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Young Disciples: Turning A Youth Group Into A Youth Church

The purpose of this series is to teach you how to grow your youth group into a youth church through three methods: leadership, discipleship, and fun. All three are vital for preteens and teens to grow into successful adults who will be great contributors to your church or wherever they end up in life. 

As a church grows, it attracts many different types of people and families. Families, of course, mean young people. In this series, we will deal with youth. Children, in the definition that we used at the church where I was assistant youth pastor, were elementary age. Youth were middle and high school age with a grace period up to 21-years-old at most.

I’m Lexie Schmidt, and, of all the positions I have had in the church, I loved being a youth pastor the best. So, let’s get into youth churches and what makes them different from a typical youth group.

I’ll cover:

Group Or Church: What’s The Difference?

The primary difference between a youth group and a youth church is the focus or purpose of the meetings and the investment of time and effort when the group is not in service. For instance, a youth group might meet Wednesday nights during adult church and not do much outside of that. 

illustration of a youth group next to a church
There are several differences between youth groups and youth churches.

The youth church might have its own night for service, or might take one from the adults (with the lead pastor’s permission, of course). Functionally, your youth church should be a church-within-a-church.

The second issue is the focus on developing leaders. The adult church develops elders, deacons, and other lay leaders and can prepare people to become clergy. A youth church does the same thing, except the people are younger. 

Third, a youth church is a safe harbor for young people who might be going through a difficult time as they move from childhood to adulthood. Physical, mental, and emotional changes wreak havoc on teens, and a constantly shifting network of friends and enemies disorients them to say the least.

If it sounds like you have a youth group, and you want to change things for the better, read on! This is going to be fun.

Growth Through Leadership

The first step in beginning a youth church is developing members of your youth group into spiritual leaders among their peers. This part will show you how to identify, teach, and promote young people into a core group around which you will build the rest of your youth church.

While we are focusing on youth leaders here, your adult leadership team, the youth pastor and other older supervisors, should all be well-versed in your entire plan for your youth church. As amazing as your young people can become, they still feel peer pressure, so you need enough adult voices to mitigate those influences.

Also, you are dealing with minors, so all adults should be fully vetted through background checks and interviews. We’ll get more into safety later in this series.

Identifying Youth Leaders

Young people present a unique problem: they are still growing. While many adults do not know who they are yet, it is true that teens, for the most part, have no idea who they want to be. Adolescence is the time when a person gets to try out any number of new facets.

illustration of youth church members under a magnifying glass
Identifying good leadership candidates from your youth church takes a keen eye.

The ever-changing roles that teenagers play as they find themselves make your job harder, compared to finding what works for your adult church members. The important thing is to never box a teen into a role. The more they can breathe, the more they will grow.

The Natural Leader

Natural leaders are the ones that others look up to without trying. Maybe it’s a guitar player or a singer on your worship team. It might be an athlete or the lead pastor’s kid. This leader is always the center of a conversation, even when they aren’t around.

Natural leaders like to be the center of attention because they usually are. They’re used to the spotlight, and they like it. They might not think to volunteer for the youth church if they learned their leadership skills through sports or academics or other non-church activities.

Natural leaders, like all others, have a number of advantages and traits to look out for.

Advantages:

  • Charismatic. Natural leaders are usually the ones who are best at preaching and singing, and being seen.
  • Teachable. Since their leadership often pulls them into situations such as team sports, they can usually identify authority figures and know how to listen.
  • Strong-willed. These leaders are normally the ones who cause peer pressure instead of succumbing to it, but they are not immune. Still, their influence can be used for good.

Traits to look out for:

  • Proud. Since these leaders tend to be naturally gifted, many of them have been praised for their talents all their lives. In the worst cases, they will only take criticism or advice from an authority figure.
  • Questionable Work Ethic. We see this every year when college football players are drafted because of their amazing talent, but they fizzle out because they don’t put in the work. Not every natural leader has this problem, but you will run into it once in a while.
  • Entitled. The quarterback on my high school football team never did homework because he got the girls to do it for him. He was definitely smart enough to do the work himself, but he didn’t feel like he had to. Again, this is something to look out for, not a guarantee.

I see natural leaders as being like Simon Peter: loud, brash, and bold, but in desperate need of polish before being ready to lead. Whichever type of natural leader you identify, remember that they can be some of your most dynamic leaders as long as you learn their specific weaknesses and help strengthen them.

