Richard Duerksen is vice president for communications, marketing, and creative ministries, Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Columbia, Maryland.

The only way to help young people build spiritual lives is to stop, listen, become a believable friend, and then personally demonstrate Christ's remedies for their needs.

Do you remember the fairy tale of the ugly toad who was really a handsome prince? All he needed to break the spell of the wicked witch was a kiss from a beautiful maiden. But what beautiful maiden would stop to kiss an ugly toad? Obviously, only one who stopped first to talk to him and get to know him."1

It's true! The only way to help young people build spiritual lives is to stop, listen, become a believable friend, and then personally demonstrate Christ's remedies for their needs.

I was sharing this concept with a group of youth workers over a cafeteria lunch when a young pastor began to sputter, "It cannot be done. The kids are just too much into the world. No matter how close I come to them, I cannot offer them anything as exciting or meaningful as all that the devil is providing. Toads just do not become princes anymore!"

Not true! But the pastor's frustrations are real and common. In fact, the job at times does seem beyond all hope, and we find ourselves dreaming impossible dreams. But dreams do come true.

In my own ministry I have learned many times that impossibilities do become realities.

As principal of a Seventhday Adventist boarding academy, I had dreams for the school and for the students. I wanted each young person to find a rewarding relationship with Christ while at the school. Regularly I shared that dream with faculty and students, and we worked night and day to make it happen. We planned meetings, study groups, sermons, prayer sessions, retreats, campouts, and even "Christian tugs-of-war."

But the students seemed more excited about Satan's glittering offerings than those of God. We were almost to the point of accepting that our "impossible dream" really was impossible.

Then one night the planned program fell through and I invited a retired minister to speak to the students. He simply said, "God needs you to change the world." Even though he talked too long and broke many of the rules of homiletics, we sat amazed as princes and princesses were created before our eyes.

The result of all that? Four guys in the senior class decided we needed a "mission project." Several girls started prayer bands in their dorm rooms, and faculty members found themselves flooded with interest about spiritual things. The students raised more than $40,000 and built a church in Nicaragua, helped start an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, bought a bicycle for a pastor on Guadalcanal, and sent a nurse to an island in the South Pacific.

As the students became more involved in practical spirituality and began to focus on the needs of others, a whole new feeling began to grow on campus. Before long, Christianity was the "in" thing and the devil was losing out. Our impossible dream was coming true!

Even though it didn't happen just when and how we wanted it to, it happened. Our role had been to create a campus climate that made room for God. Then, at the most opportune moment, God moved in and was able to transform young people.

I have surveyed hundreds of teenagers and youth workers over the years, trying to discover from them what youth leaders can do to build the kind of climate that makes it possible for God to make major transformations. From those conversations come five major points of advice: (1) be a model of what you want them to become; (2) build an atmosphere of friendship; (3) be aware of what they are going through; (4) remember that each youth is a unique individual; and (5) remember that you are here to serve them.

Be a model

Be a model of what you want your youth to become. Nothing can substitute for your own personal dedication to Christ. Young people are not so much interested in facts about Jesus as they are in the story of what Jesus means to you. They are watching to discover if your Christianity is something worth experiencing. Paul Little says, "We ourselves must be convinced about the truth we proclaim. Otherwise we won't be at all convincing to other people." 2

The more you experience the personal joys of growing as a Christian, the more you will feel God leading you toward creative solutions in your youth ministry. Youth, you see, are not impressed or moved by "part-time Christians." They are looking for leaders who are "real," whose Christianity is a practical, daily friendship with Jesus. Young people are keenly aware of justice and injustice in life. They will be watching to be sure that your Christianity includes a welldeveloped sense of fair play.

Roger Dudley, in his book Passing On The Torch, has put it well: "It is not our responsibility to force our values upon our young people. It is our responsibility to model our values so attractively that these youth cannot help seeing that they are vastly superior to the competition, and will freely choose them." 3

Youth ministry is a demanding responsibility, and it is very easy to get so caught up in the activities and expectations that you neglect your relationship with God. The youth will pick that up quickly and, even though the programs may continue to run, you will have compromised your influence.

On the other hand, when you remember that you are not doing your own work but are following after Him, the youth will realize your genuineness and respond to it. To inspire spirituality, be spiritual; be transparently His.

Be a friend

Build an atmosphere of friendship. During a Bible conference at which we were discussing youth leadership, a young man came up to me with some advice for youth leaders. "If you want to lead me," he said, "be my friend. Don't spend your time pointing out all my wrongs, but lead me toward the rights, like a friend would. Give me more love and less criticism."

