Murray Brown is the youth pastor at St Albans in Palmerston North
Most of this know the ending to this old African proverb: “…to raise a child.”
There is more than an element of truth to this saying when it comes to discipling young people in our churches.
Recently I sat outside a café with an experienced youth worker who confessed their greatest failing in youth ministry. This was not a moral failing, a leadership bungle or even a programme that fell flat on its face – he said to me: “I wish I’d recruited more than just young adults to assist me in leading the youth ministry”.
It’s not an uncommon confession and the reason it’s stuck in my mind is that it’s also my own confession from my earlier days in youth ministry.
Here is why both he and I feel this way:
- Intergenerational leadership enhances spiritual growth
The problem with a youth ministry leadership team full of young adults is that they lack the life experience, wisdom and theological understanding to adequately disciple teens. How can anyone disciple a teen toward a mature faith when they simply haven’t been alive for long enough to develop one themselves?
I recall a youth pastor calling me a number of years back and asking if I had access to any information that might convince a valuable older volunteer leader that they still had something to offer the youth ministry. “Just how old are they?” I asked. “They just turned seventy,” came the reply, “and they are too valuable to lose!”
This is not an isolated incident. A regional youth director once told me that the most effective youth leader in his region was a sixty-year-old woman! She had the patience to sit and really listen to the young girls in her group and when she shared about her faith those girls really listened.
These older people had developed a faith and an ability to communicate that faith that resonated with young teens.
So should we do without our young adult leaders? Certainly not! As a youth pastor, my young adult days are long gone. No teenager looks at me and says, “I want to be just like him!” But they will look to young adults who love Jesus and are “cool” as role models to aspire to be like in the next few years.
Each age group within the church has something to offer by way of youth leadership – be that as a role model, a mentor or a praying grandparent. Together these people enhance spiritual growth in young people by giving them a balanced understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in their world.
- Intergenerational leadership enhances church life
One of the faults of the youth ministry movement that started nearly fifty years ago was that in its efforts to be culturally relevant to a changing generation it created a “church within a church” or worse, “a church outside a church”.
Youth groups took on a life of their own and were run for and by young people. Furthermore, few young people engaged with the wider church or looked for ways to serve in various ministries resulting in a gulf between the youth ministry and the wider church – to the detriment of both groups.
Studies show consistently that the more adults young people have developed a meaningful relationship with by the time they grow too old for the youth ministry, the more likely they are to stay engaged with that church. It has become “home” for them.
Similarly, a healthy church is one that has young people engaged in its programmes and contributing to its spiritual vitality and life.
- Intergenerational leadership enhances family life
Intergenerational leadership not only benefits young people and the church, it also enhances the effectiveness of the family, as the primary place where God intends discipleship of young people to occur.
A young adult leader is limited in what they can offer by way of advice to a parent of a teenager, and even if they do have useful insights, they often suffer from a lack of credibility due to their age. A youth ministry leadership team that includes people who have raised their own teens has an invaluable resource that can be shared with families.
These people know the teenager and understand parenting and as such have a wealth of experience and insights to share.