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Student Leadership Disaster

I once helped lead an event with hundreds of teens passionate to grow, learn, serve and share. We sent various groups to detention centers, to scrub public busses and to clean gas station bathrooms throughout the week. That last one was truly an “interesting” experience. You are probably asking yourself why anyone would sign up for such an activity, but hold that question. The answer to that is the point of this whole post.

One day my team was assigned the not-so-painful task of handing out water at the beach. Imagine the scene: One beach on Lake Michigan in Chicago, Ninety degrees and ten thousand people. We were going to give out water bottles and just talk to people. We were thinking service and relationships because we had this crazy idea that ministry was just that simple. Ministry is offering your life into people’s needs. And these weekend beach people needed something. We thought they needed Jesus. They thought they needed to not pay 4.50 for a drink. Both groups were right. As I pulled up on the bus I told the teens they were never going to forget this day. I was also right but for the all wrong reasons.

I am not amazing at math but consider this equation: 10,000 thirsty people + sweltering heat x by people seeing a free five bucks. The planning team had planned poorly. They had sent 72 bottles of water. The correct answer to the equation is to RUN. I literally had to physically rescue someone from the mob. One guy grabbed as much as he could carry and then tried to stick bottles into his not so modest swimsuit. We just watched in awkward awe.

As you may have already concluded, it became clear we did not bring enough water. We had the major problem that as our water evaporated so did our conversation starter. The water was gone in under two minutes and we had zero meaningful conversations.

Now here is your chance: What would you do? These opportunities define us, they tell us what we are made of, and they show us that we should have brought more water.

The next moment was the moment that I decided I would write this book. It was a God moment when adults step back in a different type of awe. It was a space God invaded and partnered with teenagers. These teens showed “the leaders” what it means to lead and how ministry can infuse every action of our lives. They decided to collect garbage from those on the beach. Their friends were cleaning public restrooms and they were not able to give up.

So my team went blanket to blanket and simply asked to collect their trash. Many sunbathers were incredulous and even tried to make a “donation,” which we politely refused (have to admit, the $50 was a toughie). As the minutes of garbage collecting wore on the teens simply got invited to sit and talk about the fascinating person called Jesus and how this weird God would ask them to serve strangers. It was a powerful day full of service with great stories of Christ’s name being elevated. I now believe that teens can lead, make a difference and transform lives all while sitting on beach towels. I believe you are one of those teens or leaders.

Several groups came with us and they too were mobbed for free water. Standing on a beach, with hours before our departure, they had come prepared. Swimsuits and Frisbees materialized. Calling it a day, they went and played. Three minutes of “ministry” and 3 hours tanning and swimming, all while many other groups scrubbed toilets in public bathrooms.

This turn of events was distressing to me. Why would a teen travel half-way across the country so they could be equipped to lead and share and then give up after minutes? Even more insane, in my mind, was the fact that they came ready. It seemed this was their intention from the beginning. What was the difference between the two sets? Between the servants and the sunbathers?

I think for one group the ministry goal somehow was confused. It became “handing out water.” Once that goal was accomplished, or no longer possible for safety reasons, ministry ceased. Another perspective, from another set of students, allowed them to see opportunities all around to minister to people that Jesus loved. They looked at other people like Jesus did and ended up just plain looking like Jesus.

I am going to suggest that you are the servant kind and not the sunbather. I suspect you don’t think of yourself as a leader. But here are three things I believe about you:

1)    That you can see people as Jesus saw people;

2)    That you can give your life to something bigger and more meaningful than you can imagine;

3)    and in doing so you will look like Jesus.

Oh, and doing these things will make you a leader too, but that is just bonus.



  1. Mike Severe says:

    Hey everyone, this piece is a portion of a book I am workingn on. Any thoughts?

  2. I like how you turned the initial idea into an plan that served more people and met more needs. That is very impressive. I’d love to hear some stories about your groups going into detention centers as well.
    -Peter from the Bridge

    • Mike Severe says:

      Thanks Peter. My experience with detention centers and bringing teens is limited. While I have gone and brought adults, the facilites will not let a youth into visit unless they are family (at least the one’s around my previous churches). It is very tricky for their liability. Lots of rules and policy to get through as well becasue you are visiting minors. I do have friends that I know have had regular success putting on a service or even just playing games with those teens. I think its going to depend on state and country laws and the relationship with the director of the facility. Have you had success in this area?

      • Yeah. In Chicago, it’s pretty restrictive to get in as an adult! They definitely wouldn’t let kids in. My boss has extensive experience as a chaplain for juvenile detention centers, and he had great success in gang ministry off of the work he did in the youth detention centers.

        What you could do with youth groups that want to serve that community is partner with a halfway house, transitional center or drug rehab. They tend to be a lot looser with who can volunteer, but you are still serving the same people, just at a different point on the timeline. Our ministry has a lot of youth groups come in during the summer to help out around churches that serve this community, which works as well.

        I hope this piqued your interest!

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