Don’t Train Others, Develop Them

A year ago I had the privilege to help a national youth ministry organization evaluate how well they were doing at getting students engaged with Scripture. I was able to visit face to face with dynamic Christian student leaders at universities all across the country, men and women who had an established history of effective peer ministry.

There was very little formal training, but an emphasis on “learning by doing.”
When I sat with Jason, a student at a large California school, it all clicked for me. He was sharing why he was able to have such an effective ministry and it resonated like a grand chorus with all of the other stories I had heard from these remarkable student leaders: They knew how to lead because they were asked to lead. They learned how to share their faith…. by sharing their faith. There was very little formal training, but an emphasis on “learning by doing.” It contrasted with my default approach to teaching and it certainly stood in contrast to how I’ve seen most youth ministries approach training opportunities.

I finished that project with a new principle that has changed how I teach, mentor, and work with younger leaders:

Don’t train people, develop them.

We default to presenting information, maybe even with a Prezi, for how we train and teach. Training is often code for “presenting information” with some small discussion on the side, maybe around tables. No matter how creative we are or the media we use, it’s still “stuff you need to know” in nature. And too often our teaching and development of others stops there. I think there are two main problems with how most default to training:

  1. Training limits diversity. By it’s nature, a rigid training program assumes there is a single “right” way to do something. It is efficient to train, but it limits your returns and squelches the potential for rich input from the people you are teaching.
  2. Training is usually a one-way conversation that keeps going that way… out the other ear. For those who’ve had systematic theology or sociology in college or seminary, the retention is usually limited because students never had to talk much in those classes. When Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton conducted the National Study for Youth and Religion, they commented that it seemed like the first time teenagers were asked to talk about their faith. What if we got people to simply talk more about what we’re teaching? If we did, we’d be able to truly see if they “got it” or not.

The Bible talks about training. Luke 6:40 says, “Everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” The writer of Hebrews wrote that “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (5:14). The word for trained meant to restore, complete, or to complete thoroughly. It includes an assumption that regular action would be included as well. My favorite commentary definition described training as “Christian character being worked out.”

I know I’m splitting hairs here a bit and creating an artificial difference that may not exist. That’s the definition of a blog post, isn’t it! But seriously folks, too often in youth ministry, our students don’t do something because they don’t know how. It’s not that they don’t want to do something, they don’t know how to do it, what it looks or feels like to do it, and they won’t risk the socially awkward step to try.

Sometimes we need to train, though. When I teach pastoral skills for youth workers and hospital chaplains, I teach very specific practices and skills, even training students on “5 Things to Say” for visiting people in the hospital. When teaching cross-cultural ministry, there is a group of topics and tips I want people to know. The kicker is that, though helpful, these don’t develop people and don’t matter unless they’re put into practice (see point #2 above).

How this has Changed my Work

So what’s happened to me since that October day with Jason in California? I’ve noticed a few changes in my work over the past few month. These have allowed me to relax a bit and know that often more learning is taking place than I think. I think there are 5 takeaway’s that I can identify that serve as axioms for me now in my work in training and developing others:

  1. Don’t assume that people know until they act on what they know.
  2. Rarely use lecture for longer than 15 minutes without changing methods.
  3. Use interactive methods (especially discussion and buzz groups) more often to make sure everyone is talking about your content.
  4. Turn people loose to act on their knowledge and see their Christian character being “worked out” in real life.
  5. Take the role of a coach versus that of an expert.

It’s exhilarating to see youth succeed in life, faith, and peer ministry. The fun part for all of this is that, well, it’s fun! Try a few new methods here and there, see how they go, and give your training new life and potential! You’ll find that much of the fruit of your ministry happens in the “on the way” or “as they went” moments of being together that looks a lot like how Jesus and the apostles developed people.

Header image adapted from a photo provided through creative commons by Tristan Nitot.

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