"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Training Student Leaders

Student Leadership: A View From Outside the Box

Steve Miller

Incredible Potential!

At the age of 13, golf sensation Tiger Woods played his first national junior tournament. Paired with professional golfer John Daily, the middle schooler out-played the pro by four strokes after the first nine holes. Middle schooler Steven Spielberg produced movies and played them for the neighborhood kids at night on a white sheet thrown across his clothes line in his back yard. As a high school student Bill Gates programmed a database to allow his school to register students for classes, also allowing him to get classes with his favorite girls! Hymn-writer Isaac Watts studied Hebrew at age 13, French at ten, Greek at nine, and Latin at four! (1)

I've got to wonder how such students react if they visit a youth ministry where adults assume all leadership roles, student input is neither solicited nor valued, and students are relegated to the role of passive listeners. "I get the point," you say. "But my students aren't child prodigies. I feel successful when I merely keep them from destroying the youth room."

Potential for "Normal Youth"

So let's move past the child prodigies to look at our "normal" students. Some train hours each afternoon for a sport or to master an instrument. Student leaders put together the year book, lead clubs, star in school plays, produce intricate science projects. Plain, average, vanilla students work responsible jobs, build Web sites and cook meals when their parents are too busy. What do those "normal" students think when they come to youth group and we ask them to merely "Sit still and listen?" More and more, I'm asking myself these questions: "Does my youth ministry treat students like the church of today, or merely the church of tomorrow? Am I training students to do significant ministry today, or relegating all "real" ministry to adults? Don't all believers, including youth, have a gift from God (I Corinthians 12:7) that they are responsible to put to use in serving others (I Peter 4:10,11)? Wasn't Timothy told by Paul, "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers…" (I Timothy 4:13) and "Do not neglect your gift…." (I Timothy 4:14) and "…devote yourself to…preaching and teaching…"? If so, then why don't we see more students using their God-given gifts?

Global Students Making a Difference

To answer these questions, I climbed out of my cultural box to gather ideas from youth workers around the world. As a former youth ministry trainer living in Slovakia, and presently a supplier of youth ministry resources to youth workers outside the USA, I've often been amazed and challenged by what I see God doing among youth in other countries. Perhaps a view from outside the box will shake up our own paradigms and help us to think more creatively about how to develop student leadership in our own settings.

Let me first introduce you to Abraham Sahu in Delhi, India. (2) Abraham grew up in Calcutta and pursued studies in Science, Management and Law. Although asked to represent India in the United Nations, he replied that he could only consult with them part time. According to Abraham, sitting on the U.N. could never be as fulfilling as his ministry: to obey the Lord, pay the price and be willing to die.

His vision? To start churches where there are no Christians, to "Catch Them Young" (his slogan) and to go to the slums. Delhi was an obvious choice, with 11.2 million people, 80% living in its 6000 slums, and not even 10 churches ministering to the slums. (Do your math and discover that each church can have about 1,000,000 people in over 600 slums. Tired of competing with other churches? Move to Delhi!)

His strategy? 1) Go after youth who are 11-years-old and up. 2) Get those interested in Jesus involved in a cell group. 3) Train them for ministry and send them back into the slums to minister. They train through an institute where they study both ministry and academics for two months and go back to minister in the slums for 4 months, repeating this cycle for two years. By the end of the two years, at about the ages of 16 to 18, they've established a cell church with 12 of their strongest contacts. An older pastor (about 20 years of age or older) is on hand at cell church meetings to mentor, not to lead.

A 13-year-old came to Jesus and brought in 40 others his age from the slums. He now leads the group under the guidance of a mentor. What attracts students to these cell groups? 1) People share of their personal experiences with God (testimonies) and 2) miracles happen. In Abraham's experience, miracles happen when people totally sell out to God. The first thing they tell new believers is that it's not easy to live for Christ. They must be willing to die for their faith. Leaders in their ministry have been killed and property has been vandalized. But it's when youth are willing to be obedient and pay a price that God works so powerfully in people's lives that their testimonies attract others.

As you can imagine, such training multiplies Christians and cells at an astonishing rate. In the next decade they hope to establish 60 mother churches and 600 cell churches. Hey, I'd be ecstatic to merely double the size of my youth group. Where's my vision?