The Servant Leader

Servant leaders hardly ever need to be recruited. They are always ready and willing to help. While a natural leader leads through command, servant leaders lead through example. Many of them do not realize that others look up to them. Some even cross into being too humble.

Once again, in a reflection of the natural leader, the servant leader will usually need to be thrust into the light, rather than seeking it out. However, given the opportunity, many servant leaders turn out to be hiding amazing gifts and talents that can even rival the natural leaders. It is up to you to bring your leaders and their talents to the front.

Advantages:

  • Volunteer. To be Christian is to be Christ-like, and volunteering is generally considered one of the most Christ-like things to do. Churches run on volunteers.
  • Knowledgeable. Hand-in-hand with volunteering is knowing how the church runs. Many times the path to leadership roles and greater responsibility comes through knowing how to get things done.
  • Listener. A good servant learns how to listen to accomplish the goals of the church. When they move into leadership roles, such as peer support, their ability to listen becomes invaluable.

Traits to look out for:

  • Background. These usually are not your rock stars and sports stars. They tend to be people who just want to help, nothing more. It’s fine for someone to just volunteer, but that one kid who is an hour early to every service to help setup and stays an hour late to help teardown needs to know that they are called to greater things.
  • Humility. Jesus showed his humility and service through the washing of feet and the serving of food. Jesus also spoke forcefully when the need arose. Servant leaders sometimes need permission to be strong-willed. We will get into that in the teaching section.
  • Quiet. Servants get too used to listening. Even when they are in charge of a project, they might not speak loud enough for people to hear or respect. Help them find their voice. Just as the natural leader has a voice but sometimes lacks the work ethic, the servant leader has all the work ethic but lacks a voice.

The first attribute to look for is the kid who is always there. They always ask what to do next. They might even get anxious when everything is done. Your first thought about a servant leader might be that they are annoying. Let that feeling ring a bell in your mind that this person who just won’t leave you alone is actually on a path to leadership.

I compare servant leaders to James: you don’t hear much from him, but, when he does speak, it’s important. Of all three types of leaders, these ones are the easiest to overlook, so always be sure you know who is getting the jobs done in your youth church.

The Reluctant Leader

Reluctant is not the most accurate word for these leaders. When I was assistant youth pastor for 500 teens and young adults, we found that these people almost always had to be dragged into leadership. Several just refused to join the team, and we respected that decision, but we did not agree with it.

So, if “reluctant” is not the most accurate word, what is? Scholar. Seriously, these are people who will bug you constantly about minutia of scripture and Biblical accuracy and so on. Some will even take notes on your sermons and ask you to address certain points. They have been known to induce rage among pastors, but, Good Lord, do they make for amazing teachers.

While that might sound mostly negative, reluctant leaders have a range of advantages as well.

Advantages:

  • Intelligent. Possibly the smartest people in your church, adult or youth. They constantly question everything about the universe and their place in it. Directed at specific issues, they are problem solvers.
  • Diligent. Some of the best note takers I have ever known. They tend to be organized, efficient, and calculated.
  • Cautious. Reluctant leaders also got their name from this trait. They think before they speak or act. They plan for failure and learn from it to mitigate pain in the future.

Traits to look out for:

  • Overthinkers. Many suffer from “paralysis-by-analysis” when presented with a difficult problem. Another reason behind their name as well. A reluctant leader who learns to trust their instincts becomes a force to be reckoned with.
  • Slow. Since they constantly reevaluate how things work to find better methods, they can get bogged down in the finer details of processes that already work. The concept of diminishing returns can be lost on them.
  • Reluctant. Too much caution becomes reluctance, and your leader does nothing. Motivational talks work sometimes, but training in confidence and self esteem works wonders in this area.

Reluctant leaders, when asked if they have any interest in ministry or leadership, often reply, “Oh, I’m just asking questions!” The proper answer is to offer them exactly what they want: answers to more questions. Later on, we will talk about hungry minds, but these minds are starving. 

I compare reluctant leaders to Paul: greatly intelligent, but driven in the wrong direction until he was pointed to the right scriptures to complete his transformation. They are the most difficult to recruit, but they make the biggest impact of the three types of youth leaders.

Teaching Youth Leaders

Maybe, as you read the previous section, some of your youth, or even adult, church members sprung to mind. If so, then you are well on your way to gathering potential leaders into a discipleship program. But what is a discipleship program, and how do you develop one to fit you?

illustration of a youth leader reading the bible
Tailor your discipleship program to your specific leadership needs.

