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Youth Ministry Outreach: Creating “Third Spaces” That Are Welcoming and Warm

I know this may seem weird but I am always worrying about what an unchurched student thinks when he/she attends a “church youth ministry program”.

For example, a few weeks ago, I observed two new middle school students attend and enter a church environment for the very 1st time in their life.  I just sat back and watch them process their 1st “church experience.”  They were really quiet and non-responsive.

I wondered:

–  What are they thinking?  Are they overwhelmed?  Do they think church youth group is stupid and irrelevant?

–  Do they think the Biblical message matters for how they live their life?  In fact do they even respect the Bible?

–  What do they think about the worship, especially the lyrics they are suppose to sing along with?

–  Do they feel included or judged?

–  What adults have greeted them and made them feel important? Did any other students meet and greet them?

I am learning more and more that it is okay to constantly be considering the unchurched student who shows up to our  church youth group environments.

As youth workers I think it is wise to be asking the question of:  How can our youth ministry create an environment that will be safe for a student who says No to church and No to God?

It doesn’t matter what youth outreach strategies you adopt: Inside/Out approach (go on to the unchurched students’ turf) or the Outside/In approach (unchurched students come to our turf (church)).  But what does matter is architecting places and spaces where unchurched students feel comfortable with Jesus following students and leaders.

When I was in Los Angeles, CA (circa 2004-2005) I was on mission to figure out how to architect warm, nonjudgemental, accepting and inclusive environments that communicated to unchurched students that they could BE in “church environments” and not feel weird or judged.  In my pursuit, I stumbled upon Mosaic Church (aka Erwin Mcmanus’ church) where I learned (by visiting Mosaic and taking a class with Erwin) how they were able to create spaces and places that highly encourage both believers and nonbelievers to fellowship together.  The major value that Erwin injected in Moasic’s culture was architecting places where unchurched people didn’t have to believe in order to belong. Erwin articulated that the church/youth group is often a 1st space where no outsiders are allowed.  The 2nd space is a generic set of relationships where not everyone is like you, yet there’s still relationships.  The 3rd space is where there’s no relationships, and there won’t be unless invited.

Third spaces are when nonbelievers feel included in “neutral” spaces.  Third spaces allow students to belong before they have to believe.

The problem is…..  we (myself included) immediately want unchurched student to behave before they “officially” belong.  I get it… it is so much easier not paying attention to the unchurched student because they don’t talk like us, believe like us, pray like us, behave like us, dress like us, and think like us.  Unchurched students make professional paid Christian church youth pastors feel real uneasy because unchurched students don’t know the church rules and their worldview and behaviors are way more risky.


Could you imagine if students felt like they already belonged before they had to  behave? And these unchurched students were immediately  surrounded and greeted by adult who care?

Chap Clark writes in Hurt:

“Today’s adolescents are, as a lot, indescribably lonely.” (p. 69)

“Midadolescents believe that few if any adults genuinely care about them.” (p. 68)

“Adolescents have suffered the loss of safe relationships and intimate settings that served as the primary nurturing community for those traveling the path from child to adult… (50)

Today’s postmodern students long to belong!  They need places where trusted-committed adults genuinely care for them.

My point is:  create 3rd space(s) that communicate to an unchurched student they belong and that they will be cared for before they have to believe.  Create a place for others – where people different from us feel welcome.

How To Create 3rd Spaces in Youth Ministry:

–  make all service mission trips open to all students.

–  recruit and train leaders to be incarnational witnesses who unconditionally love and accept any type of student.  It is important to teach leaders how to think incarnationally.  Feel free to read my posts about the theological understanding of incarnational outreach and strategies in youth outreach.  I highly recommending reading Pete Ward’s book:  God at the Mall to better understand how to create environments that will engage any student.

–  look for neutral places and spaces in the community.  i.e. coffee shops, mall, school campuses, beach, bowling alley, restaurants

–  intentionally create time in youth ministry programs that acknowledges, affirms and invites unchurched students to belong.

