I would never be a youth leader

I would never be a youth leader.

That’s what I told my then-boyfriend (current-husband) and all my friends when I was a teenager. My youth leaders were dedicated and ran great programs for us. But they were also ruthlessly judged by the youths they led. In addition, they had to ‘endure’ strategic planning retreats (‘retreat’ being a nice word they used in place of ‘more long meetings overseas where you have nowhere to run’) and adhere to the washing up schedules set by the church.

As a teenager who could be emotionally withdrawn, mistrustful of adults and non-committal, none of those things seemed attractive, or, well - fun. Why would I spend four hours in a meeting, when I could be spending it out with my friends playing pool, going to a LAN shop, or just hanging out?

A few years later, one of my cell leaders (now my mentor, and Assistant Pastor of Maranatha SDA Church) listened to my concerns and convinced me to give youth leadership a try. I remember looking at all the requirements stated in the youth leader contract and thinking there was no way I could make the cut. I struggled  for a long time, asking questions about each commitment and finding loopholes in my head. When I finally signed the contract, it was swiftly taken away from under my nose. No turning back. (Thanks, Lionel.)

Pancake Day with the cell group, 2014

The first few months were really hard. I cared for the youths in our ministry, but I often questioned why I was really there. It took me years before I was able to voice my thoughts and opinions, instead of just walking out of a frustrating meeting or confrontational situation – and often out of church too, so they couldn’t find me. The adults and other youth leaders must have been frustrated with me too.

Over time, I realised that I did indeed have a voice, and a passion for the spiritual and emotional growth of the young teenagers in our ministry. I realised that with the power of the Holy Spirit in me (even though I did not recognise it at the time), I could do things I was otherwise unwilling to, unable to, or scared of. Looking back, the entire journey as a youth leader was one of discomfort and growth, a training on the front lines to rely on God and allow Him to lead.

The day I stepped down as a youth leader, I thought that my journey with the youths was over. I never realised that in a few years, I would be working directly with youths again as a youth worker. Looking back on the days when I said I would never be a youth leader, I thought God must have laughed at that, or at least, smiled ironically. I know I did. And yet I am humbled to know that that was just the beginning of my journey with God.

I also know that God sent mentors and cell leaders my way to love me, understand me, believe in me, and guide me on that journey. They accelerated my understanding of God and His character, and gave me the skills I needed to run a cell group, a ministry, and a youth conference (trust me - Big Hairy Audacious Goals and SWOT Analyses never would have made it into my vocabulary otherwise). These people had prayerfully partnered with God to empower me and my friends in ministry to do things we never thought possible. Who knows what my journey would have been like without their guidance and trust?

Organising team members of the Singapore Youth Conference 2016 with all the participants

There is so much untapped potential in young people, even those who seem deliberately subversive or hard to reach. Every characteristic, personality trait and experience can be shaped by God for His glory and His work. When we partner with God in investing in young people, we never know quite how He will use us. Sure, some youths may seem mistrustful or quiet at first, but many open up when they see that you genuinely care for them and want to get to know them as a person.

If you would like to have the privilege to accompany young people in their journey with God, here are some tips I found to be helpful from Sean McDowell and J. Warner Wallace’s book “So The Next Generation Will Know”:

  • Young people desire to have real relationships, and are strongly motivated by relationships. That being said, relationships should not and are not merely tools for instruction.

  • How can you include young people in the things you are already doing? Eg: working out, shopping, sports, games, etc.

  • As adults, older youths, or youths-at-heart, we need to take the first step in building a relationship with these young people and show them that we care. Take them out for a meal. Many meaningful conversations happen over meals. Let them know you are praying for them.

  • Listen to them and take time to understand their worlds. Put aside unexpressed assumptions
    (eg: it might be normal for a young person to reply a text mid-conversation or pull up a meme on their phones for you). Seeing the world from their perspective does not necessarily mean that you have to agree with their way of thinking, but it also does not mean you have to correct it.

  • Share stories. Some young people can be shy, not knowing how to talk to adults. They are more likely to open up to you when they see that you are being genuine. If you share something about your own lives and struggles, they will be more open to sharing about theirs when you ask.

Also, never say ‘never’ to God. He has a funny way of making you eat your words.