A discipleship program prepares regular church members for leadership roles. It ensures that they know the stances that you and your denomination (if any) hold on spiritual issues and gives them the knowledge to deal with various situations—especially when a situation needs to be sent upward to ordained clergy.

Because each denomination has its own set of beliefs and rituals, I cannot give a one-size-fits-all curriculum for you. I can teach you how to develop your own. I’ll also help you figure out how many leaders you need for your youth church and show a few examples of how you can give your youth leaders opportunities for success.

Developing A Curriculum

First, develop your tier system. You should not model it after the adult church, and you should definitely not take the adult ranks and put “youth” in front of them. Nothing sounds worse to a teen than “Youth Deacon”. Nothing sounds less thought out than “Youth Elder”. 

I would encourage you to give your youth church a theme and name the tiers after them. Each rank should have both educational and service requirements. We are focusing on education here, and we will get into service requirements in the section on promoting youth leaders.

Your first tier above your church members would simply be someone who knows the basic tenets or catechisms of your denomination (or foundational principles, if non-denominational). Typically, this course of education should not be longer than 8 weeks or shorter than 4 weeks.

The next tier should understand the more advanced concepts of your denomination’s views and be able to apply scripture to various situations. This course needs to prepare them to be peer counselors with a focus on knowing when to bring a situation up the ranks. For my youth church, this tier was about six months of training.

The final tier, for my youth pastor and I, was more tailored to the individual and lasted for at least a year. By the end of this tier, a person could preach sermons and lead prayer groups, if called upon to do so. For my part, I was assisting my youth pastor in preparing his sermons and was leading the entire volunteer group that switched the main auditorium to the youth configuration during this period of my training.

You may decide that you want more tiers or fewer tiers, but the important part is that they are challenging, exciting, and dynamic. For larger groups, like the first tier, you can make lessons out of games and contests. In our youth church, each tier had its own color T-shirt, and we made getting a new shirt a constant goal. Whatever you decide, be sure to keep up the energy and excitement.

How Many Leaders Do I Need?

Typically, for every 50 youth, you need at least one adult leader for supervision. I have found that is the maximum one person can keep an eye on. This includes the youth pastor and any former youth who have aged out of the youth church but have stayed on as adult leadership. 

For the youth leaders, we would take as many who wanted to join the leadership team. This does not mean that all of them get automatically promoted at the end of their current tier of training. A youth pastor can probably only give the personalized pre-ministry training of a top-tier leader to one or two people at a time. You can have people from higher tiers help train those of lower tiers which definitely reduces strain.

That doesn’t quite answer the question, though. For worship leaders, take anyone who can play an instrument. Band members come and go all the time. Musicians are flighty. Singers are usually more stable, so take as many as you have microphones for or can fit on your stage. Peer counselors should be trained up to around 1 for every 20 church members. They can help pray at the end of service as well.

Don’t forget the volunteers who help with setup and teardown. This number will depend almost entirely on your space and equipment. This is another area where we took as many people as possible who were willing to listen.

Giving Youth Leaders Opportunities To Use Their Skills

The purpose of this education is to train your youth leaders with the skills to help both their peers and themselves succeed as humans and as Christians. With training, you pass your skills to your trainees. And then, comes practice.

So, do we send them out to their peers without guidance? Absolutely not. Have them shadow their trainer for a few instances. Always get the consent of the person who is being helped. Any pastor knows that some situations our congregants bring us are very sensitive, so don’t force a person to take part in the training of someone else.

If you are training someone who is called to preach, start them small with an offering sermon or a call to prayer. Have them speak to smaller groups for Bible study or lower tier training. For worship leaders, switch the lead vocalist in each service or even from one song to the next. Give your leaders space to shine and grow in their talents.

Inevitably, a youth leader will fail in their assignment. Such is the hazard of being human. You get far more out of them by being kind and supportive and helping them learn than by being harsh and punitive. The resiliency of young people astonished me even when I was young myself. Second chances make for great leaders.

Promoting Youth Leaders

The answer to this is both simple and complex: promote your leaders when they are ready. Knowing when they are ready takes time, patience, and development of your skills as a teacher and trainer. You will make mistakes along the way, especially in the beginning, but you will get there. I promise.

illustration of a leader pinning a badge on a youth leader
Keep your youth leaders motivated throughout training.

Let’s look at an example of leadership tiers and their requirements for completion. After that we’ll look at how to identify the best place for leaders to lead. Finally, we will talk a bit about the process of training someone to go into the ministry.

