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Trade Paperback
125 pages
May 2004
InterVarsity Press

Raising Up Young Heroes: Developing a Revolutionary Youth Ministry

by Efrem Smith

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1



God yearns to interact with young people, and he is in the business of using them to do incredible things in the world. The Bible is full of stories that show us just how true this statement is.


Take, for example, the story of Joshua. As a youth he was sent by Moses to spy out the Promised Land, which was at the time inhabited by what the adults called giants (see Numbers 13). Joshua, along with another young man, Caleb, believed that the people of God could indeed take the land that was promised to them. When the adults felt like grasshoppers, it was the younger generation, Joshua and Caleb, who believed the promises of God. Then, at the end of Moses’ life, Joshua was given the call to be strong and courageous as the baton of leadership was handed to him (Deuteronomy 31:7-8). Though he was young he led his people into the Promised Land with shouts, praises, marching and the sound of trumpets (see Joshua 6). God is in the business of using young people as revolutionary leaders.


Consider the story of young David in the seventeenth chapter of 1 Samuel. There was a giant named Goliath who brought fear and terror upon David’s people. The adults who were trained in warfare with swords and shields were afraid to deal with the giant. Yet David, with no sword and no shield—only a slingshot and some stones—took out the giant and brought about victory. God is in the business of using ordinary young people to do extraordinary things.


What about King Josiah, who is mentioned in 2 Kings 22? He became king when he was eight years old, and even though his father and grandfather before him were evil kings, he broke this curse in his generation by being a king who followed God. He made the Word of God a priority and called his people to revere the Lord’s commands once again. “And a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). God is in the business of using children to do incredible things in the world.  


Have you ever really looked at the book of Esther in the Old Testament? This is the story of a girl whom God raises up to become a queen. I’m not talking about some homecoming queen waving to the crowd from a float in the middle of a football stadium. I’m talking about a queen who brought political, social and spiritual change to her land and her people. She risked her life in approaching the king on behalf of her people. And she did this in spite of the fact that she wasn’t raised by her biological mother or father. God is in the business of taking a foster girl and developing her into a queen of destiny.


Consider for a moment the book of Jeremiah. In the first chapter God says that he knew the young Jeremiah before he was formed in his mother’s womb. Then God tells Jeremiah that there is a calling upon his life to be a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah responds by telling God that he is only a child—as if God didn’t already know that! God then tells Jeremiah that the words placed in his mouth will not be his own, but will come from God. He tells Jeremiah that the same God who puts words in his mouth will rescue him in the time of trouble (see Jeremiah 1:5-10). God is in the business of taking kids who are scared, shy and intimidated and giving them the ability to go public with their gifts and speak boldly.


And then there’s a young man in the New Testament named Timothy. His mother was a believer, but his dad wasn’t. Yet having one parent who did not believe was not an obstacle for Timothy. His mentor, Paul, saw something in Timothy maybe even beyond what Timothy saw in himself. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. (1 Timothy 4:12-14) Paul saw Timothy through God’s eyes, and Timothy became a leader in church planting and development. God is in the business of using young people as leaders within the church.

When it comes to young people, God goes way beyond just Sunday school, confirmation and weekly clubs full of icebreaker games, pizza and soda. God sees youth—and even little children—through different eyes.


On many occasions the disciples had problems with their eyesight. Even though they spent a lot of up-close time with Jesus, there were times when they didn’t see the world the same way he did, especially when it came to youth. Consider the scene in Matthew 19:13-15:

    Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

The disciples were actually obstacles that were keeping the little children from getting to Jesus. Are there some churches that are acting as obstacles in the way of young people getting to Jesus? Senior pastors who still haven’t made youth ministry a priority? Youth ministers who are on staff but have yet to create strategic plans for their ministries? Could it be that a predictable approach to youth ministry actually stands in the way of young people getting into the lap of the Savior?

When you look at young people, what do you see? Just because they’re in the church and attend every trip and youth event doesn’t mean they’re not dealing with serious issues in their lives. Are you able to see past the youth-group smiles and laughter to catch a glimpse of what’s really going on in their lives? Are you able to see past the challenges that seem to have overtaken them to God’s plan and destiny for them?  

Going beyond just working with a youth group to actually raising up young heroes for God means that you have to see youth through God’s eyes. As youth ministers it is our job to provide opportunities for youth to get up close to Jesus.


As we’ve already seen, the Bible is full of stories about God using young people to do incredible, awesome and even dangerous things in order to bring love, justice, peace and transformation to the world. But the examples of young people doing revolutionary things don’t end with the stories in the Bible. Even in our contemporary history, youth have been involved in many major political and spiritual movements.

From America to Africa and beyond, young people have been involved in movements to bring positive change to the world. Unfortunately, many churches have stopped calling young people to a Christ-centered, revolutionary movement.

