“We’re here to shop for snacks,” a group of student leaders declared as they barged into my office, just days after I’d begun serving as their youth pastor. As I looked at them in confusion, they quickly explained, “That’s our job.”
Unsure what else to do, I grabbed my church credit card and took them shopping for snacks. When we returned to church, they stocked the youth room pantry and then crashed on their favorite couch, eating their snacks and chatting. This group of high schoolers were so focused on themselves that they never even noticed when their peers arrived for youth group.
In the months that followed, I struggled immensely with this student leadership team, who I’d inherited after my predecessor held a popular vote the previous spring to elect them.
To them, being a student leader meant showing up, shopping for snacks, and telling me what to do. To me, being a student leader meant serving their fellow students—something I’ve come to believe can be done best by teaching student leaders to create a culture of welcome.
Teaching teenage leaders to create a welcome culture
As my student leaders’ desire to crash on the couch and ignore their peers shows, unfortunately, teenagers don’t instinctively focus on welcoming others when left to their own devices.
The good news is they can be taught to do so, particularly by giving them practical things to do. I began by telling my young leaders that their #1 job was to create a culture of welcome, and together we created this list of achievable steps:
- Welcome everyone who walks through the doors of your youth room within 30 seconds of arriving.
- Ask people’s names. Then tell them yours.
- Find out one interesting thing you don’t already know about each person you talk to.
- Connect each person you talk to with one additional friend you think they’ll like.
- Willingly leave your closest friends to go talk to someone who’s by themself.
- Cheer for your team during games.
- Make sure people around you know what they’re supposed to be doing and where they need to be.
- Give someone you connect with your phone number so they can text if they have questions about youth group.
- Once a week, text someone from youth group you haven’t seen in a while and let them know they’re missed. Invite them to your next youth group event.
- When you see people from youth group at church, say hi.
- When you see someone from youth group at school, stop and talk to them.
Such training is really discipleship—especially when we deliberately show students that God’s heart for hospitality can be seen throughout all of Scripture. In Genesis, God cares for a naked Adam and Eve by clothing them. In Ruth, God protects the poor and widows by employing laws that allow them to glean enough food to survive. In the Gospels, Jesus welcomes the children and tells countless stories about banquets filled with unexpected guests. In Revelation, the gates of Jerusalem are always open.
By empowering young people to create a culture of welcome, we’re teaching them to have Christ-like character.
We’re also giving them a big, important job.
Don’t get me wrong—you and your fellow adult leaders can and should welcome teenagers to your ministry. But no matter how intentional adults are, we can’t make a young person feel like they belong in the same way other teenagers can.
That’s why creating a culture of welcome is the #1 job of student leaders.
Discipling student leaders to transform your ministry
I wish I’d known and understood this when that group of student leaders first showed up at my office, demanding we shop for snacks.
I still would have taken them shopping. (Let’s face it. Every youth group needs snacks.) But after we’d returned to church and stocked the pantry, I would have reminded them that their job was bigger and more important than that: their job was to create a culture of welcome. Then, I would have nudged them off their couch.
Thankfully, over time, I got it right.
And you know what happened?
Of course, my student leaders objected at first. They were comfortable shopping for snacks and hanging out with their friends. But as their faith and understanding of servant leadership grew, eventually they wanted more responsibility.
When student leaders got it right, I affirmed them. And when they got it wrong, I gently asked, “What’s wrong with this picture?” and reminded them why creating a culture of welcome was their #1 priority.
Over and over again, student leaders rose to this challenge. In the process, they became leaders who truly created a youth group that was welcoming. Because they did, our group went from representing two high schools to representing seven—and from being a group of remarkably similar teenagers to one filled with young people who would not likely have connected outside of church.
Eventually as I interviewed new student leaders and asked why they wanted to join the team, the answer I heard from pretty much everyone was, “Because a student leader welcomed me and made me feel like I belong. Now I want to do that for someone else.”
In short, as our student leaders learned about God’s heart for hospitality, their priorities changed. In the process they changed our youth ministry. They created a culture that made our youth group look more and more like the kingdom of God.
Tweet this: By empowering young people to create a culture of welcome, we’re teaching them to have Christ-like character.
Every teenager is a walking bundle of questions.
The teenagers in your life are searching for answers to their 3 biggest questions: Who am I? Where do I fit? What difference can I make? Help teenagers unlock a better faith and future with 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager.
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