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How To Mentor & Build Devoted Youth Leaders: Youth Discipleship

In part 1 of this series, we talked about teaching young leaders. The most important parts of teaching any leader, regardless of their age, are having a curriculum to study and having opportunities to put their new knowledge to use.

In part 2, we are going to examine the methods of both by framing them in two ways: Engaging their minds and engaging their hearts. By the end of this article, you will be able to identify leaders using the techniques you learned in part 1 and then successfully mentor them using the youth discipleship techniques you are about to learn.

I’ll cover:

Young Minds Are Hungry Minds

Young people have growing brains. As they grow, they retain knowledge more easily than after growing stops. This study shows that teen brains are wired differently from adult brains. Specifically, they seek situations that give them rewards for their actions.

As teens find their most rewarding actions, the brain grows to desire that and reinforces the learning pathways. This can lead to negative effects like addictive behaviors, but positive outcomes, like finding a love for service and self-improvement, are also possible with a little guidance.

Young Minds Are Eager To Learn

The first step in teaching your youth leaders is being adaptable. Every young brain is hungry, but not everyone knows how to focus that hunger into something useful. Get to know the communication styles of your leaders so that you can effectively teach.

Here is a short breakdown of the most common types of learning and the communication styles that pair well with them.

  • Visual Learning: Visual learners are best at learning through words, drawings, pictures, and videos. A sermon or lecture might go over their head, but they will be able to memorize Bible verses or written plans quickly.
  • Auditory Learning: Auditory learners are listeners. In many ways, they mirror visual learners in their strengths and weaknesses. Your sermon will be taken to heart at once, but workbook lessons might not be.
  • Emotional Learning: Emotional learners relate everything to their feelings. Their lessons should be framed through the emotional impact of the Bible stories or leadership goals.

In some ways, every lesson in your discipleship program should contain parts that speak to each type of learner. By doing that, you will model the communication styles that your leaders will need to help their peers when they complete that step of the program.

Young Minds Want To Be Challenged

Challenges, in this case, are not quizzes and tests like you would see in a classroom. Leadership is a hands-on responsibility and requires hands-on training and assessment. Leadership challenges should follow a three-step process to ensure a healthy and positive result.

  • Teach The Skill. No one is born with specialized skills. As easy as it is to ride a bike, we all must be taught how to do it first. Using the different types of communication here can make a huge difference.
  • Supervised Assessment. Allow your leader to complete a task with minimal/no intervention from you, e.g. a small group Bible study or an opening prayer. Only get involved if a safety concern or other emergency arises.
  • Evaluation. Remember the study linked above? Teen minds are reward-seeking. Praise the behavior you want them to remember. Try to never use harsh language or tones. Frequently mistakes made by growing youth leaders come from ignorance which is almost always the fault of the teacher.

One important note related to the evaluation section is that all types of learners do better when you frame your thoughts as questions. As they answer the questions, they learn to self-evaluate and the lessons become even more ingrained.

Young Minds Like Solving Puzzles

Once your youth leaders have proven themselves under supervision, it is time to set goals and challenges that will allow them a little more freedom. For instance, a leader might run a Bible study on their own after running the content by you first.

Each time you send them out to complete a task, they will need to apply the skills you have taught them in sometimes new and surprising ways. Increase their ability to adapt by practicing situations where they have to improvise in order to succeed. The rewards of seeing their skills pay off and the praise from you and their peers both help to solidify the criteria that their minds seek.

Importantly, the puzzles you give them should not be unsolvable or arbitrary. Many young people come to church to get away from that type of behavior at home. You don’t plant a flower in sand then curse it when it doesn’t grow. Plant your leaders in good soil with plenty of fertilizer and sunshine.

Young Hearts Are Open Hearts

As much as youth need to be taught how to learn, they have no problem feeling. Most times, the emotions of the constant changes of adolescence overwhelm and confuse the young adults of your youth church. They can be laughing one moment and crying the next as both life and brand new hormones play with their heartstrings.

This section will guide you through navigating these emotional currents as you try to teach them the lessons and values of becoming a youth leader.

Young Hearts Are New

Young people occupy a very tumultuous phase of life. Some try to cling to childhood while others attempt to become adults too fast. Faced with an onslaught of brand-new emotions, which can vary from romantic to independent to self-reflection, some withdraw from their family and friends and others break open, wearing their heart on their sleeve.

Dealing with all of these emotions is a skill just like riding a bike. For many adults, it is easy to forget that we, once, were new to these feelings, too. If you and the young person’s parents are not teaching them how to deal with and manage these emotions, who is? Most likely their friends or their favorite celebrity.

Help your youth understand their emotions and how to deal with them in a healthy way. Doing so will give them the self-control to be confident in their decisions as leaders and as humans.

Young Hearts Are Quick

Quick to say, “I love you.” Quick to say, “I hate you.” Most of all, young people are quick to blame themselves when things go wrong. This is partly because their lack of understanding turns everything inward. As a pastor, how many children have you counseled who blamed themselves for their parents’ divorce?

Be just as quick in your positive support and embodiment of healthy emotional behaviors. If the youth pastor is quick to anger, the youth will follow. Be a better example. Be quick in analyzing situations, and they will begin to assign less blame and take more responsibility.

