Two summers ago I was reflecting on a group of youth that I had been the pastor of over a decade ago. I had 60 young people in a home group that was full of life and vitality. We had great worship, good sharing, solid teaching and lots of fun and profound times of ministry and prayer. We saw people give their lives to Jesus and had baptisms on-site. There was a broad sense of purpose, direction and overall excitement. For all intents and purposes we had a bumpin’ group…a real ministry success story.

As with any youth group, leadership was an area of great importance and I had a core group of teens that were “leaders.” They met regularly with me to plan events, teachings, intended direction and more. These were solid and outstanding kids. Each was gifted in great ways and would stand out as a clear leader in any youth gathering. There were five of them. Their potential was unlimited.

Fast forward over ten years to my summer reflections. Specifically, I was up in Big Bear, California on a retreat with my family, and I was praying through some ministry thoughts. This group kept coming to mind—in particular, the core group of kids I used to meet with. As I thought on this group, something that was very painful became extremely clear. Out of the 60 kids we had, I could count on one hand the ones who were still following Jesus today.

Now, some derivative of that percentage may be expected for a group. Barna says that 80% of kids raised in the church leave the faith in college. However, a painful realization for me was that the percentage even extended to my leaders! Of the five core kids, I could think of only one that was still following Jesus. What had happened? These were solid kids. These were good leaders that I had largely discipled myself. Where was the disconnect?

I think the disconnect is this: are we being intentional about giving these kids a clear and defined invitation to the person of Jesus? Now that may sound very basic, but for me it’s actually pretty profound. Youth are looking to give themselves to something. We must be extremely clear on what it is we are giving them—what we are inviting them into. Jesus was very clear about this. As we follow the gospel narratives we see a pattern of invitation that Jesus used that looks something like this:

  • Making the offer: extending an invitation to follow him (Mark 1:14-18)
  • Clarifying the offer: helping people understand what that follower-ship did and did not look like (Luke 9:57-62)
  • Leaving the response up to the hearer: defining follower-ship by what the hearer did or didn’t do (Luke 18:18-29)

You see, I think the divide between being a disciple and being a leader is very small. Both are intentional; both are defined; both have identifiable components that are quantifiable. We must make follower-ship and definable discipleship the reality that we are inviting all our people to, and our leaders are no different. If we are calling people to simply enjoy a service or a home group, we will eventually cease to meet their ever-fluctuating needs. Once the Church lacks in what they’re looking for, they will fade away. Two of the youth in my core were derailed by sexuality in some form. Two more just didn’t find the church to be an engaging place for them anymore. The one who is still overtly following Jesus isn’t doing so in my community any longer. Not one of the five, much less the sixty, is doing life in community with me today. The reality is that what I did with them over a decade ago was lacking in a key kingdom component: intentionality with Jesus.

In the above progression, I mentioned three components to Jesus’ rhythm of invitation. One of the greatest texts for this is Luke 18. Therein we find the story of the rich young ruler. This is essentially a shining example of the offer of Jesus being made, understood and subsequently rejected. Jesus was very intentional about helping people see what the kingdom of God was and what it was not (Matthew 5-7). This young man was probably an attractive leader, maybe talented and winsome. He clearly had lots of resources. He was, however, not the type of leader Jesus was looking for. He was instead looking for the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), or rather, those that recognized their need and were willing to step intentionally into being led by him.

When I’m looking for a potential teen leader, I’m looking for willingness and intentionality before talent. The biggest question I have is, “will they actually do what I’m asking of them?” The second question is, “is what I’m asking of them leading them directly to the person of Jesus?” With my five leaders from over a decade ago I was asking them to be the social-planning committee for a happening event. They were gifted, popular and capable—and that was right up their alley. If instead I had asked them to cultivate prayer in their daily life (for example) and to share at group about what God was doing with that, I may have seen a different long-term result.

The truth is that you are going to (as a leader) give the young leaders around you whatever is really inside of you. If you’re a good planner, they will learn that. If you’re a good preacher, they will learn that. If you’ve got immaculate character, they will learn that. The key is to intentionally invite teens into what you’re doing (planning, preaching, worship leading, etc.) and then give them VERY definable parameters on what that looks like—exactly what it does and does not mean. If you are just looking for warm bodies to plug a programmatic hole, that will have no sustaining longevity to it. Their talents may keep something flying for a while, but at a certain point it will falter. The key to raising teen leaders is the same basic key to inviting anyone to be actual followers of Jesus. That is the reality of being intentional about stepping into something defined and understood. We must, like Jesus, make the offer, clearly define what we mean and don’t mean by it, and then watch for whether they actually respond by what they do (rather than just what they say).

This necessitates being with people on a regular basis. This necessitates having real relationship with them and caring about their lives. Jesus raised leaders in a hands-on, life-to-life way. We are no different. Program can be a platform for helping kids begin to swim in the waters of leadership, but it must not be an end in itself. Leadership is the result of normal people understanding a definable invitation and then choosing to step into the actual implications of that role. Whether it’s preaching, event planning, worship leading, heading up small groups, or whatever—the effectiveness and longevity will always start with clear definition and be cultivated through time spent together.

I would rather have two young leaders who have no flash, and no overt winsomeness, who will actually serve and humbly do as I ask them to do, than ten immensely talented type-A personalities who don’t need my input and are just looking for a social role to play. I am inviting new believers and young leaders alike to the intentionality of following the person of Jesus. He doesn’t need their talent, just their willingness. Will they move toward him, do what he’s doing and respond to the actuality of what I’m inviting them to do with me? The answer to those questions lets me know whether I’m dealing with a leader or with someone who may look the part, but in the long run will not last. The group of sixty felt great in the moment, but is now a distant memory. The life-to-life intentional definition of a role being offered, understood and responded to will produce more than that group ever did. Jesus doesn’t need our cool programs—he needs the few who are willing to be intentional and to move, in what they will actually do, toward him.

Mike Safford
Latest posts by Mike Safford (see all)