Every adolescent in the USA longs for community, belonging, and a sense of identity.
I am arguing that youth group needs to function as a tribe that is a safe and welcoming community and has a vibrant and distinct culture.
Chris Folmsbee in A New Kind of Youth Ministry talks about this idea of “reculturing”. He suggest we need to reculture the way we do student leadership, discipleship, missions, and outreach. I think a way to reculture our youth ministries is by starting with rethinking the elements within our youth programs. It is my belief that a possible way to reculture our youth programs involves creating community and clearly defining what is the mission of your youth program. We have to reculture the current culture of youth programming.
First, I love viewing youth group as a tribe. In the general sense, a tribe is a group of people who enjoy being around each other and share life with each other who all live in the same place. Tribes have this sense of fluidity and flexibility that generates this natural kinship. Being a tribe just does not happen over night. Developing a tribe takes time and time to invest in relationships, which as a result builds a strong communal bond. A tribe happens more organically and naturally rather than artificially, which is why authentic and natural community needs to be at the center of youth programs.
Second, a youth tribe needs to have a sense of community. Community aims at making others share their lives with others and making individuals find their identity and belonging. Generating student community in the post-modern world is so fragmented and isolated; and it is not natural to get to know someone just because. I have found that students actually feel awkward physically interacting with other students because 60% of their communication is done through technology, namely text messaging, emailing, facebooking, and IMing. Our 21st century students are socially awkward and socially illiterate. I am amazed at how many students do not have any social skills and/or any social awareness.
Pete Ward in Liquid Church argues that the art of arranging community has not died, but has changed. The ways to generate community in the post modern world for students is tough and solely relies on trust and time invested. Students still want to be with each other, they still feel that they need significant relationships, and they still want to make a difference in other people’s lives. So youth groups need to be focused around relationships and people, and not a tight program schedule.
Every youth group needs to exhibit a type of koinonia (Greek word for fellowship) that cares for, encourages, and accepts everyone. A koinonia that encourages everyone to share life with others and others to share life with you. Koinonia goes after realness, not fakeness. Lofink in Jesus and Community communicates that we are the people of God and God wants the gathered people of God to continue thriving and working out their salvation TOGETHER. The key to creating student communities is carving out space in youth programs for them to talk and interact with others and with the Biblical text.
When youth ministries attempt to arrange community, there are two problems. The first problem is that too many youth groups attempt to create a communal bond in a short period of time, which may come across as artificial. Unfortunately, when students show up to youth group, there is not this magical bond between the students clusters. Youth pastors try to do a community building exercise when Timmy (the skater) hates Bobby (the surfer) and Katie (the dancer) dislikes Becky (the gossip) and Sam (the 12 grader) does not like Joe (the 9ther grader). Our wonderful community building exercise turns into a trainwreck and destroys the entire youth meeting. Youth pastors cannot expect immediately community building results, when doing a 20 minute community building exercise that will make everyone excited to be with each other.
Attempting to generate a natural communal bond takes time and means the youth pastor has to work hard at creating environments that help kids connect with kids who they typically would not connect with. I think a lot of this work has to be done outside of the church walls. Youth pastors need to have more events in the local community. For example, during a youth group meeting the group needs to go to the pizza parlor, or the movie theater, or the local coffee shop, or the burger joint and just get to know one another, naturally. No agenda no teaching lesson, just a simple hang out which will create (hopefully) a few commonalities between the students. Also, the youth pastor needs to be hanging out with students outside of the church walls. Students need to know that their youth pastor is normal and can function in a public place without always being super holy. Remember if youth pastors meet student’s on their own turf, yp not only win big points, but get to really see into their student’s world and who knows we may meet a few of the “unsaved” friends.
The second problem is that youth pastors love to hear themselves talk and pontificate their deep theological convictions. Youth pastors need to stop talking and need to start asking more questions to the students. We simply need to shut up and do more listening. The youth pastor needs to come across as not talking to them, but with them.
How do we know if we are successful in creating community? The students feel as though they fit in and are accepted right when they enter the church doors.
Third, each youth group across America needs an identity. Youth groups need to a specific thing that makes them different than what the students are accustom too. How would you define your youth group? What sets your youth group apart from other youth groups? What does your youth group value? What is your mission? What are your theological values that are represented in your youth group meetings?
I am basically saying pick a theological topic and make that topic a central focus. For example, a youth pastor may want to help students live the best kind of life by helping them discover their identity, find belonging and take part in God’s mission to restore all things. So by having a central theological mission in your group invites every student to know what the youth meeting is about and why they attend the youth meeting.
To have a vibrant and unique youth group culture means to have rituals, values, focus, coherency, and traditions that make students feel as though they are a part of something.
To look at youth group as a vibrant, communal, and radical group for Jesus may motivate students to take PRIDE in their TRIBE. Youth group is not something the students attend rather youth group is who they are and what they stay for as Kingdom followers.