An Example Of Leadership Tiers And Requirements

I laid out a broad example in the previous section, but now, I am going to get a little detailed. The primary reason we used a tier system for our leadership team was to ensure that the people at the top, our inner circle, were there for the right reasons and had the best intentions.

For that reason, tier 1 was open to all. Many youth would drop out during this, which is fine. People, oftentimes, like the idea of leadership without wanting the work that goes with it. The requirements were a six-week course and a half-hour of volunteering before or after service every week. Upon completion, they got their first T-shirt and a 3-ring binder to put their course work in.

Tier 2 was a little more exclusive, and the requirements themselves stopped most people from even signing up. Six months of training and an hour of volunteering before and after every service is a tough sell, but these leaders would be trusted to lead small groups, pray with their peers, and head sections of the youth church. An upgraded T-shirt and a special prayer for those being promoted were their completion rewards.

Tier 3 was only completed by a few people before I left that church. As far as I know, three total people finished, me being one, with two or three more in the process. Several people started and dropped out. The requirements were one year, minimum, of training and we basically lived at church. This included challenges like “Read the Bible Start to Finish in Three Months” and other intense training. Basically, a person could go from here to Bible college without missing a beat.

Certain leadership roles had special requirements. Anyone on the worship team or other role that put them in front of the crowd had to also volunteer on behind-the-scenes duties like stuffing bulletins or stacking chairs. Tier 3 trainees also had to preach at least once a month. I fulfilled that by preaching in the children’s church on Sunday mornings for about 6 months.

While these requirements may seem steep, remember that you are dealing with teens and young adults who will be acting in leadership roles that many times are held by people two or three times their age in the adult church. If they are not prepared, they will do more harm than good, and it will be on the person who trained them…you.

Assigning Your Leaders To Their Best Positions

The solution here is just simple: try things out until they work. Your worship team will mostly figure it out on their own and come running. Occasionally, you might have to coax someone into worship, but not often. The other positions in your youth church will always be in flux which is not a bad thing.

Remember that I said the purpose of all this education and training is to make your youth successful humans and Christians. Sometimes, the best way to find success is to try a number of different things. Lucky for everyone involved, young people grow up and move on as they should. This means that every year spots that once were held by some will be vacant again. Other times, a leader might ask for a new assignment because they are not being fulfilled where they are.

As the minds of your teens grow, they will change and need to seek out new areas for growth. Allow it. The more they try as leaders, the more well-rounded they will become. Nothing bad comes from letting them try to lead in different ways. You never know what new skills they will unlock.

Assisting Youth Leaders Who Have A Call For Ministry

I have been a part of churches that would allow on-the-job training to lead to ordination and churches that require formal education at a Bible college or seminary. The type of church that you are a part of may change your specific approach for this section, but the principles will apply whether a youth leader works into ordination or goes to college after they pass your final tier (Tier 3 in my example).

As we train young people, some will realize that preaching or leading worship or some other aspect of ministry is their calling in life. So, what can we do? In short, you make them your shadow and provide all the support they need to be successful. In long, think about your own troubles and issues as you studied and trained to be minister and try to smooth those bumps in the road.

That is not to say you should make it easy. Rather, you should not make it harder, and you should clear some of the stumbling blocks in front of your student. By this time, you should know them as well as anyone else in the world. Teach them how to learn. It is our greatest skill as pastors.

Growth Through Leadership: What Have We Learned?

So, this was a lot, wasn’t it? We learned a lot about how a youth church looks and how to build a core of youth leaders through teaching and training them to be the best person they were born to be. Young people are our greatest resource, so let’s give every tool they can use to be successful.

In Part 2: Growth Through Discipleship, I will teach you how to tailor your approach to keep the minds of not just your leaders but your whole youth ministry engaged. We will look at how to deal with the emotional lives of teens and how to take their wonderful minds and powerful emotions and create a force of change in the world. 

Related Read: How To Mentor & Build Devoted Youth Leaders: Youth Discipleship

By Alexandria Schmidt

Lexie was born into a family of pastors and other church leaders. She was trained to be a pastor by her grandfather, and spent a great deal of time in her youth learning everything he knew about the ministry. She played trumpet and guitar for worship, with her mom on piano, and was leading people to the Lord on a regular basis by the time she was a teenager. She has also held nearly every position in a church from custodian to sound tech to Assistant Youth Pastor. Although she became physically disabled for almost twenty years, medicine has advanced enough that by 2020 she was doing well again, and her fire for the ministry rekindled.

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