1. Use Them. Youth Pastors always feel pressure to make their program fun and cool for the kids. Yes, we want to preach the gospel, worship Jesus and talk in small groups, but we also want the kids to enjoy their time. The truth is, however, after planning 50 youth group meetings you start to run out of ammo. So you look to the funny, popular kid and ask them to do a talk, skit or game. A problem arises when, instead of asking that student to participate for his or her own good, you use them as a prop to entertain other kids. Doing this once won’t cause a whole lot of damage. But, after doing this for a year, you will neglect the needs of the student leaders and start treating them like employees. Of course, this is hard to recognize when you justify it by saying, “It’s adding a lot to our youth group”. Ask yourself, am I having them participate because it would be healthy for them? Or because I need/want them to do stuff for me. If your answer is the latter, repent. You’re hurting them not helping them.
2. Confuse Them. At Mars Hill I had a group of students called, “Multiply”. These were regular, core students who had professed Christ and showed evidence of a vibrant relationship with him. The goal of the group was simple: make disciples. This meant greeting at the beginning of youth group, bringing friends to church, meeting together for accountability and throwing events (smaller events like movie nights). I handed the group over to a volunteer. That volunteer made sure the group knew that they were NOT leaders. The last thing we wanted these kids to think is that they were leaders. It’s not a leaders duty to invite people to church, greet new people at church and spread the gospel. That’s simply a Christian duty. You don’t want your kids to get confused on these things or it will hurt them.
A student leader for my youth group was someone who led a department of service. We had two (yep only two), one for facilities and one for productions. One student was in charge of all the chairs, trash and tables. Other students helped him, because serving is Christian, but he supervised because he was a leader. Another student was in charge of all the mics, chords, lights and sound. Other students helped with productions, because God calls us to serve his church as Christians, but this student was the leader. I gave neither of them any spiritual authority over the other students because, in my opinion, that just leads to pride and hypocrisy (both of which can be found deep within YOUR student led worship band because they think they’re singing as leaders, not realizing this is simply their Christian worship).
My point is Leaders aren’t the only ones allowed to live for God, all Christians MUST, regardless of age. If a student is mature enough and talented enough to oversee other Christian students in some way, then it’s fine to call them leaders. But don’t confuse regular Christian duty with leadership.
3. Refuse Them. The student leaders in your youth group struggle with bitterness, porn, lying, stealing and every other sin under the sun. You don’t know all their struggles, because they don’t feel like they can talk about it, because they’re leaders. So they tell you they struggle with pride, worry and doing regular devotions because that’s safe and they won’t loose respect. I have seen it over and over again and even been here myself as a teenager. Youth pastors, almost always by accident, refuse their student leaders the chance to be a kid. As cool, well collected and spiritual as they may seem, they aren’t as mature as you think! And you need to tell them that THAT’S OK! Even though they’re leaders, they can still come to you judgment free when they mess up! No matter how bad! Their spiritual life comes first not the youth group. If they don’t think that they can safely be messed up, you will do some serious damage that some other church will have to clean up when they’re ready to come back to Christ after college.
When you start calling a student a leader you put yourself and them in a tough position. This doesn’t mean we don’t have student leaders, this just means we need to approach it with incredible seriousness. We don’t want to hurt these students, we want to present them complete in Christ.
About Mitch: For the last year and a half Mitch was the youth coordinator at Mars Hill | Ballard. He has transitioned off staff and is now traveling, writing and working on a media ministry for lost youth. Follow him @mitchmilleme