Not “me.” I wasn’t going to make this happen. We. Raw, gritty, spiritually immature street kids included, and whoever else wanted to help. We were going to have to lead this effort. Together.
Not everyone from that initial meeting rose to the challenge. But thirteen of them did, ages 14-22. Most were struggling high schoolers, 16-18. Only one was a college grad. The others remained friends and members of the youth group. But something special happened within and through those thirteen who were given an opportunity to lead.
They led. And people followed. Within five months, we had secured a fully furnished space in a housing project rent-free; seven college students paid to intern with us that first summer; and Generation Xcel’s doors opened as a drop-in center. Within our first year, 250 kids registered at the center, and outreach events like talent shows and basketball tournaments drew up to 400. Within two years, the testimony of our teens’ leadership was broadcast throughout the city on WNBC and NY1, and a personal audience with then Mayor Giuliani generated favor from city officials. Seven years later, ten teens followed their example and started a second youth center, in a different neighborhood serving different ages with different activities.
For fifteen years, kids were reached because of the leadership of those thirteen unqualified young people. Even better, those teens, now young adults, continue to lead. One of the co-founders is the dean of the public middle school across the street from Xcel; another directs a Salvation Army after school center in Rockland County; another directs a transitional home for teen mothers in North Carolina; another is a detective with the NYPD; another is a nurse at NYU Medical Center; another is the regional sales rep for a biomedical company; another owns her own business; another manages a Starbucks; the then youngest is studying to be an Air Force chaplain; one is sharing this story. Even better, successive generations of leaders have followed their lead, including a Dove award winning singer, a middle school math teacher, an associate pastor, a program director at a national ministry, and many more.
And it’s funny, but boredom became a non-issue.
In real-time, we were usually too busy to notice the similarities between our experience and Christ’s model. But his ministry career involved calling twelve of the least likely members of his community to follow him. They lived together; traveled together; ate together; laughed and cried and experienced hardship together. Their ranks were motley, and their qualifications nonexistent. He spent three short years with them, and throughout he trusted them to lead.
Sometimes they failed him. Their emotions betrayed them; their faith evaporated; they acted out violently. His unorthodox ways mystified and confused them. They made messes that he was forced to clean, enraged villages, and caused some to question his judgment. Still, he trusted them. All the while he was preparing them to continue leading in his absence.
Cultivating spiritual maturity
When Christ called his disciples as fishers of men and commissioned them as sheep among wolves, he knew full well that they would abandon him, deny him, and cower in fear after his arrest. Yet he didn’t wait for Acts 2 to equip and empower them to do the work of ministry. The more room He gave them to fall down and get back up again, the more He watched them succeed.
So too, teenagers live inherently tumultuous lives. Their bodies are changing, hormones raging, identities forming, boundaries stretching, expectations growing. Relationships are becoming more complex. Go with it. Don’t wait for some ill-defined maturity before trusting them.
Embrace the mess. Let them become who God has called them uniquely to be. Then watch them grow.