In our privileged, technological and postmodern culture, we have lost sight of the potential impact of our young people. We talk to them and nurture them for some future change, some down-the-road impact that they may never even live to see. In the meantime, we have fallen way behind in presenting a gospel that reaches them where they are and calls them to a radical new belief system and a lifestyle that can have an impact on their generation. Instead, we now hear stories of youth taking the lives of others, destroying communities with drugs and committing suicide. Many of them feel neglected, useless and disconnected from the positive impact they could have.


We all know that Martin Luther King Jr. was a key figure in the Civil Rights movement, but what about a little African American girl named Ruby Bridges, who risked her life to be one of the first children to desegregate the public schools in the South? Maybe you already know the story, but please go back down memory lane with me for just a moment. Here was this young girl, putting her life on the line daily just to go to school. She would walk with military escort through a crowd of people who were spitting on her, throwing sticks and rocks at her and yelling at her just for going to school. One day, as she walked through this crowd and made her way up the school steps to the door, she stopped, turned and faced the crowd. It looked like she was saying something to them. When she went into the school one of her teachers asked her what she had said to the crowd, and Ruby replied, “I didn’t say anything to them; I was just praying for them.” What a young revolutionary for God!

We all know that Nelson Mandela was a key leader in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, but if you’ve ever seen the movie or the Broadway play Sarafina, you’ve seen that there were also young people in action, risking their lives to bring change to their native land. My wife, Donecia, and I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and go to a museum that told the history of the fight against apartheid.

In that museum were pictures of young people standing for unity and peace with only the weapons of singing, marching and praying. Many of those young people lost their lives in order to bring about a new South Africa.  

There are many reasons why our youth are not revolutionary in their Christian thinking and living. One reason is that some church leaders today don’t believe that revolutionary movements line up with the Bible. They only see revolutions through the eyes of secular political and social movements and have yet to see the Exodus story or the life and ministry of Jesus as revolutionary movements.

Another problem is that some adult leaders in the church who do believe in movements don’t know how to articulate a vision for a new, Christian-based revolution that speaks to the issues that young people face today. In the African American community there are many churches that are struggling to reach their young people even though during the Civil Rights movement, these same churches were full of youth being trained to fight for justice in a Christian-based, nonviolent way.

I want the youth in my church to have memories of a youth group where they may not have had the biggest budget or the largest youth room, but where they witnessed young people just like them getting close to Jesus. And, hopefully, they will get close to Jesus themselves. I don’t want them to see the church as just a place where old people connect to God through sermons, prayers and songs and couldn’t care less if they connected with anyone under the age of thirty. I want young people to remember more than pizza, crazy games, van rides, messages and prayers. I want them to see the church as a refuge, as a welcoming community that points them to a loving Savior on a level they truly understand, without watering down the authentic message of the gospel. I want them to become adults who have great memories of how the church invested in them as young people. I want them to remember intimate moments with Christ that led them to an authentic realization of who they truly are. I want to be used by God to ignite a revolution in the lives of young people!


  • Revolt: to turn from; to take your allegiance from one and give to another.
  • Revolution: a complete change.
  • Revolutionize: to make a drastic change.

Youth are daily bombarded with messages that keep them from being everything God created them to be and pull them away from making a positive impact on the world. Violence, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and drug and alcohol abuse are just some of the daily challenges they face, and being active in a youth group doesn’t protect them from these struggles. This is exactly why there is a need for a youth revolution.

Before I scare you away with the term revolution, I’d better define it. When some people think of revolution, they think of rebellion against what is right. But what about rebelling against the things that seek to destroy the lives of young people? A revolt is about taking your allegiance from one ruler and giving it to another. In this context, revolt means moving our young people’s allegiance away from messages, systems and people that destroy them and placing it in God, who loves them and has an awesome plan for their lives that begins right now.

We must take this warfare approach to youth ministry because we are fighting a spiritual battle. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:12-13). A revolutionary approach that sees ministry as a spiritual battle is the first step in getting beyond a simple youth-group approach and moving toward a holistic approach that provides relevant and practical models of youth ministry.

In this first chapter I have begun with a biblical foundation, and from this foundation I will provide various ways of looking at youth ministry from a broader perspective, using the words revolutionary, holistic, courageous, warfare, leadership, multiethnic, serving and collaboration. We will go further in depth about these various approaches to youth ministry in following chapters, but it’s important to know that the holistic approach serves as the overarching concept, bringing meaning to all the other approaches. Thus, as we talk about the other six approaches, we will do so with the holistic approach as our foundation.

I believe that God has given young people everything they need to build his kingdom and make a revolutionary change in the world. To tap into this potential and influence those around them, youth need only to come into relationship with God through Jesus Christ and embrace his love and purpose for them through the empowerment of a Spirit-filled life.

The truth of Christianity as a revolutionary change of the heart, which should lead to revolutionary change in the world, is the same truth it has always been. But how we call and nurture youth in the revolution may have to change. Youth must be reached out to, nurtured and empowered. Moving beyond a youth-group approach and into a holistic approach that st arts a youth revolution may require a change in how you see youth ministry and young people in general, but it’s not impossible.

Let me help you see how.