry, and the gifts and potential of specific youth. For others, it may mean having a tough conversation with them about what they are doing right—and wrong. Still for others, it may mean acting as a sounding board and allowing them to vent their fears, anxieties, and stressors related to their increasing leadership roles. We must build relationships that can support and encourage them in their spiritual growth.
If we youth leaders and pastors do our jobs consistently and effectively, our youth will want to take their place at the helm of the work, and they will be successful. You and I want nothing less for our youth. Apollos became a huge spiritual blessing to others and an effective disciple (vv. 27, 28) and his leadership grew to become crucially important in the formation of the early church (1 Cor. 1:11, 12; 3).
If we follow the five principles stated earlier, we will prepare this generation not only to effectively, consistently, and joyfully lead but also—and more importantly—to lead an effective, consistent, and joyful Christian life.
Christian writer Ellen G. White made two powerful observations about youth involvement. She stated, “We have an army of youth today who can do much if they are properly directed and encouraged. … We want them to act a part in well-organized plans for helping other youth.”3 She also declared, “Preachers, or laymen advanced in years, cannot have one-half the influence upon the young that the youth, devoted to God, can have upon their associates.”4
I know that your greatest hopes and dreams for your youth mirror the apostle Paul’s for the Colossian Christians when he wrote: “He [Jesus] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:28, 29, NIV).
You and I are only in leadership for a season. By following God’s five principles for youth leadership development, we will be working smarter—not harder—and making the most of the time (Ps. 90:10; Eph. 5:15, 16), energies, and gifts that God has given us. Strauss concludes: “Some of us will never be powerful preachers, but we can be faithful students of the Word, and our homes can be open to people whose hearts are hungry to hear the Word. We may have the joyous privilege of nurturing a young Apollos who someday will have a wide and powerful ministry for Jesus Christ.”5
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1 Although the Bible does not tell us how old Apollos was, I consider him to be a “youth” in need of mentorship.
2 Richard L. Strauss, “Side by Side—The story of Aquila and Priscilla,” Bible.org, June 28, 2014, bible.org/seriespage/13-side-side-story-aquila-and -priscilla.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,1962), 32.
4 Ellen G. White, Messages to Young People (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1030), 204.
5 Strauss, “Side by Side.”