Friendship, true friendship, is a key to the success of any youth leader. "But how," one newly appointed youth leader asked, "can I become the friend of young people who are automatically aloof from adults, and especially from youth leaders?"

Several years ago I saw a cartoon on youth ministry. It showed a young youth worker who had only six basic body parts: eyes─open to see all needs, even in dark places; ears─open to listen to all needs, as a true friend; heart─open to share others' feelings in interested empathy; feet— moving, visiting, carrying, going to, going for; hands─extended and open to grasp and lift, to give a hand; knees─calloused from praying for and praying with.

If our eyes, ears, heart, feet, hands, and knees are open and dedicated to meeting the needs of our youth, we are truly serving them as their friends. In our lives they will then see a model of Christ, a person who is living the Father's love for others.

But this is not an easy assignment. It requires time, energy, dedication, and sacrifice. "If love is real, it will be expressed. If it is God's love (agape), it will be expressed sacrificially. Divine love cannot remain silent or uninvolved! People are waiting for its expression —for someone to get involved with them where they live and work (and play)." 4

How can we do that effectively? The following possibilities are given only as idea starters.

1. The focused half hour.

Plan at least 30 minutes each day when you do nothing but work with your youth. This is not a time for you to sit in the study and plan; it is a time for you to be with one or more of the youth in person or on the phone. It is a time of focused friendship. Your conversations may include planning for the April Fool's Day party, but you will probably spend more time talking about the pizza at Valentine's, the Super Bowl, or today's hit song.

2. Your place, however humble, is best. Our family's favorite memories include teenagers joking, laughing, playing games, and telling tall tales around our kitchen table. In fact, we have made many friends there over corn bread and chili, friends who stop by when they're in town, who ask us to share in their weddings, who call when they want to just talk. Those are some of our richest friendships.

Invite the youth to your home. No, you don't have to prepare a great meal or plan any marvelous entertainment. Just open your home and your popcorn popper, set your family photo albums on the table, and open your heart to your youth. Be a friend.

3. Outdoors, even in the parking lot, is wise. Take them outdoors, away from the TV, away from stereos, away from the church out into somewhere different and as natural as possible. You will find it much easier to get to know most youth when they are outdoors. While you're out there, share a personal experience of how you are growing in Christ. Somehow it is all more believable outdoors.

Your outdoor experiences could include weekend campouts, longer retreats at a summer camp (in the deep snow of winter), or just part of a day in a local park. Be sure to let the young people choose the place, plan the program, and prepare the menu.

4. Phone numbers, wallets, and automobiles are for sharing. You must be willing to be used for a vast variety of needs. If the youth realize you are serious, they'll call when they need help, ask if they can "borrow" a dollar, and hope you can take them to town to get the new starter for the car.

Yes, you must share responsibly. But you must share openly, as a Christian servant would share.

5. Enjoy things their way. I know, you hate to think of another pizza supper, but as long as you do not compromise your witness by being along, be where your youth are.

6. Look for needs. Your youth have many very special needs, needs that you and the Lord can nicely fill. Keep your eyes and ears open for signs of those needs. If you are praying for God to reveal their needs to you, you will always be juggling two dozen special challenges with your youth.

Adolescents need friendship. You can provide that friendship. You and God.

Be aware

Be aware of what your youth are going through. Being an adolescent can be extremely traumatic! It is a time of crisis, of reevaluating everything, of searching for meaning. For Christian youth, it is also a time of faith crisis, a time when all they have ever believed is "up for grabs."

You must be tuned in to the individual faith crisis of your youth. Each one is going to respond to this time a little differently. Each one is going to need your support in a creative, individual way. The key is simply being aware of what is going on and being open and available.

Charles Shelton, in his book Adolescent Spirituality, lists eight forces to which youth must relate during this "faith crisis."

1. Peer pressure. Peer pressure is "one of the greatest barriers to making proper ethical decisions." 5 The temptation to rebel against organized religion is enhanced by the large number of peers who have already chosen that option.

When college freshmen move into the dormitory, for instance, they often notice that many of their peers are not attending Sabbath services. This peer behavior then becomes both a subtle pressure to conform and a legitimate and safe avenue for the young person's own withdrawal from the practice of group religion.

2. Institutional alienation. Young people are more interested in personal, relational forms of worship than they are in large institutions, large worship services, or church programs."

When you are aware of this fact, you will be much more understanding when youth express dissatisfaction with "church," throw verbal rocks at the school, and stay away from programs in droves. Your understanding will lead you to help them discover alternatives within the institutional church, creative ways to keep them as part of "church" in ways that are comfortable.

