This is the second post in a series on developing urban student leadership. To read part one, click here.

When I was a youth pastor in Chicago I learned a lot about the neighborhood just by walking around. One day, early on in my time there, I ran into one of the local drug dealers on one of my walks. I knew this man was successful in recruiting young people to his operation. Children as young as six years old, all the way to teenagers, would pick up and deliver his product.

This man recognized me as the youth pastor from the corner church and greeted me politely. In response, I took the opportunity to ask him about his recruitment strategy. “You know Rev,” he said. “When the kids leave their homes in the morning to go to school they see me. And when they come home from school they see me. When they go to the store they see me. When they play in the park they see me. When they wait for the bus they see me. But when they want to see you, they got to go to your church.”

His statement was convicting. It changed my strategy for reaching children and youth. He gave me a new understanding of the power of presence.

Simply being present does many things. It demonstrates to kids that we’re interested in them. It shows them that they are important to us. It gives them an opportunity to see what we are like, not just to hear what they’re to be like. When we practice the power of presence in our students’ lives, we have the opportunity to tell them and show them how to live.

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When I tell the young men at The Hope Center how they should respect young ladies, I also model that in how I treat my wife. They see our interactions because we spend time with the students. This gives credibility to my instruction so it’s not just rhetoric. Student leadership always begins with adult leadership. It must first be modeled.

We in the church are notorious for teaching people biblical truths without living them out before them. Sometimes it’s simply that we teach from a distance, as that drug dealer accused me of doing. Other times our actions negate our words. Authentic presence understands that

  • We are the mirrors into which young people look
  • We can’t take kids further than we ourselves have gone
  • Faith can be caught and transferred

Two years after my first encounter with our neighborhood drug dealer, he dropped into one of our evening programs where some of his would-be recruits were gathered. I walked over to him and said softly, “I took your advice.” He shook his head, obviously recalling our earlier conversation, and then walked out. My initial interaction with that man made me more committed to making sure youth see me and other adult Christian leaders as they board the bus, play in the park, go to the store and enter our churches. That’s the power of presence.

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