Embrace the Mess: Why Youth Must Lead Now
+ Published in Tri-State Voice, November 2007.
"And a child shall lead them." - Isaiah 11:6
"You see things and say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were and say, 'Why not?'" George Bernard Shaw
It felt like a mutiny.
As an official youth group, we were still young, not yet two years old, and our teens were even younger spiritually. Most were new to the congregation and raw street kids without any prior church association.
For a while, everything seemed to fall together seamlessly. They had embraced faith and each other, and our growing community of 25-30 teenagers was tight. But for many the romance was waning, the infatuation phase ending, and teens were once again being teens. Insecurities resurfaced, identities were challenged, but mostly, it seemed, they complained about being "bored."
What about the boredom?
As the 21-year-old leader of the pack, I felt overwhelmed and unqualified to navigate the choppy waters. We tried everything to keep them engaged, from field trips and outings to chill time and sports. During a citywide scavenger hunt, I even introduced one girl to her deepest crush, Leonardo DiCaprio, at Toys-R-Us. Our meetings were interactive, with games and role-playing and discussions and debates, and even wrestling when none of the other adults were around. We did stuff together, both formally as a group and informally as friends. We hung out, shopped and ate together, played pool and video games, and watched T.V.
Still, they claimed boredom. Worse, they manifested disinterest, indifference, and frustration, and that frustration was starting to boil over. Bored kids get themselves in trouble, and trouble was starting to seep back into the group.
The pressure was rising, not so much from the storefront congregation, but from within. My confidence was shaken, and I was starting to feel like a failure. Building a group that didn't yet exist was easy by comparison. But now, a year and a half after construction began, cracks in the workmanship were starting to show.
Time to be vulnerable
Then Builder Bob intervened. Bob from the church is one of the most honest men you'll ever meet, passionate about the Lord, compassionate for people, and real about his shortcomings. That realness made him safe to talk to, so I vented one evening. He listened. Empathized. Did all the things a friend does in a crisis. But then he challenged me.
"Scrap the agenda," he said (more or less; I didn't record the conversation). "At the next meeting, don't preach. Be real. Sit in a circle. Tell the kids what you're feeling. Ask them to do the same. Find out what's really going on. Are you committed to each other? The community? What's the point?"
At the risk of stating the obvious, he promised this could be hazardous. Putting yourself out there is a vulnerable place to be. And inviting open-ended conversation, even criticism, might backfire. But leadership isn't about playing it safe. Sometimes, it requires courage, and he encouraged me to find some.
So I did. Since my agenda wasn't working anyway, I ditched it at the next meeting, situated the chairs in a circle, told the group what I was feeling, and asked them to do the same. What surfaced surprised me. The youth felt bored not because they wanted to pull away, but because they wanted more.
Many of them were already coming to church every time the doors were open, for youth group services, Sunday worship, midweek Bible studies and prayer meetings. But even if they came to every service and lingered afterwards for fellowship and volunteered in between, at most we kept them busy for 12-15 hours a week. They still had nowhere to go after school, much less during long, hot summers. The streets were unsafe; home was contentious; schools lacked extra-curriculars. Why couldn't they have a space of their own, where they could stay out of trouble and bring their friends? If the church really wanted to engage the community, why couldn't we meet a community need and create our own youth center?
"Uh," I thought, "How about this for starters? No money. No staff. No equipment. No space. No qualifications. No experience. No expertise. A disgruntled group of teenagers and a failed youth leader."
By God's grace, I didn't actually list the reasons that evening, instead saying something like: "Why not? David was too young and inexperienced to fight Goliath. Esther was too unlikely to save her people from genocide. Mary was too virginal to give birth to anyone, never mind God's son. Who's to say we can't start a youth center? But if it's going to happen, we're going to have to do it together, as a group. No one's going to give it to us. We're going to have to lead."
Not "me." I wasn't going to make this happen. We. Raw, gritty, spiritually immature street kids included, and whoever else wanted to help. We were going to have to lead this effort. Together.
Not everyone from that initial meeting rose to the challenge. But thirteen of them did, ages 14-22. Most were struggling high schoolers, 16-18. Only one was a college grad. The others remained friends and members of the youth group. But something special happened within and through those thirteen who were given an opportunity to lead.
They led. And people followed. Within five months, we had secured a fully furnished space in a housing project rent-free; seven college students paid to intern with us that first summer; and Generation Xcel's doors opened as a drop-in center. Within our first year, 250 kids registered at the center, and outreach events like talent shows and basketball tournaments drew up to 400. Within two years, the testimony of our teens' leadership was broadcast throughout the city on WNBC and NY1, and a personal audience with then Mayor Giuliani generated favor from city officials. Seven years later, ten teens followed their example and started a second youth center, in a different neighborhood serving different ages with different activities.
Today, eleven years later, kids are still being reached because of the leadership of those thirteen unqualified young people. Even better, those teens, now young adults, continue to lead. One of the co-founders is the dean of the public middle school across the street from Xcel; another directs a Salvation Army after school center in Rockland County; another directs a transitional home for juvenile offenders in North Carolina; another is up for detective with the NYPD; another is a nurse at NYU Medical Center; another is the regional sales rep for a biomedical company; another owns her own business; another manages a Starbucks; one is sharing this story. Even better, successive generations of leaders have followed their lead, including a Dove award winning singer, a middle school math teacher, an associate pastor, a program director at American Bible Society, and many more.
And it's funny, but boredom became a non-issue.
In real-time, we were usually too busy to notice the similarities between our experience and Christ's model. But his ministry career involved calling twelve of the least likely members of his community to follow him. They lived together; traveled together; ate together; laughed and cried and experienced hardship together. Their ranks were motley, and their qualifications nonexistent. He spent three short years with them, and throughout he trusted them to lead.
Sometimes they failed him. Their emotions betrayed them; their faith evaporated; they acted out violently. His unorthodox ways mystified and confused them. They made messes that he was forced to clean, enraged villages, and caused some to question his judgment. Still, he trusted them. All the while he was preparing them to continue leading in his absence.
Cultivating spiritual maturity
When Christ called his disciples as fishers of men and commissioned them as sheep among wolves, he knew full well that they would abandon him, deny him, and cower in fear after his arrest. Yet he didn't wait for Acts 2 to equip and empower them to do the work of ministry. The more room He gave them to fall down and get back up again, the more He watched them succeed.
So too, teenagers live inherently tumultuous lives. Their bodies are changing, hormones raging, identities forming, boundaries stretching, expectations growing. Relationships are becoming more complex. Go with it. Don't wait for some ill-defined maturity before trusting them.
Embrace the mess. Let them become who God has called them uniquely to be. Then watch them grow.
- Jeremy Del Rio, Esq. advises churches and community groups on youth and leadership development, strategic planning, and community organizing. Visit him online at www.JeremyDelRio.com