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Lessons on Developing Young Leaders: Find Room to Speak about Challenges, Problems, and Sin

Key 3 of four keys on how to develop young people as leaders in the church from six seasoned Latin@ leaders whose congregations and parachurch groups are leadership incubators for the young people in their communities.

growing a brighter future Rev Montes mural

Growing a Brighter Tomorrow in Gulfton,  2018,  Rahmaan Statik 

Read the summary and find links to the other 3 keys.

Key 3: Find Room to Speak about Challenges, Problems, and Sin

Rev. Alejandro Montes

Rev. Alejandro Montes: Shifting to a positive and open approach does not exclude the rest of the work we have been called to do. Because we fostered warmth, compassion, and acceptance in our congregation, we also earned the trust of the youth and they were open to listening to Jesus’ teachings. If we remain focused only on good feelings and piety, we are then missing the main point of our work in helping young people grow – both in faith and as leaders.

It is our mandate as ministers to teach what Jesus taught and in the way Jesus taught. He spoke openly about heaven, hell, sin, forgiveness, and redemption. He did it without condemnation or seeding fear, but rather in a clear and positive approach. We have to teach young people about the second coming of Christ, and the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit. We need to trust in God’s power to transform hearts, attitudes, and choices.

Priscilla Rodriquez

Priscilla Rodriquez: Being positive about the role of youth in the church does not exclude our responsibility as leaders to teach them how to grow and mature in faith; it goes hand-in-hand. God and Jesus always spoke to people in a way in which they understood. The language, examples, topics, and life experiences shared with the aim of teaching and conveyed a message that always connected with the people. This is sometimes what we forget to practice in our churches today, often because we do not really know the lives of the people we serve.

We must remember that our responsibility is not to impose faith on others, but to walk alongside of young people, listen to them, set an example, and guide them. We are to teach, encourage, and challenge – letting them come to terms, in their own timing, with their willingness to change and make choices that reflect their decision to live according to Christ’s teachings. This process takes shape as we make the space to have organic conversations with an open heart about sin and the challenges of life. When we ask young people “How are you?”, we must mean it, and be in a disposition to really listen to their problems and struggles. We must create safe spaces of trust where young people can express themselves freely and be transparent – even if that means that cuss words are part of their lexicon. As we walk alongside of them, it is important to avoid the temptation of wanting to give them answers, lecture them, or fix their life. It is the role of the Holy Spirit to produce conviction and transformation. Our role is to use testimonios (testimonies, personal narratives), sermons, and Bible study times as opportunities to address challenges, problems and sin. Through these we can help young people make the connection between what the Bible teaches and the choices they make in everyday situations and understand that these daily choices reflect their values and make-up their ways of living. We must meet young people where they are in their faith journey or we will lose them.

In getting to know the young people in our congregation, we also need to recognize that the challenges and situations they face may be very different from those we faced at their age. Leaders need to prepare adults in the congregation to know how to interact with and support young people, because not all will be ready to listen to their realities. Safe spaces need to be created where adults can learn from trusted instructors about the challenges young people face with issues such as bullying, suicide, and LGBTQIA identities. Spaces where adults can let go of their shock reactions and engage in thoughtful learning and reflection. Spaces where adults can move away from perpetuating rejection, hate, fear, and judgment, and move towards understanding the pain, trauma, and confusion these realities represent for young people every day.

Marcos Canales

Marcos Canales: This is an aspect that many of our Latina churches are struggling with, but rather in the inverse. We come from very legalistic church backgrounds, and a history of extremes in behaviorism as a sign of faith and Christianity. For us, it rather entails a process of learning and understanding about love, grace, patience, being non-judgmental, and healing from the damaging theology and religious practices we have inherited. These are deep and complex concepts which involve not only matters of positive language usage, but also an integral message that encompasses the full spectrum of what the Gospel is and who Jesus is. 

Anyra Cano

Anyra Cano: Our responsibility is to help all in the congregation to grow in their spiritual formation. The aim for making ways for youth to be involved is not so that we have another helper or take advantage of them by assigning them the “dirty jobs” no one else wants to do. The activities and service opportunities are intentional ways by which to help young people grow in their leadership abilities and their spiritual development. Every interaction with a young person brings about the opportunity to discover ways of being more like Jesus. Part of growing as a leader in the church also entails maturing as a Christian and letting go of those aspects in our lives that do not honor God. We integrate discipleship opportunities into every effort, for example, when we hold special times of biblical reflection with those who are part of the worship team. We discuss what it means to be a worship leader, the responsibility of guiding the congregation to focus on God, and how this act of service is not about being on stage or being part of a band.

Nohemi Vega

Noemi Vega: Honesty is the key. As adults, we need to be fully honest with young people in addressing the entirety of our condition. We are empowered, and we are also broken. It’s not either/or. Young people long for mentors who can model what it means to follow Christ. However, as adults, we tend to be too busy to invest time in them. There are certainly many creative online resources available to young people to encourage their faith walk; however, they crave embodied experiences that foster bonds and relationships with others – this is what they are missing.

To practice these concepts, we need to be willing to take time to place ourselves in the contexts where young people function (e.g., college campus, school, work) so that we can better understand the reality of the challenges they face, their culture, and their vernacular. This goes a long way in strengthening the depth of understanding and the relationships that need to be present for discipleship and accountability. People are more likely to talk about sin if they feel safe, meaning not judged or not being told what to do. Young people know what to do, but knowing they have a community that will walk with them and hold them accountable is what they are hungry for.

Obed Arango Hisijara

Obed Arango Hisijara: We are created in the image of God, and as theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez proposes, conocemos a Dios en el camino (we get to know God through everyday life). Helping others grow in their faith journey is not a matter of ulterior motives. One creates spaces for dialogue and joint work, with the genuine desire to see young people developing, and trust that en el camino, they will get to know God in deeper ways because of the tangible actions they engage with, alongside times for theological reflections that reflect their lived experiences. Our actions and approaches must lead them to know the God of love and intimacy, not an oppressive and controlling God. As leaders, we are light that shines so that together we can discover and build roads towards knowing God. No one is above the other, for together we forge. Our expressions of faith must affect our everyday life. Our expressions of faith must be congruent with our values.

Continue reading about Key 4: Recognize That Other Areas of Ministry Benefit from the Perspective Shift.