Even in the best cases, your leaders will only be able to learn about the risks of a quick heart by getting hurt in friendship, in love, or in teamwork. In these cases, finding a way to explain that their emotions need to be tempered by wisdom can be more than difficult, especially when you are trying to keep from sounding like it’s all their fault.

While many adults, including some I have worked with, consider this attribute of young people a weakness, I have found that it is one of their greatest strengths, as long as it is pointed in the right direction.

Young Hearts Can Be A Force

What do we do with these powerful emotions? I have mentioned providing healthy outlets a few times, and here are some examples that have worked in my experience.

Beach Cleanup.  If you show a group of teens a video of aquatic creatures in distress, they might instantly fall in love and grab the nearest cleaning supplies. We did this when I worked with the youth ministry, and after the initial cleanup, we went back several times, and even had youth asking to go to cleanup for months afterward. If you don’t live near a beach, rivers or nature preserves always need volunteers.

Soup Kitchen. If your church does not have its own soup kitchen, partner with one that does. The number of teens who came away with greater respect for those facing food insecurity was staggering. Some of them said it was life-changing.

Group Trips. We often took our leadership team into our local big city to minister at churches, perform our music, or just learn how other places would do things. One time, we got completely lost (this was before smartphones and GPS), but everyone was laughing and singing so it still built the team and provided that pressure relief.

In addition, when the adult church has their events and projects, you will have a force of young people who are trained to accomplish whatever you set in front of them. The sense of accomplishment from outmatching the adult church alone can be enough to clear away the negativity of school, peer pressure, and difficult parents.

Young Christians Can Be Very Smart

We know that individuals vary in intelligence. In aggregate, though, people are generally smart. Only one person needs to see Suzy kissing Johnny before everyone within 10 miles knows. Kids notice everything. Sure, you can fool one youth, but you will never fool a youth group.

Most youth pastors protest that statement by saying that they are not trying to fool anyone. This is not about what you are trying to do. It is about what the youth perceive you to be doing. We are going to look at the good and bad ways of handling those perceptions.

Uniting Hearts And Minds Into One Purpose

As your youth church grows, you will develop a core of youth leaders who will be able to take responsibility for different areas of the service and management just like the adult church has its deacons and elders. 

A well-run youth church works like a machine. The young hearts have had their emotions focused toward the purpose of becoming servants of God. The young minds are trained to know what that means. They see an oasis of stability in the chaos of the world, and they carry that peace with them wherever they go.

The youth pastor, as the spiritual leader of the youth, provides the directions and the stability. After all, Jesus Christ said that Simon Peter was the rock on which the church would be built. In that tradition, each individual church, even youth churches inside larger adult churches, are built upon the vision and motivation of the senior pastor.

So, a healthy and growing youth church has solid, steady leadership at the top with ever-wider groups of leaders below who work according to the vision of that leadership. 

They Know When They Are Being Overlooked

As an adult, forgetting our teenage years is sometimes too easy. It feels like adults always set you off to the side so they can do more important things. You’re too old to have recess and too young to have freedom. Everyone is always yelling at you for either being lazy or being too active.

Then you go to church on Wednesday night, and they put you in a room in the back so the adults can have “real church” while you sit in your group and listen to an adult tell you about how Jesus loves the little children.

As harsh as that sounds, that is why a church of 2000 members had 50 kids show up for youth group. When we got a youth pastor with a real vision in place, we grew that from 50 to 500 youth in about 18 months. We treated everyone like humans, no matter their ages. We weren’t afraid to tackle complex and difficult spiritual issues, and their hungry minds ate it up.

Your young people know when they deserve better. They may not have the tools to express that in a healthy or appropriate manner because they are still kids, but they know. You should know too. When youth start slipping away, look to yourself and your attitude first.

Youth Church Is Not A Resume Builder

Too many times in that youth group that I grew up in, our youth pastor position was a revolving door. Some pastors used it to see if they would like being a pastor. Some only stayed long enough to get a job as head pastor. Some just didn’t like youth.

For me, this always felt much worse than being overlooked. Being overlooked is hearing, “I know you’re there, but I don’t really see you.” Being a line on someone’s resume is hearing, “I see you, and you only mean as much to me as I can get from you.” This is the worst perception a child can have of themselves or their church leaders.

For the last time, I’ll refer back to the study I linked at the start of this article. Teen minds seek out rewards. Pastors who only look at youth groups as the next rung on their ladder will not provide the structure and stability that rewards the input of a possible youth leader. As my youth pastor once told me, “Get in, or get out. There is no halfway in a youth church.”

Disciples do what their teacher does. Consider that before making your next move.

Growth Through Discipleship: Final Remarks

When talking to people about discipleship, some people find it strange that I speak so much about the pastors rather than the disciples. The reason is that the primary method of learning behaviors is seeing them done. Even though people take in knowledge in different ways, as we covered, behaviors are passed through modeling.

The number rule of discipling others was stated by Jesus when he said, “Go, and do as I have done.” Keep those words in mind as your youth leaders look to you for guidance and support.

In the next article, we are going to take a close look at using fun to attract new converts, keep them engaged, and do it all in a safe and appropriate manner.

By Alexandria Schmidt

Lexie was born into a family of pastors and other church leaders. She was trained by her grandfather and worked as an assistant youth pastor in a megachurch in her twenties. Now she runs a peer support group and is the Technical Consultant for her current church, MCC Illiana. While she is no longer pastoring, she is staying active in other parts of the ministry.

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