The apostle Paul had it right when he challenged his student, Timothy, to “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
The context of this verse gives clear indication that this great missionary leader was encouraging young Timothy to make sure that his private life substantiated his public message. In other words, he was telling us that young people can and should be examples to older people. From reading this passage, one can conclude that others in the Ephesus church were older (maybe significantly so) than Timothy. Yet, he was instructed to be an example to them. This same principle can be a clear mandate for teenagers today.
Our students can have a church-wide impact. I’ve seen it happen and probably so have you. Students come back from a conference, camp, or missions trip fired up to do something great for God. The Lord has been at work in their hearts, and they come home totally on fire and completely dedicated to the cause of Christ. The adults hear their testimonies and sense their passion to do something great for God. This genuine enthusiasm is contagious and infectious to people of all generations.
I’ve seen this phenomenon lead to a spirit of true revival that has effectively spread throughout the entire church. Let me tell you quickly about one such occasion in a church I know. It started when the Lord used one of the volunteer youth workers to lead a teenage girl to Christ. This 16-year-old new believer then led her best friend to Christ. These two baby Christians quickly became motivated to start a Bible study to reach other friends for Christ in their local public school. Almost at the same time, some of our regular attendees had recently returned from a major youth conference and were eager to see God continue to use that event to change lives back home. One young man prayed accept Christ and another made a public decision to be more vocal about his faith. On one particular Sunday almost twenty teenagers made public decisions to commit their lives to Christ. Soon several of their parents followed them, and other adults soon followed. Without any exaggeration, this sense of revival very quickly spread throughout the entire church. God used two new Christians and a handful of other students returning from a youth conference to impact that whole church body.
I don’t want to presume that I can identify here in this short article all of the factors that the Lord can use to bring this kind of church-wide revival, but I do believe Paul’s instruction to young Timothy that he could be an example to other believers. I find it interesting that 2 Timothy 4:12 identifies some specific areas in which young people can be an example to older Christians. (“…in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”) Students can indeed impact others through their words, their manner of life, their love, their enthusiasm, their dedication to God, and through their moral purity.
The key is that the youth ministry should have personal, public, and positive exposure to other ages within the church. Let me explain.
1. Make sure that your students have personal exposure to other age groups in your church.
Students need to get to know the adults, and the adults need to get to know the students. It’s that simple. We must build significant interpersonal and inter-generational relationships in our churches. I believe that this process starts when godly adults are willing to take the initiative to develop these nurturing and mutually beneficial relationships with kids. Don’t expect most kids to go out of their way to get to know adults. That’s probably not going to happen. (Just make sure that your church’s child protection policies are known and enforced.)
The adults in your church will probably need to be taught to be proactive and seek out individual students to mentor. It’s a well-reported fact that over 90% of today’s teenagers are interested in positive and growing relationships with adults. But, remember that the obligation is on the adults to make these relationships happen.
This exposure can happen in several very effective ways. I am a firm believer in making sure your students are welcome to actively participate in all areas of your church ministry. Also, youth workers need to plan creative and well-organized events for the adults and teenagers to interact together. You will undoubtedly find that you need to motivate both adults and teenagers to be involved; but once you hold these positive events on a regular basis, the existing walls of aloofness and intimidation will break down.
I also believe that one of the most important and effective ways to nurture these inter-generational relationships is for the groups to spend significant time in prayer together for specific and strategic needs. Acts 12:1–17 sets a Biblical precedent of various generations who prayed together. Praying together shows other people your heart, your burden for the lost, and your desire to see God work.
Don’t forget that this process works both ways. The adults in your church will impact students as they demonstrate their vitality and genuineness in prayer, but the teens will also reveal those same qualities to the adults. It is powerful for teens to hear adults pray, but it is also beneficial for adults when they hear kids pray.
I encourage all youth workers to brainstorm and then implement other ways to help the different generations in your church develop intentional and growing interpersonal relationships between members of the various generations.
2. Give your students public exposure to other age groups in your church.
It is also important to give students public exposure to your church. I admit that I am a long-time fan of “youth services” and other ways for the teens to interact with other generations in a public way. The first time I ever preached was during a youth night service where the teenagers took over our church’s entire evening service. But please recognize that I do not believe that these periodic services should be the only way for teenagers to get involved in your church. If these youth services are the only public exposure the students have, it can lead to the feeling that the teenagers are actually “on show” every so often and not really a vital part of the church.
Why not let your teenagers take an active role in the regular ministries of your church? I think that some talented teenagers chould participate in the worship team during regularly scheduled church services for example. I like to encourage and train other teenagers to serve as ushers or greeters. I also think students should be encouraged and taught to tithe and to participate in church business meetings. After all, this is their church too. They should be involved.
Young people should also be given the opportunity to serve with adults in your church’s kid’s ministry, or other key areas of service. The key here is the part about serving alongside of adults. This team ministry can be an amazingly effective way of training future leaders and servants for ongoing church involvement. When adults and teenagers work alongside each other, they see each other’s heart for God and for other people. This, too, will break down the walls of suspicion and negativity between the generations. This principle should work both ways. Make sure your students have exposure to adults as well.
3. Give godly students positive exposure to other age groups.
Another thought that I want to emphasize concerning exposing teenagers to the other generations in church is that the exposure should be positive exposure. You want the adults to see kids who love the Lord and are passionate about serving Him. It is contagious to see godly kids who are genuinely enthusiastic about the Lord. That cannot be ignored! Therefore, make sure you give this exposure to students who are not fleshly or carnal. I am not saying that external things are the most important characteristic. Please do not hold your teenagers to higher external standards than you require of the adults who serve. But I am saying that the students who participate in other organized church ministries should be living for the Lord. (I also believe that this standard should be expected of adults, by the way.)
God’s Word is very clear on this idea, “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10). However, unless there are habits of unconfessed, public sin, all Christians should be actively involved in church ministry (Ephesians 4:11–16.)
What a powerful visual aid to see students who love the Lord and want to serve Him! Adults can’t resist the excitement and eagerness from teenagers who are truly motivated about living for the Lord. In fact, when adults see the passion and enthusiasm of teenagers who really want to live for God, the external things will become almost non-issues.
I also want to emphasize that the ministry experience should be positive. In other words, you want students to enjoy serving the Lord and to do so without being coerced or made to feel guilty for not serving. Ministry should be fun and exciting. It is a blast to serve the Lord. Yes, it is difficult at times, but look at all the Lord did for us. We should want to serve Him and live for Him because of our desire to be obedient to Him. That’s what we want from our students as well.
Yes, I believe that Paul had it right. Students can be an example to “big church”!