"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Building Friendliness and Community

In Search of Friendly Youth Groups

How to Build a Friendly Youth Group

Steve Miller

In Search of Friendly Youth Groups

Even with my notoriously poor memory I vividly recall an incident almost 30 years ago, where as a high school student I visited a local youth ministry. I immediately found that I was the lone band member in a jock/preppie-dominated meeting. I felt intensely alone in that crowd, ignored by all, leaning on a fence, trying desperately to look casual while each pre-meeting minute ticked by like an eternity. I have no idea how well the program went. It didn't matter. I wasn't returning.

Although I'm an incurable student of youth ministry, occasionally an idea strikes me with such force that I simply can't get it off my mind for months, even years. This year, Group dropped the bombshell on me with a study detailing the supreme importance of acceptance, friendliness and quality relationships to students as they consider a church. (From now on I'll refer to all three qualities as "friendliness.") Initially, they appear simple and obvious, yet upon deeper reflection both profound and often unexplored in their implications to successful youth ministry. In this article I want to 1) argue for the priority friendliness, 2) suggest why we fail, 3) tell how one group makes it happen, and 4) leave you with some practical hints.

The Incredible Importance of Friendliness

Fostering friendliness in our youth groups is no peripheral issue - it's central to our task of impacting students. No matter how well we speak, train adult leaders, and plan excellent programs, a snooty and uncaring group will sabotage each event and nullify its impact.

The Group survey gave us empirical evidence to back these bold statements. Ten thousand students were asked to rate the importance of 10 factors that influence their commitment to church. Students were asked, "If you were choosing a church, how important would the following things be?" Out of 10 items, the highest ranked by far were these:

#1 - A welcoming atmosphere where you can be yourself - 73%
#2 - Quality relationships with teenagers - 70%

Compare these to the response that came in dead last:

#10 - A fast-paced, high-tech, entertaining ministry approach - 21%. (1)

Even "Engaging music and worship" lagged behind at 50%. And "Quality relationships with adults" was only 36%. Although students need significant relationships with adults, it's not a felt need for them. Bottom line? If they don't feel accepted and loved by their peers, they're not coming back.

The priority of friendliness/acceptance/love makes perfect sense when we reflect on God's Word. "Do not judge, or you too will be judged…." (Matthew 7:1,2). "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…" (Romans 15:7). "Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus said in His great commandment (Matthew 22:39). Our assurance of salvation is based upon our love for our brothers (I Jn. 3:14). The way we serve "the least of these" (translated into youth culture = the nerds and unaccepted and needy) is the way we serve God (Matthew 25:44-46). If we possess spectacular gifts, incredible knowledge, mountain-moving faith and unsurpassed commitment, but fail to love, we're absolutely nothing (I Corinthians 13:1-3).

Implications? Developing friendliness is no side show. It's central to effective ministry. Go ahead, speak with the power of Josh McDowell, build a worship team to rival "Passion," and administrate like a Chief Operations Officer. If your group fails the friendliness test, visitors will never return. How can we motivate and train our students and adult leaders to make visitors and fringe kids feel accepted and loved?

The Obstacles to Friendliness

At first glance the solution presents itself as a no-brainer, the shortest chapter in Youth Ministry for Idiots -- Simply tell your Christian youth that it's important to be friendly. Then you can go back to the complex stuff, like preparing for the mission trip or solving the perennial problem of getting the words to praise songs to appear on the screen WHEN the verse is sung rather than AFTER. But several obstacles make the road to friendliness surprisingly challenging.

