Learning to Lead

A suburban Chicago church trains teens


Vacation Bible school (VBS) is not just for children. At Bloomingdale (Ill.) Church of the C&MA, VBS is for teenagers as well! But the teens aren’t listening to lessons, making crafts or playing games. Instead, they are exuberantly leading each day’s crowded assembly of children enrolled in the program (we call it Day Camp to connect better with our unchurched community). The teens make up the drama team, acting out creative vignettes that illustrate the Bible lessons each day, and they are the high-energy band playing cool new tunes (and some old ones, too).

We have reaffirmed that teens learn much better by experiencing the visible leadership roles firsthand. With practical training, clear expectations and caring, on-the-job coaching, they do an impressive job!

Our last Day Camp focused on cultivating the “Fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5) and had a “farming” theme. The teens started each day with an hour-long assembly in the sanctuary featuring a series of original, humorous skits intermingled with lively, kid-friendly music. The teens engaged the children, who hung on every word. Even during recesses, the children congregated around the older kids, who had become positive, up-close models of following Jesus.

Bloomingdale’s Day Camp seeks not only to reach out to unchurched families in the neighborhood but also to give 7th–12th graders opportunities to lead. Our junior high students are asking for entry-level leadership roles, and the high schoolers beg their bosses for the week off of their summer jobs to do Day Camp for another year.

Our youth pastor uses Day Camp as the training ground to prepare the teens for missions trips. Last summer, one of our teens spent time at the Alliance Envision site in El Salvador, and another served at Family Empowerment Center, an Alliance church in inner-city Chicago (see “No Matter the Cost” by Scott Manke, alife, April 15, 2011). A third team is doing practical service projects in suburban DuPage County, where our church is located. In all three places, the teens are better equipped to serve as a result of their practical training at Day Camp.

“OK, I get it,” someone might say. “You’re signing up the teens to work VBS because it’s so hard to recruit enough adults to do the job, right?” That is far from the reason we ask the teens to step up. You see, we also depend on a large number of devoted adult volunteers (65 last summer!) as the coaches, teachers and support team. They back the teens in the assembly sessions. In the classrooms, the adults and teens coordinate the lessons, crafts and games.

Marrying outreach to children and leadership development for the teens does require that the adults are willing to elevate the teens into the upfront roles and patiently guide them to succeed. This means keeping a clear focus, especially when as adults, we think we could do a better job. The teens are not the “fill-in” for jobs the adults do not want to do. They are the leaders. At the end of the day, the teens blossom as they see for themselves that they can lead and serve significantly. The adults get a great blessing, too.

Any church of any size can do this plan in VBS. It can work in the children’s club program or children’s church as well, but the adults must be committed to training and trusting the teens. To build momentum as VBS approaches each year, the congregation needs to stick closely to the tandem focus on kids and teens.

For us, it has been a work in progress that my kid-loving wife, Marina, started as a neighborhood club in our backyard more than 30 years ago, when we were a church plant with no building. In the early days of our fledging congregation, she and the adult team raised up the teens into prominent roles year after year. These days, it is just the way we do VBS (Day Camp); last summer, 385 children from 190 unchurched families came. Our children’s pastor couple, Dan and Amber Marcello, visited each family, giving them a highlight DVD of Bloomingdale Church Day Camp and inviting them to Awana and Sunday school.

Never underestimate the ability of the teens in your church to pull off something significant for God’s honor. They just need a vision and some committed mentors to help them succeed.

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