I once talked to an employer who said he’d given up on hiring recent graduates. “They just aren’t ready for work,” he told me. He then described how one mother had joined her 22-year-old son at a job interview. “It was like the young man had an ‘agent’ with him.” This scenario is far too familiar.
Nicknamed “Generation iY,” today’s youth are practically glued to their iPhones and iPads, so much so that churches and pastors are often lost as to how to lead, coach and disciple them. But you really do have a huge opportunity to prepare young people for the real world. You just have to find a way to overcome the difficulties of breaking through to them.
To be good stewards, we’ve got to shift our perspective and right-size our leadership to better meet their needs.
Here are six ideas for tweaking your leadership style so you can guide the next generation of leaders toward lives marked by intentionality and purpose:
1. Think connect, not control
Too often, our instinct is to seize control, especially if we spot kids doing something wrong. We want to govern every step kids take as they study, play and work. The problem is, research shows that when we over-program kids’ schedules, we often breed teens who rebel. Why? They never really get to be kids.
Don't forget: Control is a myth. None of us are actually “in control.” Instead, effective leaders work to connect with students. Once we connect, we build a relational bridge that can bear the weight of hard truth. We earn our right to genuinely disciple them.
2. Think interpretation, not information.
This is the first generation that doesn’t need adults to get information. Their phones, laptops and tablets are extensions of their bodies. Therefore, they don’t need their leaders for information as much as for interpretation. We need to help them make sense of all they know and to provide a context for all the content they consume.
Honestly, kids lack the wisdom to really understand what they’re seeing and hearing. That wisdom comes only from years of real-world experience. As their leader, you must help them interpret experiences, relationships, politics, work and faith through a wise, balanced lens. Talk about what’s behind movie plots, books and technology. Help them understand what’s truly happening on the news. Teach them how to think for themselves so they can discover true meaning.
3. Think equip, not entertain.
When pastors focus only on entertaining kids and being popular, their teaching suffers. As a result, kids don’t learn the skills they need to lead a purposeful life.
Instead, filter your teaching through this question: How can I equip these kids for the future? If you give them relevant insights to succeed and positively influence others, they’ll stay engaged because they might not be getting that anywhere else. I believe this is what a majority of children want deep down. Happiness becomes a byproduct.
4. Think empower, not enable.
For 30 years now, we’ve been committed to giving kids strong self-esteem. We wrongly assumed, though, that it would come from simply telling them they’re special. According to the American Psychological Association, healthy self-esteem actually comes from achievement, not merely affirmation.
In a church context, that means we should be teaching for the long term, not the short term. Sure, it’s more comforting for us to hold their hand through life’s learning opportunities, but it’s better to let them think, decide and learn for themselves—even if it means learning from their mistakes. Instead of preparing the path for kids, we should guide them toward the right path.
5. Think balance, not binge.
We live in a world of extremes. To excel at anything, we often push kids to become consumed with a recital or performance. Even hobbies, like video games, become obsessions. This isn’t healthy or biblical. Kids need situations that offer benefits and consequences.
In our home, our kids balanced screen time and face time. For every two hours in front of a video screen, they had two hours with real people, face-to-face. If they spent time in self-absorbed activities, they knew they had to spend equal time in service projects. Kid time was balanced with adult interaction. While kids should develop their gifts and steward them well, they also need to practice the biblical idea of moderation.
6. Think lab, not lecture.
There’s no doubt about it—when young people do wrong, the first thing we want to do is lecture them. It’s the quickest way to transmit an idea, but unfortunately, it isn’t the best way to transform a life.
As a leader, you must create environments and experiences where young people can consider and process truths about life. Life lessons are everywhere. Traveling to new places, interacting with influential people, taking part in service projects, and having fun can spark discovery and discussion. It works like science class—along with a lecture, there is a lab for experimentation.
Church leaders play a significant role in raising youth. Your impression on tomorrow’s leaders is your legacy. I’m suggesting that maybe, just maybe, reconsidering how we lead our kids can right-size discipleship.