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What is a student leader and why do we need them?

student leadershipTomorrow I’m being interviewed about my new book, “Ministry By Teenagers”, a book my friend David R. Smith and I wrote together about discipling teenagers to do so much more than just showing up, sitting down and shutting up.

I was sent the questions to this interview in advance, so I would know what I’ll be asked. One of the questions was, “Why do we even need teenage leaders?”

Good question.

To answer this question adequately we have to clarify exactly what we mean by “leader.” Does “leader” imply the same definition that many business books would apply: “Someone who casts vision; someone people follow?”

Or when we use the term “student leader” in youth ministry, are we talking about something else?

In the last few decades we’ve seen a handful of youth ministry books written about student leadership. These books all talk about developing student leaders and building student leadership teams. All these books are about the same thing: helping students grow, discover their spiritual gifts and begin using those gifts for the kingdom. (This is good stuff, whatever it is called.) For example, many of these youth ministry books discuss those kids with the gift of “compassion” or “helps.” These kids aren’t exactly the kids that are leading Bible studies or running mission trips. Some of them even play behind-the-scenes roles, like the quiet kid who loves the Lord, loves technology, and loves running the sound board.

Ministry By TeenagersThese are great elements in ministry — helping kids grow, and using their gifts for the kingdom — but is this leadership? Or as David and I put it in our book, if we were on a plane that crashed in the mountains, would these kids emerge and say, “Follow me! I’ll lead us out of here!” Are they the ones that would cast the vision for our group and lead us to safety?

Just realize, the world has a different definition for the word “leaders.”

I don’t mean to debate semantics. My point is this: we need to help kids grow spiritually, begin to discover their gifts and begin serving for the kingdom. That, whether it’s called “student leadership” or not, is what David and I attempted to help youth leaders do in our book.

QUESTION: What do you call it when we help kids grow, serve the kingdom and take ownership of their faith? Is that student leadership? Discipleship? Something else? What is a student leader and why do we need them?

[ Watch this video of Tim Schmoyer and Jonathan McKee discussing the book, “Ministry By Teenagers,” in a wacky car ride. ]


Posted on May 25, 2011

  • Hannah Shewchuk

    In my opinion, a student leader is a member of the youth group who is looked up to and sets an example for the other youth, no matter what the age or whether this person has an actual leadership position. I consider myself a student leader because I am 17 and I am the leader of my youth group.

    I think that, often, people underestimate the power of student leadership, although, as a student leader I may be biased. Student leaders in a youth group have the opportunity to impact the youth in ways that an adult leader could never dream of. I attend high school, giving me the opportunity to reach out the youth group as well as 1000 other youth in the city every day outside of a church setting. The youth feel comfortable talking to me about their lives not only because I have earned their respect and trust, but also because they know that I will understand what they are going through. Many teenagers also look up to slightly older peers, and will follow their examples. Student leaders have an incredible amount of influence. This can be a lot of pressure for the leader, but trust me, there's nothing like having someone tell you that you're their hero.

    Also, I think people often believe that student leaders should be older. I disagree. I don't think leadership is ever limited by age. If a thirteen-year-old is an example to others and God is calling them to lead, don't stop it. I became the only leader of my youth group at 15, and although it's been tough at times, it's allowed me to grow so much and God has done amazing things through my unique situation.

    • Great comment, Hannah! I totally agree with everything you said. Someone can be a student leader regardless of whether there's officially a "student leadership" position in a youth group. Leadership is something you are and do, not a title that's assigned to you.

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