4 Ways to Exponentially Improve Youth Leadership Training | Daniel 1:17-20

Like the priests who took the first steps to lead Israel into the icy waters of the Jordan River (Joshua 3), young leaders today need to be apprenticed toward brave new leadership.  When you take into account the huge youth population bulges in many nations coupled with geopolitical instability likely for decades to come, vanguard student ministry organizations and churches committed to introducing more kids to Jesus must start thinking more about strategic sustainability. Strategic sustainability implies health and growth even in the midst of unpredictability. To achieve this you must have a principle-driven leadership training framework.

At the center of any strategy to influence wide swaths of young people of any nation is to identify, train, and empower younger leaders. In this post I’m not writing to just any leader, I’m addressing those young leaders, organizations, and churches out there who dream about changing the next generation with the Gospel.  As I look at young leaders in the Bible who stand out as models for us to follow today, Daniel rises to the top.


Daniel provides a clear pathway for leaders to expand their influence more broadly. We can’t rely on cultural norms to provide an incubator for basic leadership understanding anymore. Churches and mission organizations must pioneer the way and in many ways re-educate and re-train their younger leaders who want to serve. We can’t make assumptions anymore. We must have much more than mere skills training. Instead, leadership training must involve a combination of education+training+apprenticeship. That will be the foundation of strategic sustainability for student ministry organizations in a world of fracturing cultural norms.

Daniel had four remarkable qualities that broadened his leadership: COMPREHENSIVE KNOWLEDGE, CHARACTER, COMPETENCE, and an ability to CONNECT people to God by using his spiritual gifts. These four qualities are the mark of catalytic leaders. Now lets look at each of them in context…

To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. -Daniel 1:17


Knowledge is essential to leadership and has three main expressions in Daniel’s life:

  • Knowing God/Jesus personally. We can’t give away what we don’t have. Healthy leadership arises out of personal devotion to Christ.
  • Knowing the Bible comprehensively: Daniel’s Hebrew education prepared him for spiritual leadership. Leaders today who have a basic background knowledge of God’s Word are more likely to lead humbly with respect for the knowledge and decisions of our ancestors, i.e. the “ancient paths” mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.” (Jeremiah 6:16)
  • Knowing your own culture at a depth that opens the door for you to participate fully in your own society: Daniel’s three years of Babylonian education helped him understand the context and people he was called to lead and this prepared him for broad national leadership. By having exceptional cultural literacy, Daniel was prepared to participate fully in his society, even at the highest echelons of leadership. To be an effective leader in your culture you need to have the basic background knowledge necessary to fully participate in your national society. Without cultural literacy, even gifted leaders tend to stay fenced in to small arenas of influence. Cultural literacy expands the circle of influence for a leader. Local education systems should lay the foundation of cultural literacy for young people, but often these systems do not succeed in this goal. Because cultural literacy is not a distinctly “Christian” quality it may seem like an indirect way to broaden your leadership, but from experience in a myriad of cultures, I have observed that leaders who have broad influence tend to have cultural literacy* in these basic areas:
  • Cities and Governance
  • Historical Dates & Events
  • Key people who have shaped their nation
  • Religious Figures, Terms, Holidays generally spread across their nation
  • Geographical names and regions of notable interest
  • Art, Movies, Music, Media
  • Common Cultural Sayings
  • Patriotic Lore of their nation
  • Important Books & Documents regarding national heritage

As I cast vision for ways relational youthwork can explosively expand around the world, we are emphasizing more than ever the need to deepen the cultural literacy of younger leaders in each nation. We first identify local leaders who are culturally literate, and then connect these unique leaders with younger local youth leaders who need someone to educate them on what they should know about their own culture. Cultural literacy at first glance may not seem to have much to do with evangelism, but in our perspective this is the most common missing link in student ministry leadership training. The leaders who tend to widen their circle of influence have grown in cultural knowledge. So by pushing leaders to strive in this area, we believe this will expand their opportunities for evangelism as well.


At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. -Daniel 1:18

These men were later given the names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Growing in knowledge is critical as a leader, but this must be coupled with character otherwise they can get puffed up and misuse their intellectual capital for selfish gain. We help younger leaders grow in understanding Biblical ethics and moral leadership principles for decision-making. We help them establish a common-sense knowledge of what has been traditionally been accepted as right and wrong across cultures. We also help young leaders grasp the incentives and rewards for virtue-based leadership that places a high value on building a reputation for having high moral standards.


In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. -Daniel 1:20

Leaders can have a deep well of knowledge and solid character, but still lack the skill to influence and persuade people. We pour into younger leaders those critical skills that enable them to employ their knowledge of the Bible and their culture for the benefit of the people they are leading. If one doesn’t know very much then skills or tools are of little value. Critical thinking skills for example are meaningless if one doesn’t possess core Biblical and cultural knowledge as a foundation from which to solve problems and make decisions. This is why Biblical and cultural knowledge is a prerequisite for competence. Teaching skills and offering tools without proper knowledge is like giving a toddler a pocket-knife. So we build competency upon the stones of knowledge and character.


And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds. -Daniel 1:17b

Daniel connected with people relationally and then pressed into those relationships with a heart to use his spiritual gifts to serve them and connect them with God.  When a person puts their faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit empowers them with unique spiritual gifts to use for the benefit of others. Explosive growth of student ministries into new areas will require taking young leaders through spiritual gift inventories and assessments and offering them training on how a leader can excel in using their spiritual gifts to build up others. Leadership is an equipping spiritual gift (Romans 12:8). Therefore leaders need to gain understanding and skills to equip others to use their spiritual gifts to serve others.


  • What trends are you seeing among younger leaders regarding their knowledge, character, competency, and ability to use their spiritual gifts?
  • What is one step you can take to improve your leadership training this year? In what ways might you adapt your recruitment, training, and empowerment plan to move toward more strategic sustainability of your student ministry?

 * I highly recommend E.D. Hirsh’s, Cultural Literacy for more background on how to determine what cultural knowledge increases one’s ability to participate fully in his or her society.