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Teens Take the Lead

Stephanie Martin

How young volunteers can take your ministry to the next level.

When kids finally graduate to a church's junior or senior high program, the last thing they want to do is associate with children's ministry, right?

Think again.

Teenagers and young adults are playing key roles in children's ministries-and not just as assistants. Many programs use teenagers in leadership roles, even putting them in charge of adult volunteers.

To explore the innovative service and growth opportunities available for young people, Children's Ministry Magazine spoke to leaders at six dynamic churches across the United States: Kristine Wendt at Eagle Brook Church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota; Craig Johnson at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas; Michael Bulkley and Marco Palumbo at Kingdom Life Christian Church in Milford, Connecticut; Marc Bullion at Timberline Church in Fort Collins, Colorado; Selma Rivas at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas; and Scott Harris at Christ's Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona. Read on to discover how these churches are successfully incorporating teenagers into their ministries.

Supply and Demand

Some churches began or ramped up their teen-volunteer programs quickly out of sheer necessity. Eagle Brook Church, which has three locations near Minneapolis, began growing faster than its support systems could keep up. That led to "a significant volunteer deficit," according to early childhood pastor Kristine Wendt. Teenagers' availability, combined with their energy, offered a win-win solution.

When Houston's Lakewood Church recently moved into larger facilities, its children's ministry grew by 1,400 -- in one weekend.

"One of our greatest resources was all our excited teenagers," says Craig Johnson, senior director of family ministries. "We knew we could help our program and develop our young people at the same time." These volunteers have "revolutionized" Lakewood's children's ministry, which would struggle without them, he says.

Kingdom Life Christian Church in Milford, Connecticut, has always used young volunteers. But eight years ago, Michael Bulkley and Marco Palumbo started entrusting them with more responsibilities and tracking their performance.

"We wanted teenagers to have a place to put into practice what they were learning in youth group, to be able to enter into our church's volunteer culture now and not wait until adulthood," says Bulkley, an associate pastor.

Taking Stock of the Benefits

No matter how teen-volunteer programs start, experts agree they have tremendous advantages for everyone involved.

• Good for young people-"Teenagers have unlimited potential," says Marc Bullion, children's pastor at Timberline Church in Fort Collins, Colorado. "They're just trying to figure out who they are and what they're good at." Kids who've finished sixth grade are at an awkward age, Bullion adds. "They've outgrown the children's ministry, but they're not quite ready for the junior high program." That's a perfect time to start training them for ministry.

Volunteering has been a springboard into ministry careers for many teenagers. Randy Short, 21, says serving in his church's junior high program "challenged me to push my faith to a new level." In the process, he felt God calling him to full-time ministry, which he's now studying at a Christian college.

Nicole Wight began volunteering in children's ministry at 13 and was leading her own class by 16. In addition to learning responsibility, patience, and unconditional love, the experience taught her to make Scripture lessons practical for young minds. "To this day, a few children from my first class still run to me whenever they see me," Wight says. "I can't tell you what that does to my heart."

Good for children-Children definitely respond to teenage volunteers, says Selma Rivas, children's minister at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. "They look up to teenagers as heroes, develop close friendships with them, and look for them by name when they come to class."

The role modeling that occurs between teen volunteers and children is invaluable. "Teenagers are like movie stars to children," says Wendt, "so it's fabulous to have kids who are positively influencing and living out the faith lifestyle for children."

• Good for families-Oak Hills has always encouraged families to serve together, Rivas says, and a teen-volunteer program is a great way for parents and their kids to work side by side.

Scott Harris, family ministries pastor at Christ's Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, says parents notice positive changes in teenagers who volunteer. Parents also are grateful that church leaders are willing to mentor and invest time in their kids.

• Good for churches-"If people are expected to serve as adults, then you need to get them serving as youth," says Harris, who adds that adolescence is the ideal time to "put serving into kids' DNA."

At Timberline, all teenage volunteers wear lime-green shirts, which lets the congregation see that kids are willing to give of themselves. "That spurs adults into helping out more at church," Bullion says.

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