Youth are very idealistic and often enjoy being involved in social causes. If you help them focus on the needs of the poor, help them work for the hungry people in your community, or guide them in attacking some other social issue, you will find them interested, involved, and even excited.

3. Separation from parents. In the teen years most youth are thrashing about in an attempt to discover who they are and where they fit in life. This is also true in the area of personal faith. Although the faith of their parents forms a foundation for the search, each young person must now develop an understanding of what God means for "me."

It is important for you to encourage their need for independence while at the same time discouraging the feeling that their parents are "old-fashioned" and "no good." Help them understand why their parents still want to be involved in their lives. And help parents understand why teenagers are wanting to break free from all parental authority.

4. Rebellion. Sometimes the process of "finding myself" takes a direction the psychologist Erickson calls "negative identity." Most youth leaders simply call it "rebellion."

You can be a key factor in those lives by accepting the rebels for the developing adults they really are, and by helping them find creative and acceptable avenues for their rebellion.

5. Search for meaning. Remember that this process is healthy! Young people are now having to answer the great questions of life honestly and carefully. You are privileged to be right there to help them articulate those answers in the context of God's love and His will for their lives. Design some of your activities to provide for discussions on topics such as God's will, the Christian's mission, the Christian and politics, God's answer to hunger, and how to hear God's voice.

6. Disillusionment. Youth see the failures of adults and wonder aloud if life is worth the trouble. Religious youth see the hypocrisy, pride, jealousy, and other forms of sin that tarnish the lives of church members, and they ask, "Why bother?"

Their asking gives you a marvelous opportunity to answer with friendship, love, and an open discussion on the character of God. Don't be afraid to point out some of the renegades like Peter, King Manasseh, Moses, and Uncle Billy, whom God transformed by continuing to give His love freely.

7. Personal difficulty. Teenagers are having to grow up in an ugly and confused world. Many come from homes where the conflicts are harsh and constant, and their emotional insecurities simply do not encourage them to make a "faith commitment" to God. Youth who are facing great personal difficulties often need more bandages of love than they do prayer groups and sermons.

8. Environment. Concerns about spiritual things are seldom very high on the list of discussion topics in groups of adolescents. In fact, most youth seem almost happy to be sucked along into "live for today" cultural pressures. That truth gives you the challenge of helping youth look at their culture as critically as they look at the church. A critical perspective, one that is always honestly asking the wise "why" questions, will be a great asset as even greater challenges come along.

These are by no means a complete list of pressures and problems youth face, but being aware of them will help you face impossible situations with understanding and hope.

Be alert to their uniqueness

Remember that each of your youth is a unique individual. Don't expect all young people to react to ideas, programs, or even to you in the same way. God created each young person as different, unique, and special.

Each young person with whom we work is changing at a unique rate. Each is in the process of personal discovery but is discovering different things at different times. Your responsibility is to love each as the person he or she really is, and to be a personal, trustworthy friend. You also need to plan activities that encompass the interests and personalities of each young person in the group. Some youth are repelled by small group devotions, so plan some devotional activities for larger groups and develop a few other devotional suggestions for individual and team study, prayer, and service. God will work through you to help individualize the pathways to friendship with Him.

Be ready to serve them

Remember that you are here to serve your youth. It is always a temptation for a leader to be more concerned about his or her personal reputation and "success" than about the spiritual growth of each young person. Great youth leaders, however, work to make others into whole people by giving them a larger vision and purpose than they would have come up with on their own.

This happens best when you see yourself as a servant of God and therefore as a servant of the young people. Such an approach makes it possible for you to let them make many of the decisions regarding youth activities while at the same time challenging them to take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. It gives you the privilege of supporting young people as they grow into the persons God wants them to become. Then the impossible dream will become possible.


1 Howard G. Hendricks, Say It With Love (Wheaton, 111.: Victor Books, 1975), p. 9.

2 Paul Little, How to Give Away Your Faith (Downers Grove, 111.:Inter-Varsity Press, 1966), p. 81.

3 Roger L. Dudley, Passing On The Torch (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1987), p. 117.

4 William M. Fletcher, The Second Greatest Commandment (Colorado Springs, Col.: NavPress, 1983), p. 21.

5 Jerry White, Honesty, Morality, and Conscience (Colorado Springs, Col.: NavPress, 1979), p. 62.

Richard Duerksen is vice president for communications, marketing, and creative ministries, Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Columbia, Maryland.