Helping Students Discover Their Potential In Your Youth Ministry

Our small group conversation had taken many paths this day. Honestly, I can’t remember how it ended up here. All of a sudden a very animated Anthony blurts out, “I hate it when adults tell me I have potential.”

“Why?” I inquired. In my own mind that is a great word that helps others understand that we were made for more.

Anthony continued, “Well, first of all I mostly hear the word from teachers or my parents when I am getting lectured. It never really seems positive. Also, I don’t ever feel like I am allowed to just mess up. It’s like everyone just thinks I am this screw up. When I do something right, it’s like that was a mistake.” I wanted to make sure I understood where he was going, “So what I hear you saying is that you feel like people just think you can’t get ever get it right. When you do that is just a deviation from the norm. What you want is people to see that you are really not trying to mess up. It just happens sometimes.” (Yes I used the word deviation. Yes I had to explain what I meant by that.) His eyes went wide, “Exactly! I don’t feel like adults really believe in me when they say that. It’s like they can’t see I’m trying.” Anthony got quieter now as he looked at me pleadingly, “Mrs. Leneita, I am trying. Why can’t people see that?”

We stayed on this topic for awhile. I went on to explain that in my mind everyone has potential. It means that we are always growing in life, in the Lord. I took a second to tell Anthony what I appreciate about him. He likes to push the envelope and think outside the norm. That’s a great thing. Anthony questions the world around him. He wants to understand why he is following Christ and who this Jesus is. Anthony is of course your average 16 year old boy as well who tries to justify to me why “Little Wayne” is a worthwhile listen.

I have spent awhile chewing on this conversation. Isn’t it ironic that in our effort to spur our youth on, hey do indeed feel it is “just a lecture.” Many times out of exasperation we are trying to tell our students or our own kids that they can be more than who they are today. I thought of the many times I have used “potential” when I think a student is a challenge. Yet, sometimes our youth are thinking, “Why can’t you see I don’t want to keep falling down? As I listened “between the lines,” I realized that Anthony was saying, “Help me don’t talk at me.”

So in those moments when we need to call a student to “more,” how do we? For the reason we throw words like “potential” around is often because we feel our students are either going down the wrong path or are just plain apathetic.

What’s the approach?

1. Make Sure they Know WHO they Belong To: 1 John 3:1a tells us, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” As a child I learned a worship song that quoted that verse. I can remember sitting in the back of my car singing it over and again, but never really taking the words to heart. We tell others they need to ask “Jesus into their hearts.” It isn’t entirely an accurate of portrait of what must happen. Yes, the Holy Spirit comes to reside inside because of our relationship with the Lord. HOWEVER, that is an ancillary benefit of accepting the offer of Salvation. In my small group last week, the students who happened to be there have all grown up in the church. They have all been in small groups. Most have been in some form of mentor or discipleship relationship with a Believer. In short they have heard the Gospel literally hundreds of times. All of them would claim that they have “asked Jesus in.” When I asked them to explain to me what that means, “Do you know what it means to be God’s child and the benefits that come with that?” None of them could give me an answer. They had heard. They did not understand how to live in belonging to Christ. We must move to continually helping them see this as a reality.

2. Let Them Mess Up and Wrestle with the Hard Stuff: Part of Anthony’s struggle is that he feels like those guiding him are just telling him what to do. Our role in his life is to make sure he knows what the narrow path looks like. We need to teach him how to chose the “right way.” We also need to recognize that sometimes he might be defiant. This is a sin issue and, he needs to comprehend repentance. Other times he might try another direction just to see where it goes. Sometimes, (many times) he will turn around and want to know, “Why should I go this way or do this?” He is not always rebelling. He is figuring out how to grow up. He can’t learn HOW if we don’t let him try. Figuring it out is the very definition of adolescence. Instead of just pushing him along, let’s teach him the Way, the Truth and the Life. Most of the time he just wants to understand. When we see destruction ahead our role is to tell him what it looks like, and how to avoid it. Then we need to trust when he comes upon it, Anthony indeed will miss the land mines.

3. Walk it Out: Here is how Christ modeled reaching our “potential.”

I will do it – You watch. (Miracles performed, life lived, lessons taught.)

You do it – I will watch. (Sending out of the disciples twice while he was still on earth to cast out demons and spread the good news.)

You do. (Jesus left them as lead the church.)

If we want our Anthony’s to grow we must model the same idea. Give them a chance to reach and succeed , learning not to be the church of tomorrow, but the leaders of today. We can all begin with our own “Jerusalem,” as we all like to say. For a teen, this is their closest friends, their school, or even the members of their sports teams. Teach them how to do this.

“There is nothing sadder to those of us who disciple kids, when we see you get stuck and not want to change,” I told Anthony. “We look at you today, knowing Christ can use you now. So many times we see you walk away, and it hurts our hearts. We use the word “potential,” because we see you choosing to turn away from who the Lord is calling you to be. However, I want you to know that all of us, me and the other leaders, we haven’t reached our potential either. Being all jesus wants us to be takes us into eternity. Potential doesn’t have to be a bad word, it all depends on how we spin it.”