  • Low self-esteem cripples students. Some students sincerely care for others, but go into shock at the thought of talking to a peer they don't know. This vividly struck me one day when I pulled aside a member of my youth group and whispered to her, "Someone just walked into the youth room who's never attended before. You were just telling me how deeply it hurt you that some Christians don't accept you. Here's your chance to make sure it doesn't happen to someone else! Could you go welcome him and introduce him to others?" By the expression on her face, you'd have thought that I had asked her to go share the Four Spiritual Laws with Osama Bin Laden. "Who? Me?" she stammered. We outgoing youth ministers find difficulty understanding the extreme insecurity of most youth and its implications for training them to be friendly. Without understanding this huge obstacle, we'll never overcome it.
  • Self-absorbed youth can't see past their own noses. Some youth lay out their clothes on Sunday that they want to wear to the mid-week youth meeting. They enter the youth meeting thinking, "Everybody's looking at me. Don't trip. Don't say something stupid. There are the cool youth. Hang out with them. Avoid the nerd." With their attention focused exclusively on themselves, they'd fail to notice an eight foot high Aardvark playing lead guitar for the praise band, much less the first time visitor who's sitting in the back alone. Blinded to the needs of others by the mirrors they perpetually hold in front of their faces, they'll never impact others until we cure their "me-ism."
  • To students, the friendship cluster IS life. For many, to be seen talking to a lonely nerd would endanger their inclusion in the only source of security they know: their small group of friends. That's a huge risk to take.
  • Few possess the necessary skills. Especially with the breakdown of the family, most students lack basic relational skills. Many have no idea what to do or say after the initial "Hello!"
  • Most lack motivation. We've failed to inspire them with the incredible potential of friendliness.

The mandate is clear, but the obstacles are ominous. How can we overcome them?

The Acid Test - Will They Accept Him?

Andrew is my 16-year-old son. Somehow he missed some of our culture's primary values, such as getting spherical balls through hoops and wearing $100.00 tennis shoes. His t-shirt says "Anti-Crombie." He shops resale stores. He dresses like he just crawled out of some hole. He's alternative. And he loves Jesus. But that's another article.

Andrew spiked his hair neatly, put on his best black trench coat, and we set out to visit a large youth ministry with a friendly reputation - North Point Church in Metro Atlanta. We walked in separately, so that I could observe without anyone seeing a connection. As far as the preppy-dominated group could tell, he was some weird kid who got lost on his way to a metal-core concert. But they accepted him. It was wonderful to see it unfold from my hide-away in the balcony.

Student greeters welcomed him at a table strategically placed at the entranceway. They asked if he was there for the first time and offered him a name tag. Since everyone, new or regular, received a name tag, it was no turn-off. (Not until the next week did we discover that visitors got red name tags and members got blue. This subtle indicator alerted key adults and students that this guy probably needs relationships/connections/etc.)

They showed him to the youth room, which was strategically designed for relationships. In one area, 90% of the girls sat around on couches talking. The sound system pumped out music in a familiar style. Another area provided ping-pong, pool, video games and foosball for conversationally challenged students who need to do something while they connect. Predictably, 90% of the guys hung out here.

Within 15 seconds of entering, four girls spot him from the other side of the room and walk over to meet him. After some lively conversation they introduce him to his small group leader and some guys in his small group.

Now the guys take over. They get all excited about him, plotting with him how to play a practical joke on the rest of their small group. He's already starting to feel like an insider. They accompany him to the worship time, which has just started with the live band.

About this time I'm checking my watch. The meeting was supposed to start at 4:30 PM. But the program's just beginning at 5:00. Typical last minute youth ministry planning, I assume. Then it hits me: this was intentional, built-in relationship time. Most youth groups would have advertised a 5:00 PM youth meeting. At 5:00 students would arrive, get a handshake and be whisked immediately into a planned program. But this ministry believes so much that discipleship flows through relationships that they strategically program in relational time. With student leadership and adult leaders primed to relate to their students, what at first glance appeared to be 30 minutes of "down time" was actually prime ministry time. How can relationships flourish where there is no time for them to develop?

So back to the worship time. The music is comfortable, led by a guy who has a passion for worship, yet keeps his ear for style intentionally tuned to the popular youth stations. Although it's not metal core (Andrew's favorite), neither is it wimpy. It's the kind you can bounce up and down to at the beginning and close your eyes and lift your hands with at the end. Andrew loves the worship and wouldn't be embarrassed to return with his unchurched friends. Comfortable. Not foreign. The spoken message is biblical, practical and delivered in a style consistent with youth culture. The worship meeting relates well to youth culture, which says to Andrew, "You fit here. You belong." As Bill Hybels would say, it's "a comfortable place to hear a dangerous message."

The big group worship and message are not the main event, according to the youth ministers. A full 30 minutes is reserved for small groups, where each leader has time to build relationships, allow students to share about their own lives and discuss the practical implications of the message. Andrew is introduced, the practical joke goes as planned, and Andrew feels like, not just an accepted insider, but a hero. And there wasn't another alternative kid in the bunch.

After the small group is more unstructured relationship time, where students go back to the youth room and have a hotdog or barbecue sandwich as they talk, play ping-pong and connect.

