Written by Tyler Edwards

Leading youth can be one of the most rewarding and challenging rollercoasters in all of ministry. The highs are often higher. The lows are often lower. It’s not for the faint of heart. My youth group growing up was the tool God used to rescue me from long-running depression and likely saved my life. I am an adamant believer in the importance of ministering to youth. 

Growing up, my church didn’t really have a youth minister. We had several people in the position during my youth group years. As a result, I’ve seen first-hand the benefits they bring as well as how detrimental their absence can be. I think there are three basic types of youth leaders. Over my six years in a youth group (between middle and high school), I got to experience all three. 

  1. The Climber – The climber leads a youth ministry and works with students out of a desire to personally set themselves up for something more. Their passion isn’t truly for students, they merely use the students as means to an end. Sometimes, it’s the power of being able to teach others. Other times, they are just putting in time until they are can work with or lead adults. Having had youth leaders who stuck around long after they were burnt out, let me just tell you, the youth know. They can feel it. They deserve better than someone using them or just going through the motions. 
  2. The Buddy – The buddy gets into youth ministry not because they care so deeply about shaping the hearts and minds of young people with the gospel of Jesus but because they want a socially acceptable excuse to not grow up. Want to keep playing video games and telling fart jokes and have people tell you you’re doing a great job? Sign up for youth ministry and suddenly you’re not immature, you’re relatable. While students often love seeing an adult who acts like they do, this rarely leads to lives being changed. As cool as these youth leaders may seem, the students rarely respect them. 
  3. The Gardener – The gardener invests their time, talent, and treasure to plant the seeds of the gospel in the lives of students so that when they grow up and leave the house, their faith will continue to blossom and grow. They aren’t just putting together camps and telling funny stories at youth nights, they are trying to foster a genuine relationship with God in the lives of students. It’s a slow, often painful process of building deep, meaningful relationships that challenge students to discover Jesus for themselves. These are the youth leaders who transform lives. 

My church growing up had almost 60 regularly attending high school students. We were a close-knit community of students. About 15 of the students from my graduating class went to a Bible college believing they’d been called into full-time ministry. You know how many of them are still Christians in the Church today? About six. 

I’ve talked with a few of them, wondered what the deal was. Then I noticed something. A single similarity. The six that remain are all students who had an adult who was not their parent, investing in their lives. That is the power youth leaders have. They aren’t just hanging out with teenagers, they are transforming lives by helping set a foundation of the gospel in students’ lives. 

Naturally, anyone leading in a youth ministry would desire and claim to be the third type. Who’d admit to using students as a stepping stone to something better or to not wanting to grow up? What separates these different types of leaders is not their intention. It’s not what they tell themselves or others. It’s about caring for them. Being there. 

It’s not about having all the answers. Students have some crazy questions. If they haven’t stumped you, you haven’t been doing it very long. Leading students well is not about how much you know or how well you can answer their questions. It’s about letting them ask those questions. 

Many students have struggles at home, even with good parents. They are trying to find their place in the world. They need someone who can be there. Someone they can trust. Someone who cares about them not because they are family, but because they choose to. Students don’t need perfect leaders. They don’t want perfect leaders. They want leaders who will stand beside them, who will accept them, who will love them in their mess.

Students need leaders who will show them what the love of Jesus looks like. This is what separates the different types of youth leader. It comes from their identity. You can’t lead youth to Jesus if you yourself are not deeply rooted in Him yourself. The first rule of leadership: You can’t lead anyone someplace you haven’t been. The best thing a youth leader can do is grow. Love Jesus. Hunger for Jesus. Have a passion for Jesus that drives you deeper into His Word. 

Here’s the deal: Students are weird. They don’t always know what they like and dislike. They are still trying to figure themselves out. They love passion. You can’t make people love what you love, but they will love that you love it. When you have a natural, authentic love for Jesus that flows out of you, it’s infectious. No one is more susceptible to the power of excitement and genuine passion than youth. 

The best way to prepare youth to go out into the big bad world and love Jesus is to show them what it looks like to love Jesus as an adult. Set an example. If they ask questions, look up the answers with them. Show them how to study the Word. Show them what it looks like to abide in Jesus. In so doing, you are giving them the tools to stand firm in Him. 

Here’s the downside. You can’t fake that. You can’t fake a deep-rooted passion for God and His Word. No. The only way to show students how to find themselves in Jesus, is if you yourself find your identity in Him. You can’t lead students to follow Jesus if Jesus is just a part of your life. That doesn’t work. 

Jesus needs to be your life. You don’t just believe in Him. You have to lose and find yourself in Jesus. Jesus can’t just be in what you say. Anyone can say anything. It has to come from the core of your heart. Your greatest desire is to know Jesus better, to grow in His Word, and to share Him with others. 

The first two types of leaders operate from a place of self. They aren’t loving the students. They are using the students to love themselves. The third leader, the good leader, loves Jesus and through their whole-hearted devotion to Him, they love students. 

You want to lead students effectively? Forget culture. Don’t worry about being cool. Let go of yourself. Love Jesus wildly. Let that love for Him flow out of you. When you live and breathe the love of Jesus, you will show youth how to do the same.