The youth ministry is a safe place where acceptance, affirmation and encouragement is experienced by all.
Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another…” (Hebrews 10:24,25a)
Being a relational youth ministry means more than keeping track of individuals and making newcomers feel welcome. A truly relational youth ministry is one in which the quality of relationships between individuals is such that young people feel safe to simply be themselves and in the process, experience genuine love and acceptance from peers and those in leadership.
Achieving this positive culture in our youth ministry is one of the most important challenges we face as leaders. Without it, youth ministries either remain superficial because young people are afraid to be honest about what they are thinking and feeling or they become cliquey, making it hard for outsiders, or anyone different from the current members, to break in.
I recall a young man who was new to our youth ministry coming on an Easter camp with us. On the final night, as our young people gathered in small groups praying for one another, he stood with a bewildered look on his face as he commented on how strange it was to him to see young people care for each other. He had experienced a number of difficulties growing up and being in a caring supportive environment was a new and profoundly moving experience for him.
Developing a positive culture is not something that happens automatically. Leaders need to proactively work to make the youth ministry a positive place for every young person.
The first step in creating such a culture is for leaders to model these values and behaviours themselves. When team members publically appreciate and encourage one another, young people notice and learn from what they see. When these leaders treat every young person with love and acceptance, regardless of how different or difficult they might be, everyone notices and in time follows their example.
In a church I once attended there was a young boy in the youth ministry who was confined to a wheelchair and was unable to speak. I noticed each Sunday how he would sit with the young people and they would care for him and include him in their conversations.
One Sunday morning the youth pastor invited him up onto the platform to affirm him for what he had accomplished in a recent youth group fundraising effort. He then proceeded to explain to the congregation the way this young boy communicated through noises and movements. As I watched the care and respect this youth pastor showed this teenage boy, I realised at least part of the reason why the young people were so accepting and including of him: it had been modelled to them week after week by this youth pastor.
Young people with disabilities pose a challenge and a wonderful opportunity to youth groups. Do all you can to show consideration to these people and look for ways to minimise the disadvantages they face. Learn about their disability and educate the young people, teaching them how best to include these young people and relate to them.
We once had a boy who was profoundly deaf coming to our youth ministry. The young people learnt to write notes to him during the small group time and he would write down his contribution to be read out by the young people. The need for such consideration and care for one person had a positive effect on the whole group.
Building a positive culture for every individual involves more than accepting young people for who they are. It also means we look for ways to offer affirmation and encouragement. I recently watched as a youth pastor publically praised a young person for an idea she had put forward months earlier. Her faith and willingness to take a risk had born fruit and while she looked a little uncomfortable at the attention she was given, I was in no doubt that inside she felt deeply affirmed.
How often do we find ourselves thinking positive thoughts about a young person but then don’t express them? Make a conscious effort to “catch young people doing something right” and affirm them when such behaviour is evident.
Small groups are potentially a wonderful tool in creating communities of care. Encourage young people to go beyond the superficial in their discussions. Make these places where it is safe to be honest and authentic and affirm young people as they start to open up about what is really happening in their lives. When someone takes a risk and reveals something of themselves, encourage the whole group to love and support them by how you sensitively respond.
Remember that encouragement, for many young people, is like an oasis in a desert of criticism. Set out to encourage young people and you will find they will want to keep coming to your youth group and will likely bring their friends. There is something contagious about an encouraging culture, particularly in a society that more easily gravitates towards putdowns, even putdowns made in fun.
This leads to another point in developing a positive youth ministry culture. You must have zero tolerance for putdowns and bullying. Again, this starts with the leaders.
At times leaders may put one another down through comments made in jest, but young people don’t always have the maturity or context to appreciate that what is said in fun has the potential to be hurtful if copied. Leaders are best advised to avoid such comments so that young people don’t follow their example and end up hurting others.
If you hear a putdown or if you witness someone being treated badly by anyone, deal with it swiftly, firmly and even publically. Let the perpetrator know that in “our youth ministry we do not treat people like that”. The message will soon spread and increasingly your youth ministry will become a safe place.
Finally, developing a positive culture means never expecting young people to do anything that might be potentially embarrassing. My daughter once told me how their youth leader asked for volunteers to come to the front for a food eating race. Once they had volunteered, the food was mixed together into a less than appetising concoction that had some nearly vomiting. She was hugely relieved that she had not been chosen to take part. Avoid doing anything that may lead to young people being laughed at.
Similarly, pressure to speak out in a group can feel embarrassing for some young people. By all means, encourage them to share go deeper but don’t pressure them in a way that might cause them anxiety or expose them to regret later.
CHECKLIST: TEN CHARACTERISTICS OF A YOUTH MINISTRY THAT HAS A POSITIVE CULTURE
- The youth ministry attracts and holds young people who find it difficult to fit in at school.
- The youth leaders model attitudes of acceptance, affirmation and encouragement between one another.
- When planning and running activities, special consideration is given to young people with disabilities.
- Young people come to understand their particular strengths and gifts and are given opportunities to use these and receive affirmation.
- Young people can expect to regularly receive positive comments about their behaviour and how they are perceived and valued.
- Putdowns, even those made with affection and in fun, are avoided.
- When bullying or putdowns occur, these are dealt with swiftly and firmly by the leaders.
- Games and icebreakers that are likely to cause embarrassment are avoided.
- Young people are not pressured to take part in activities that cause them anxiety.
- Young people are not pressured to share at levels at which they feel uncomfortable.
CCCNZ Youth offers a coaching programme for key youth leaders and youth pastors who would like help in implementing these principles as well as learning leadership skills. Contact us if you are interested.