From the very first speaker at the National Youth Workers Convention this year, one thing was evident. A central theme emerged that God and the Youth Specialties leaders clearly wanted to get across to us: It’s time to stop comparing, competing, and fighting. Instead, we need to start uniting in our efforts to reach the next generations.
Robert Madu started us off by hitting the nail right on its head, speaking primarily from Hebrews 12:1-2 and 1 Samuel 18:5-9. Hebrews tells us there is a race, and we run it simply by keeping our eyes on Jesus. But then we have Saul in 1 Samuel, who starts comparing and ends up focusing his attention on David. Robert went on to point out how we cannot run our own race in our own lanes when we’re so focused on the people in the lanes beside us. The comparison game is so dangerous but we play it all the time and have from the beginning. Robert declared that, “Comparison will consistently cloud the clarity of God’s call on your life.” We need to stop complaining about the things we didn’t get in life and start praising God for the things we did get. According to Scripture, we are His masterpieces. Robert went on to say, “All you need to do is stay in your lane and keep your eyes on Jesus.” In fact, when we keep looking to our side, there is a crash in our near future!
How do you know if you’re comparing? Here are a few indicators that Robert gave. If any of them describe you, it might be time for a change of heart:
- If you can’t celebrate the successes of other people.
- If you are stingy with your compliments, and to compliment someone else for something you’re also doing, takes away from you.
- Secretly happy about someone else’s failure.
Dr. Larry Acosta began his talk with this question: What’s the name of the person who first believed in you? Further, he asked who started us on our leadership journey. He then spoke about how many of the families in our current generation of children and teens are broken and fatherless. Larry encouraged us that we are standing in the gap to speak life into the emerging young leaders around us. So, as he asked us, I ask you… Who are those young leaders coming up around you? We need to be more intentional than we’ve ever been to invest in them.
Larry then invited four of his friends to share their stories. One by one, they opened up about their rough past. Many of them were involved in gang activity and broken family structures. Most, if not all, of them would still be on the streets or worse if it were not for someone who believed in them. They all shared about their mentors who showed them a better path and that achieving it was possible. Now, all of them are working with adolescents in inner-city and urban environments, where they are passing on that message of hope and purpose. As Larry told us, we see a bunch of students who have messed up, but they need someone to dare to believe that God has more for them!
Jo Saxton continuing along the same path, spoke specifically about unity and diversity. She talked about Barnabas in the book of Acts, who goes along with others on missionary journeys largely to encourage them. This encouragement, we see, contributed to them being unified in body and purpose. It wasn’t all perfect, though, because we see there was some disunity along the way when it comes to the disagreement about John Mark. But it seems it was Barnabas who continued to believe in him, even when others may not have anymore.
As Jo continued to show us how encouragement plays a key role in unity, she encouraged us to ask several questions of ourselves and our teams, in order to make sure we are heading in the right direction:
- Can you celebrate what God is doing even when you’re not involved?
- Are we there for the hard times as well as the celebration, and for how long?
- Are we ready for unexpected leaders and all the mess they bring?
- What is your spiritual rhythm as a team?
- How are your relationships and how have you gotten over disagreements?
She ended with this thought: If we were to live more like Barnabas, I wonder if we would see more unity and diversity today in our ministries and churches.
Ryan Leak has become one of my favorite speakers. Between Orange and NYWC, I find myself writing down quote after quote. This time, he spoke about the importance of finding and/or creating a safe place in our lives for us to be real. So often, we talk about how our students need this, but how often are we seeking it for ourselves and others in leadership? From Matthew 26, Ryan shared that we’ll never be healthy if we can’t be honest. Imagine if Peter, when Jesus told him that he’d deny Him, responded with humility instead of pride. We need to be honest and find a place where we can express humility. So, as Ryan asked us, “Where can you go to be the real you?”
If we are to be the leaders God wants us to be, we need to know ourselves, be open about who we really are, and not treat others horribly when they do the same. As Ryan pointed out, confessing to God gets you forgiven, but James 5 shows us the importance of confessing to others, as it makes us whole. So, when someone comes to you with their hurts, even as a church leader, Ryan encouraged us to not immediately counsel them, but to pray for them.
