Some Insights Into Community Experiences

Originally published August 2006.

A lot of effort gets expended to develop youth group community.  The theory is good which is why effort is expended.  When individuals of different ages, different schools, different backgrounds gather together to learn about the same God in the same youth group, community makes that experience go so much further.  We all have memories of such experiences in our own Christian faith walk, whether it was on a retreat or a Chrysalis weekend or a small group Bible study or an extended season in a youth group.  

There are two universal truths about community experiences: they come whether planned or unplanned and they come to an end no matter what you plan.

As we ponder community, start by asking yourself a few questions.  Which friends from high school do you still have now?  If you were a part of a youth group, which friends do you still have from that youth group now?  Do you cringe a bit when you think of your own behavior from those days?  Have you ever made a comment that you are nothing like who you were in high school (often ending with a "Praise God")? 

Like a lot of decisions from high school, these relationships often don't continue into adulthood.  But also like a lot of things that have formed the foundation of your life, these relationships did form you. 

Some of you may have some friends from those days.  Some of my youth from a youth ministry in the mid-1980s are still close friends even though some of them completely deny their faith today.  I recently attended a wedding for two grown youth from my current church.  Grown youth gathered from seemingly all 50 states for this wedding to honor Stephanie and Brian who spent ten years, including youth group years, to get together.

Both of these youth groups mentioned experienced emotional and powerful seasons of youth ministry.  There were memorable Holy Spirit-initiated times which could not be duplicated. I can say this as truth because I was involved.  The community was planned but community took on a much greater form than planned.  This sort of community also came to an end.

Too often though, high school friendships are more like what Jessica Alba experienced when she was a teen. As quoted by Jessica, "There was a time when it (fitting in) was hard, and I tried to fit in.  And my parents would talk me through it when I came home crying.  My grandfather and my dad would always say, 'In five years you will not care about these people.'  And then I thought about it.  I thought, you're right--in five years none of these people are going to matter.  And I was like, why am I trying to impress all these people when they're not going to have any impact on who I am as a person unless I want them to?" (Seventeen, August 2005)

Some of Alba's fitting in times came while attending a church youth group where she ended up not fitting in and eventually left.  Truth is, her grandfather's and father's advice is right.  In five years most high school friends won't matter--unless they make that teen into a person he/she didn't want to be and he/she has to live with the fruit of those decisions.  This includes youth group friends.

You know this is the truth.

I fear what we offer best (or should offer) at youth group is often sacrificed or passed over for community.  Effective Bible teaching often takes a backseat to building community.  I understand why.  Those moments of community are fun and often memorable.  They sit so well in the soul.  However we are not the Boys & Girls Club or a community center.  We are a church with the expectation of offering something about God.  We should be teaching Biblical truths in ways that teens can understand.  Community is that wonderful bonus.

Murray Brown, in an article for Youthworker Journal (July/August 2005), wrote about why youth don't want youth group community.  Please allow me to summarize his points. 

∙    "Most already have their own communities." And for many that is not the youth group.  This doesn't make the youth group unimportant.  It may be the only place they receive Bible teaching that they understand and relate to.  However, another community may better serve their social needs. 

∙    "Youth lack the motivation to develop relationships beyond their own tribe."  If their community of choice or tribe fulfills their needs of acceptance, safety, and friendship, they don't feel the need to make more real relationships with another community.  That doesn't mean they dislike the people in youth group (if that is not their tribe).  It's just that they are satisfied with what they have.

∙    "Youth lead busy lifestyles."  Another reason to not extend themselves into other lives outside of their tribe.  Some are already overly stressed.

∙    "Youth lack the skills to communicate adequately to those beyond their normal sphere of life."  We always need to remember that our teens are minors.  They are protected by laws because they are not yet capable of processing decisions, emotions, and morals of adult things.  As we grow in adulthood, we have developed skills to welcome those outside our sphere.  Our teens haven't yet. 

I'd like to add a few more:

∙    Today's youth are also finding community online.  They have friends they consider to be true friends online.  They have two-way conversations on a regular basis with people they may or not have met.  In youth group we often have linear conversations beginning and ending with the youth leader. 

∙    Also due to the anonymity of the internet, community is easier because there is not a face attached.  True feelings and opinions can be shared because there is not the face-to-face contact.

∙    Youth groups are often run in a different circle from their school.  Youth group adds another community we want them to be a part of.  Some youth choose youth group as their favorite community of choice and thrive no matter what you plan.  Some won't thrive no matter what you plan.  Dr. Christian Smith found in his study, The National Study of Youth and Religion, "If teenagers have socially significant relationships that cross at church, that cross with other families of believers, then that helps out a lot (having a growing faith).  But many teenagers have their socially significant relationships almost exclusively through school; even if they have friends at church, the youth group is a satellite out there on the fringe of their life, rather than at the center."  (Ethics and Public Policy Center, February 15, 2005)

∙    Community memories are Holy Spirit happenings.  You plan.  Sometimes things click.  Sometimes you've got 15 long dead minutes.  Sometimes you have seasons of youth group community.  These are memorable.  When looking back with that hindsight knowledge, you know that you planned but what happened was truly a Holy Spirit happening.

∙    Community memories most often do not come from entertainment, attractive and flashy youth programs and/or youth rooms.  Group Magazine ran a survey (The Cool Survey) and found that only 21 percent of youth group kids said that "a fast- paced, high-tech, entertaining ministry approach" was why they came to youth group.  "A welcoming atmosphere where you can be yourself" was chosen by 73 percent.  Too many youth workers spend too much time creating that "experience" which I believe is not all that important to teens.  And it certainly doesn't create community.  It creates spectators.

∙    Community is a season.  A Chrysalis weekend always creates community.  But you can't "set up tents" in that community forever.  And as with the seasons of living on Planet Earth, every season is needed.  Even the winter times.

So what do you do with all this insight?  Personally I do strive for community in the youth group at my church.  But I won't compromise the Bible teaching to do that.  In the busy suburban-living area of Washington DC I often don't have the luxury to build the youth group community but I never plan it out and I rely more on the Holy Spirit to surprise us with some times of community.  Who knows, one of them may grow into a long season. 

Hopefully this Pair of Cleats has stirred some new and realistic thoughts into your head to help build the right youth group community for your youth group.