–  create church environments that are relevant to any teen.  Think through your teaching style (especially your language) and environment athesetics.

–  visit a local young life club and observe how they program around the unchurch student.  Essentially their programming is centered around the non-believer.  Young life is brillant in how they create Third Spaces.  Their third spaces are highly relational.

–  do events outside of the church walls and invite every student in the community.  i.e. concerts, BBQs, bowling nights, dodgeball tournaments, sporting events, laser tag, arcades, etc. Remember the goal is building relationships with unchurched students not whacking them with Bible verses.  I love third spaces in youth ministry because it highly encourages FUN and CRAZINESS!!!!!!!!


Questions I Want To Ask Youth Workers:

–  Do you also worry about what unchurched students think about your “youth ministry environments”?  What is the general feedback when an outsider attends your youth group?  How often are you thinking about the unchurched students in your youth ministry programming?

–  Do you also have a tendency to get students to believe before they officially belong?  Or do you allow unchurched students to fully participants in your youth ministry before they accept Jesus?

–  What other third places examples would you recommend that encourages the unchurched and churched students to intersect?  What are some neutral spaces in your church environment and in your community?



About Jeremy Zach

Orange XP3 Specialist | Youth Worker | MDIV | Hot Sauce Addict | Dr. Dre Beats Lover

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  1. Great post Jeremy and very good suggestions!

  2. Hey man that’s good stuff! I apreciate the perspective, I’ve always agreed with what was said, but you articulated it so much better then I could! Keep up the good work!

  3. i’ve been at my church for over 5 years now. we’ve recently added singing to our weekly gatherings and i’m wondering if it has unintentionally driven away some specific students who used to regularly attend our youth group who were largely “unchurched.” have you seen this happen or heard of it happening? not really sure what to do about this…

    • @Chad-
      Yeah I have heard it happening and it has happened to me. What type of “singing” were you doing? Also what genre of music?

      When I was in LA music was such a big deal. In fact, if we didn’t play the right genre of music students would straight up leave right when we started playing it. These students were very musically entitled. They thought their style of music was the way, truth and the life. So I decided to can it all an teach on worship through music and slowly bring back the music once the students understand the point of worship music is to glorify God.

      Also probably like 8 years ago Tim Hughes'(famous worship leader) youth group had the reverse problem. Their worship was so good students started to idolize it and only come for the music. Tim and his leadership team can the music portion of the program in order to emphasize why worship through music is important.

      Chad…I would love if you told me a little bit more about your context…..would you consider the program (where the music is playing) to be an “entry level” program?

      • the question about whether this is “entry level” is interesting to me. i’m not really sure how to answer that. in my 5 years, our weekly program has both been attended at times by nothing but “church kids” and has been overwhelmed by visitors or unchurched kids. in some ways, it is entry level, and in others it is well beyond that. i get a hint of, “Is your program discipleship or outreach oriented?” and i’m not a fan of that dichotomy.

        basically, i ready your post (which is great BTW!) and it seemed to me that when we finally added “singing” to our regular program, we drove some kids away who were out on the fence regarding faith.

        i’m not ready to scrap singing, but sort of wondering where it fits in the mission of leading kids to lifelong relationships with Jesus Christ.

  4. Chad- Got ya. Sounds like a cool-complex problem to have. In my mind, I see youth ministry programming like a funnel. The top of the funnel is the entry point and the bottom is students being assimilated into the church. There must be an overall commitment to connecting the students to the community of faith. I see evangelism and discipleship as connected and not separated.

    i agree… scrapping singing would seem to be a stretch. what types of songs are you singing?

  5. we are singing contemporary worship songs like we would sing in church for our high schoolers and a few of the “campy” flavored songs for our junior highers.

  6. I enjoyed your intriguing words. excellent contribution. I hope you release many. I will continue watching

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