Neglecting to Prep for Modern Youth Leadership

It’s the end of November, and I have Christmas carols cranked up on the Alexa. Reminiscing to my own olden days, I’m reminded that when I was a teenager, I joined choir at church. I was an ambitious singer, determined to do the best I could and keep up with the older people around me.

Well, today’s Christmas music reminds me that I failed, miserably, again and again.

You see, I grew up in a house that wasn’t traditionally “churched,” and because of that I didn’t know the traditions of the big ol’ Methodist church on the corner of the neighborhood that I’d randomly selected to attend when I was in high school.

Standing in the choir section at the front of the sanctuary (shown above), I’d get up to practice with the choir once, twice or three times a week, all leading up to Sunday service and the joy of sharing with the congregation.

However, I distinctly remember the choir directors being frustrated with me. For as much as I wanted to sing, I had a hard time with all the things they’d point out, like my rhythm, or pitch, or tone. I wanted to do it good! I just couldn’t…

Nat King Cole was just belting it out throughout the living room, and I was singing along pitch perfect and everything. Of course, it’s been 30 years since I was in that church choir, and a lot of memories have happened since then. It is still seared in my imagination though, that feeling of failing my choir mates and not doing excellently. Well, kind of.

See, I’ve come to understand that thing main things missing between then and now are both complicated and basic. Basically, the main reasons I couldn’t sing the way they wanted me to was that I had never heard the music before, literally. Unchurched, my family didn’t have church traditions or Christmas celebrations that the people in that church did. I literally couldn’t sing along with the songs because I didn’t know them!

There were other issues about the culture of adult expectations, including the idea that I would practice away from the choir, or understood the value or could afford singing lessons, or anything like that.

Well, I this morning I came to the conclusion that my experience in that church choir when I was 17 relates to youth engagement everywhere.

Oftentimes, adults expect young people to simply arrive ready, just like they think they do. We consider youth to be ready whether or not they are, and because of that we often just throw them into the youth involvement experience. That’s true of choirs and councils, committees and quorums.

Rather than simply assuming youth preparedness, we should check with youth about what they know, what they don’t know, what they are passionate about and what they are repulsed by. By doing that we can adjust accordingly, teaching and training and sharing and working towards success as actual partners rather than simply standing in front of youth and trying to lead them.

Modern Youth Leadership is my concept of a new way to engage young people in personal leadership and community leadership today. In my new book, Steps to Youth Leadership in Modern Times, share dozens of examples and stories, practical reflection and planning tools, and many other useful lessons to transform our stuck-in-the-box thinking about the ways, places, and types of youth leadership that happen today. That includes how to prepare both young people and adults for Modern Youth Leadership.

In the meantime, I’m still reaching back to Adam back then, reminding me to be gentle with my expectations of teenage me, be compassionate about the failings and inabilities of adults, and be generous seeing the possibilities in the future. And I’m continuing to learn about neglecting to prep for Modern Youth Leadership.

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