I was walking through my home town the other day when a parked car caught my attention. Now I’m no car enthusiast, so this doesn’t happen often, but this particular vehicle warranted a second look. Not because it was a particularly dazzling sports car or a beautifully refurbished classic, not even because there was a dog wearing a neckerchief hanging out of the window (sadly), but because of the sheer quantity of bird poo that liberally lathered the vehicle. I mean, we’ve all parked under a tree and returned to our vehicles to find a nasty surprise on the windscreen, but this was something else, a bird poo paint job, if you will.
How, I wondered, could a vehicle owner safely navigate their automobile when no trace of visibility remained through their thickly encrusted windscreen? And then I saw it. A large, bright-yellow advert affixed to the top of the car, proclaiming in big, bold capital letters, “Hand car wash this way”.
That, friends, is a car wash I will not be visiting anytime soon!
Having taken a minute to revel in the irony of the moment, I got to thinking… Isn’t this sometimes what we do with our leadership in youth ministry? We encourage our young people to develop their personal relationship with God when our own devotional life is intermittent at best. We teach our young people to live lives of purity when our own internet history has recently been ‘cleared’. We want our young people to be disciplined in their GCSE revision when we hit the snooze button five times this morning and rolled up to work ten minutes late.
We talk to our young people about how important it is to be sharing their faith at school when we shy away from those same conversations with our friends and neighbours. We want to see our young people passionate for Jesus when we’re more passionate about our football team. We encourage our young people to honour their father and mother when we go home to constant arguments with our family. Or to put it another way, we advertise a car wash when we’re covered in poo.
But here’s the thing, leadership is primarily about embodying that which we invite others to follow. The apostle Paul said it in this way…
Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 1 Corinthians 4:16
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 1 Corinthians 11:1
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. Philippians 3:17
I used to think it would be arrogant and presumptuous to say something similar to the young people and team members that God had entrusted to me. Then I understood, that is leadership. Example is everything. We have to model it.
So let me tell you about a time I got this right, and a time I screwed it up! A few months ago I assembled a team of students from Regents Theological College to pioneer a new youth ministry for 15-18’s in Malvern. After getting involved in the schools and doing our homework about the area, we launched out a new club called Limitless.
I knew it was going to be tough going because the church we were working with doesn’t have a building, and that meant every week would involve shifting a whole load of gear into a venue space, setting it all up, packing it all down and shifting it all back! I knew that in order to make this happen everyone would need to bring the best of their energy and effort from start to finish, and that we would need to keep smiling throughout! And I knew for that to happen I would have to model it.
Are the team capable of doing it without me? Very much so. But what would it have said to them if I had expected them to do the leg work while I rocked up at 7:30 for doors? What would that have done for team morale? And what right would I have to challenge anyone in the team for showing up late or not pitching in? Bill Hybels says it like this, “Speed of the leader, speed of the team.”
Example is everything.
I got this wrong when we took a group of young people to Lazer Quest the other week. One young person went over on her ankle and a couple of us took her over to A&E just to be sure! Now you need to know that, as we’re a new club working largely with unchurched young people, we decided as a team one of our ‘measurable wins’ is when we take the opportunity to pray with young people.
And in this moment I was presented with an incredible opportunity to offer to pray for healing, but I didn’t. I missed it. And I was gutted. I would have expected my team to do it, but I didn’t model it. So in our next team meeting I made the point of apologising to the team because I tried to set a culture that I didn’t model, and that culture will not stick.
Example is everything.
A cast iron leadership principal is this: We cannot ask people to go where we are not willing to go ourselves. So we must model in our lives what we want to see in the lives of our teams and young people.
In David Kinnaman’s excellent book, You Lost Me, one young person, Emma, was asked what they want in a youth leader. Her answer has gripped my heart since the moment I first read it… “I want you to be someone I want to grow up like. I want you to step up and live by the Bible’s standards. I want you to be inexplicably generous, unbelievably faithful, and radically committed.
I want you to be a noticeably better person than my humanist teacher, than my atheist doctor, than my Hindu next-door neighbour. I want you to sell all you have and give it to the poor. I want you to not worry about your health like you’re afraid of dying. I want you to live like you actually believe in the God you preach about. I don’t want you to be like me; I want you to be like Jesus. That’s when I’ll start listening.”
Example is everything.
So let me ask you to consider, what do you want to see flourish in the lives of your teams and young people? A passionate and contagious faith? Model it. A love for the Scriptures? Model it. Faithfulness and a servant heart? Model it. A love for the poor and underprivileged? Model it. Sexual purity in their relationships? Model it. A deep desire for the lost to be found? Model it.
There is simply no escaping the truth that who we are speaks louder than what we say. So let’s be sure that if we’re advertising a car wash, our car is clean.
Question: How are you modeling your life to others? What actions do you need to take to reflect what you teaching? Leave a comment below.