Because, as Ryan said, “Honesty is best received by invitation-only,” we need to be intensional about inviting others into our lives to help us: He encouraged us to have five friends regularly answer these questions:
- How can I get better?
- What can you see that I can’t?
As Proverbs 27:6 suggests, we need to have a safe place to share our struggles. We need to also provide safe places for others to share their struggles. That might seem overwhelming, but here’s what Ryan said to close: “You may not be able to create a safe place for everybody, but you can be a safe person for somebody.” How are we creating safe places and how are we seeking safe places for ourselves?
Kara Powell did not speak for a long time, but she did provide some thoughts from her book, Growing Young. The book speaks about many of the lies that churches often believe. One of them is that in order to reach young people, we have to be “hip” and “cool.” Kara’s research, however, proves the opposite. She says that, “The heart of good leadership with young people is the way that we see them.” No matter their background, their situation, or anything else that may set them apart in other people’s eyes, we have the ability to lead them well if we see past all that to their true God-given potential. That is what helps us connect. Yes, a student might be really struggling right now, or have many things that would disqualify them in the worlds’ eyes, but someday, God is going to do something great! Kara suggested when we say, “Someday…,” to someone, we unleash new dreams for them.
Ian Cron is a psychotherapist, minister, and author. He is currently known for his work with the Enneagram, a personality typing system that, according to Ian, helps people understand who they are. He shared how prominent church leaders have been teaching for centuries that we cannot really know who God is until we know who we are. Ian further explained that self-knowledge produces in us humility, which awakens in us a thirst for God’s grace. He then gave us a crash-course on the nine personality types of the Enneagram and encouraged us to get to know who we are — who God has created us to be. The Enneagram also helps us to understand others, though, which will help us to see from their perspectives and become more unified.
Ian also shared that human beings cannot make a healthy transition from adolescence into adulthood unless they answer these 3 questions, which all have incredibly important implications for what we do as youth workers:
- Who am I?
- Am I really loved?
- Where do I belong?
Doug Fields was the next to share, and he explained some from his recent study about the story of Moses’ leadership call. There are so many similarities in our calling, too. But God clearly told Moses two things that He is also saying to us today and always: God says, “I will be with you,” and, “I am who I am.” We could all benefit from remembering those things more often. I know that so many other things get in the way and distract me from what God has in store for me. And too often, those things are comparison or trying to play His role. Doug reminded us that we need to let God be God and we need to be us, remembering God’s promises of presence and power.
Tim Timmons led us in some amazing songs, but also had an amazing and powerful challenge for us: “What if we practiced surrender rather than practicing worry?” Similar to what Doug was saying, we need to continue surrendering to God and let Him do what He does best.
Tom Shefchunas closed out the event speculating about what it might have been like in the beginning for the small group of Jesus’ followers? What did they think once Jesus ascended into Heaven? Did they have any clue that what they believed would become God’s church that spread throughout the entire world? We don’t know all the details, but we do know this, which Shef reminded us of so well: Jesus said, “Follow me,” and they did, and things were never the same. That’s what it is all about, everyone! God has called us, and when we answer that call, things will never be the same. I need that reminder, though, because as I said earlier, I get distracted so much.
Throughout this entire conference, a thread of unity seemed to permeate every talk. Robert Madu shared how we should not compare ourselves to each other. Larry Acosta and Kara Powell told us to believe in others, no matter their background or situation. Jo Saxton hit it strong by encouraging us to pursue unity and diversity. Ryan Leak suggested we need to be open and present for one another. Ian Cron explained the importance of knowing ourselves and others. Doug Fields, Tim Timmons, and Tom Shefchunas reminded us of where our focus should really be. Clearly, God was, and still is, trying to get a message through to us that we are on the same team — His team. We should not and cannot keep getting distracted by things that are not of Him. As John 17:23, Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Peter 3:8, Romans 12:16, 1 Corinthians 1:10, and so many other Scriptures tell us, we need to unite.
So, fellow youth workers… Are we ready to put aside petty differences? Are we ready to look past all the things on the surface that can separate us? Are we ready to stop comparing ourselves and our ministries? Are we ready to start becoming the people God created us to be? Are we ready to lead the next generation to do the same and even better? Then let’s unite! As Paul says in Ephesians 4:3, “Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.” What could we do for God if we truly lived that out, modeled it, and helped the next generation to do the same?