Predictably, Andrew wanted to return next week. He talked about the group and his observations for a solid hour afterwards. What can this group and other friendly youth groups teach us about making acceptance/friendliness/relationships happen? Here's what I've learned:

1 - Prioritize relationships. Repeat it weekly, like a mantra, to leaders. Find creative ways to keep it before the group. One youth leader would announce each week at youth group, "Leadership team, remember 'Project Friend.'" The rest of the group had no idea what this meant. It was a cue to leaders to look around for newcomers or regulars sitting alone. Often we have great intentions, but just need reminders. I encourage student leaders to treat everyone like their visit to the youth group is a last ditch effort to find someone who cares before they end it all.

2 - Train leaders in friendliness. The youth minister can't build significant relationships with many students. Both student and adult leaders must be trained to relate and given time to make relationships happen. At North Point, adult leaders must show up for weekly training that lets out at 4:30, in time for all the leaders to be at the youth meeting as the students begin to arrive. They are challenged to contact their students weekly by either e-mail or phone and have regular get-togethers outside of church time. There's an obvious difference between groups that do things together outside of church and those that don't. We received a card this week from the small group leader inviting Andrew to a paint-ball war.

3 - Identify visitors. If nobody knows who the visitors are, you can't welcome them. With over 300 students at this meeting, a system was needed. The greeters and "My Name Is…" tags in two colors worked well.

4 - Create an environment conducive to relationships. From comfortable down-time to background music to food to couches to foosball to discussion-based small groups, friendly youth groups provide settings where relationships can flourish.

5 - Identify core students who are gifted with relationships and challenge them with how to use this gift. The youth minister spends lots of time identifying friendly students in each small group, so that when a visitor arrives, the greeters know who to take the new person to. Identify, motivate and train your friendly students to greet newcomers, draw in the strays, invite the marginal to events, and minister to those who are hurting.

6 - Help students overcome poor self-esteem, self-centeredness, etc. Teach on these concepts and champion ministry to "the least of these." Snootiness and unhealthy cliques will kill a ministry.

7 - Offer training to students who need to develop friendliness skills. Many students have no clue what to say after the initial "hello." Teaching a memorable acrostic like S.A.L.T. (School - where do you go?, Activities - involved in any clubs?, Leisure - what do you enjoy?, Take - to meet others) can help. They need to know questions to ask, how to identify common interests, the importance of eye contact, the negative impact of moose breath. Teach the entire group about biblical principles of relationships on a regular basis.

8 - Simple gestures can go a long way. Notice students. Sincerely ask how they are doing. Mean it. Wait for a response. Six sincere words uttered to best-selling author Frank Peretti as a high school student changed his life: "How you doing? You feeling okay?" Until then, he'd been mercilessly picked on and bullied. He thought nobody cared. (2) As King Solomon wrote, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue."

9 - Gather your adult and student leaders to pray for the Spirit to anoint your group with a spirit of friendliness. God wants to lead you into ideas that may not work in any group but your own.

10 - Grow wise in friendliness. Get advice from your local network of youth ministers. Continually ask your students and volunteers for ideas.

Developing friendliness is no easy matter. But if your ministry becomes a friendly haven for hurting students, prepare for some exciting ministry!

End Notes

1) Group Magazine, 05/06/01. This survey was of 10,000 students, 12 to 19 years of age, representing every area of the country and many denominational backgrounds. These kids were involved in Group's work camps. 
2) Frank Peretti, The Wounded Spirit (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), 136.

Author

Steve Miller has worked with youth for over 25 years and has written two books:  The Contemporary Christian Music Debate and the Leader's Guide to Jesus No Equal, both of which are available through this site by clicking HERE. Steve currently edits the e-letter "The Professional Youth Ministry Report" and writes youth ministry resources for Reach Out Youth Solutions at www.reach-out.org, helping with the youth ministry at North Star Church in Kennesaw, GA.

Permissions

Used my permission, Group Magazine, Copyright 2002, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.

About Group Magazine

According to David Skidmore, "Each issue is a feast for hungry youth workers." This quality magazine comes out six times per year, giving us input from others on the front lines of youth ministry. Includes lesson ideas, well-written articles, relevant news and new resources. Find them online at www.youthministry.com, where they offer lots of free online resources.