Many issues we face in youth work can be highly discouraging. Commitment—or the lack thereof—might top the list. This was the case as mentioned by a frustrated youth worker on Facebook recently. He was justifiably upset and disappointed that the adult musicians he recruited to lead worship for their youth ministry ditched their duties. They called him last minute to say they wouldn’t be showing up for rehearsal. He closed his post with this question, “Why can’t we get commitment?”
On the surface, we could classify this common scenario as a “crisis of commitment” in the overall culture. There’s certainly an argument for that diagnosis in the Church today as well. In my 22 years of ministry, I have experienced my fair share of irresponsible people (even been one myself from time-to-time), but I’ve also learned some leadership principles that increase responsibility and cultivate a culture of commitment.
Ownership of Operations
Let me tell you the best decision I ever made in youth ministry many years ago. I quit solving problems by starting programs.
Quite simply, I realized that running a youth program was never my job. And biblically speaking, it’s not yours either. Ephesians 4:12 clearly defines our responsibility as “preparing saints for service.” Nowhere does the Apostle Paul suggest that we spend our time “preparing services for saints.” That’s just plain backward. Nonetheless, most youth ministry job descriptions dictate that role reversal. In the last few decades, youth workers have been relegated to the role of event planners, which leaves very little time to build relationships and equip young people who are more than capable of creating ministry and completing mission-critical tasks themselves.
I must pause a minute and unpack this foreign idea a little (before someone delegates all their duties in the next five minutes).
Regardless of the responsibility at-hand, the job of a youth worker is always to equip youth to do the work of ministry. We model, mentor, mobilize, and multiply youth in ministry when we finally determine to stop doing ministry for them and start doing ministry with them.
Giving young people ownership of operations is the foundation of formational youth work. Rather than recognizing a problem and automatically slipping into savior mode to solve it yourself, why not turn it into a teaching moment? What harm would happen if we created a safe space for youth to learn by doing? Wouldn’t this process better release their God-given potential? Isn’t this the true essence of Paul’s words after all? Isn’t it the example of the Rabbi, Jesus, whose disciples were the same age as your students?
As a protector of young sheep, I’ve learned to use my experience to assess needs and point out possible pitfalls for them to consider. Instead of providing answers, I’ve come to realize that my time is better spent asking difficult questions and letting them find answers. It’s slow, messy, and painful, but it results in young leaders with the capacity to make significant contributions to the cause of Christ today—not someday.
Ownership creates commitment. Next time you consider recruiting adults to do work young people can be trained to accomplish, please stop. Invite youth into the operation. If adults are required because youth need prepared, then let the young people determine who to ask and do the recruiting themselves. You’ll find that people have a much more difficult time disappointing youth than they do you.
Outputs and Outcomes
At the end of the day, the responsibility of the youth worker is to help youth dream, discover, develop, and deploy God’s mission for their life. That’s the outcome we must value most and protect at all cost. Everything we do is simply a catalyst to accomplish the goal. Youth programs—with all the activities they include—are not outcomes; they’re outputs. Another means to an end.
But creating those outputs is not your responsibility regardless of what your pastor, church, or job description dictates. Your role is to stretch the wire (at an appropriate height). You put safety measures in place. You be the guiding, comforting, encouraging voice. But for goodness sake, get off their wire. There’s no room for you up there, too!
If you’re looking to cultivate a culture of commitment, give ownership. Let youth run the operation, as you determine to assess, guide, and protect them. Give them freedom to determine the outputs. The outcome will be a generation of youth with something significant at stake—young people who know their place in the Church—a generation who will follow Christ at all cost because they have something real to lose.
Above: Nik Wallenda high wire walking blindfolded above Chicago skyline on November 2, 2014. Not recommended as a youth ministry output…even for junior higher boys 🙂