And it's not just India. A 22-year-old youth worker in South Africa has over 75 student-led cell groups. In Bogata, Columbia one youth group with only two full-time staff have over 10,000 student led cell groups. A 17-year-old leader of one of the Bogata cells reported that in four years her cell had multiplied 18 times! (3)

Lessons From Outside the Box

What am I learning from Abraham and others about developing student leaders?

  • Do the obvious stuff. Pray, select the willing few, match gifts and passions to specific ministries, model godly leadership.
  • Start small, but start! At first I get pumped when I hear about the above ministries. Then I get depressed. Since my youth aren't out planting churches and multiplying tons of cell groups, it just confirms my suspicion that I'm a lousy youth minister. But remember, this is how student leadership looks in a few spots around the world. It may look very different in your local context being led with your gift mix. Ela in Ukraine takes one student home after the youth meeting to build a relationship and go deeper. No big curriculum. No organizational chart. But her one-on-one kids inevitably end up training for full time ministry! (4) A youth leader in Costa Rica gets creative ministry ideas from students. Why not start this week by simply taking a few of your key students out to McDonalds and asking them for their input on your youth ministry. Take notes. Value their input. Ask, "If you were in charge of the youth ministry, what would it look like?" Don't get defensive. Just learn from them and build a trusting relationship. Now you're treating them like leaders and they're feeling ownership in the ministry.
  • Don't wait until you get some "sharp" kids. Leaders are made, not born. If Abraham (better: Jesus through him) can make pastors out of uneducated slum kids, your squirmy middle schoolers can become leaders as well.
  • Continually train leaders in all aspects of your ministry. Everyone told me to visit a supposedly incredible ministry. But when I arrived, things were dead. Their band (the main attraction) had gotten so good that they permanently hit the road. Why were there no musicians in training? One man constantly trains new worship leaders by allowing new singers (with their voices coming only through the monitors) on stage with the experienced ones. Often you'll see two bass players on stage, one experienced and one in training.
  • Revisit your job description. Do you see yourself primarily as a "Minister to Youth," or an "Equipper of Ministers to Youth" (Ephesians 4:11,12)? You don't have time to go all out at both.
  • Provide regular, practical training for specific ministry. Some train through leadership retreats, others through weekly or monthly training or mentoring. The most effective training is often for a specific ministry opportunity, like a mission trip. Jim Brown in Northern Ireland provides 6-month discipleship groups to prepare students for 16 mission trips, representing 5 different levels of commitment. (5) (Relax! He started with one trip his first summer.) Even non-Christians can go on purely service trips. When students train for specific ministries, such as to lead a cell group or to serve in a drama ministry, they are all ears for training.
  • Talk about leadership and commitment as the normal Christian life. "Drive a commitment culture and you'll get commitment," says Jim Brown. He expects students to complete assignments prior to meetings so that the leaders facilitate discussion rather than lecture.
  • Expect some failures. Deal with it. Ministry's not about always making ourselves look good. So encourage them and urge them to either keep going or try another ministry.
  • We're using marines to keep order in the nursery. Students have more energy, more natural contacts with the lost, more discretionary time than any other group in the church. Some are passionately in love with Jesus. Why do we limit their involvement to a one-week mission trip, greeting visitors and leading praise? Let's release them to impact their world!


1) Illustrations from "Youth Illustration Database" at www.reach-out.org) 2) Personal interview in Jan., 2001, Denver, Colorado, and Abraham's site at http://members.tripod.com/absahu/ . 3) www.Cellgroup.com Web site. 4) Personal interview in Moscow, Nov., 2000. 5) Personal interview in Jan., 2001 in Denver.


This was first published in Group Magazine, Copyright March 4, 2002, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539, pp. 53,54, used by permission.

About the Author

Steve Miller has worked with youth for over 25 years has written two books: The Contemporary Christian Music Debate and the Leader's Guide to Jesus No Equal. He currently writes global resources for Reach Out Youth Solutions and serves as their webmaster. He wrote Reach Out's online "Legacy Lessons" and maintains their online Illustration Database. Copyright April, 2001 by Steve Miller.

About Group Magazine

According to David Skidmore, "Each issue is a feast for hungry youth workers." This quality magazine comes out six times per year, giving us input from others on the front lines of youth ministry. Includes lesson ideas, well-written articles, relevant news and new resources. Find them online at www.youthministry.com, where they offer lots of free online resources.


Barry St. Clair's Moving Toward Maturity series has been used effectively in small group or one-on-one discipleship. See also his Building Leaders series.