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

Youth Ministry Topics Building Friendliness and Community

Building Community

Mark Tittley

The commitment level model of youth ministry* will not function effectively in a youth group that is not welcoming of newcomers. A number of factors affect growth in a group - but a group that does not reach out, invite and assimilate newcomers will never see a flow of young people from being unchurched, to seekers, to converts, to believers, to workers and to minister. It is essential that youth leaders work on creating community within the group that will be a powerful draw card in the process of assimilating unchurched youth.

Kevin Ford in Jesus for a New Generation, Page 210, quotes Dan Webster, who says of Generation Xers:

I have met very few Thirteeners who actually hate God. When I meet someone who has an aversion to church, I sometimes ask why. With the exception of the few satanists I've encountered, no one says, I avoid church because I hate God.' Instead, they say, 'Church is boring.' Or 'Christians are hypocrites.' So I respond. 'Well, gee, I go to church, and that's not my experience. If you could go to a church that was not boring, and where the Christians were not hypocritical, where people talked directly and honestly about life, where you got a chance to see how God intersects with human lives - do you think you might be interested?' Without exception, they all answer, 'Yes.' Thirteeners need a place where they can belong so they can figure out their identity - a place to relate to other people so they can hear their story reflected back to them - a place where they're needed so they can have an impact on their world - a place where they can think through their issues and sort through their feelings in a safe environment. Thirteeners truly want a place where they can experience the presence of God and where they can feel connected to him - a place where they can learn and grow and process their doubts about God in an accepting environment.

1. The Value of Community

Biblical Community, as Lawrence Richards describes it in his book Youth Ministry: Its Renewal in the Local Church, is the dynamic where

in Jesus Christ every Christian has been welcomed by God...as a member of Christ's body. Love recognizes this shared relationship to Jesus Christ, and eagerly welcomes other believers into the inner circle of friends who love and care for one another as members of a closely knit family. This love is marked by in-depth involvement of believers in the lives of one another. This love is marked by an active sharing of one another's life and experiences. Love in the body encourages, bears burdens, welcomes and admonishes, and performs a host of other simple ministries that cannot possibly exist without a deep knowing of others as individuals.

In other words, when properly aligned, community provides support for the entire body and insulates the sensitive network of interpersonal relationships that connect the individual members of a group.

2. The Barriers to Community

Constant turnover due to promotion and graduation, unstable and mobile family systems, busy academic, extracurricular, and social schedules combine with teenage self-centeredness to make community building difficult. Misalignment can lead to unhealthy symptoms in a youth group. Three disorders in particular must be diagnosed and effectively treated when their symptoms are recognized in order for community to be experienced (these disorders were mentioned in the Fall 1993 issue of Youthworker Journal, an article entitled: The Anatomy of Community):

A. Cliques

Cliques are probably the most prevalent social structure of adolescence. A clique is normally defined as a group of people who link themselves together so tightly that no one else can gain access to them. Youth are naturally drawn to small networks of relationships based on common interests, personality types, appearance, and social status. These healthy interpersonal relationships are what make youth groups attractive to teenagers. So cliques exist because they offer their members acceptance, protection, and security as they insure that youth will never be left alone or unappreciated. Most youth view cliques in a positive light and define the clique to which they belong as "my best friends." Cliquitis is a condition that causes interpersonal relationships to become ingrown, exclusive, and unattractive. Community is crippled when a tight group sends loud, clear signals that say, "You're not welcome in this circle of friends". Outsiders, visitors, and new attenders are especially perceptive to the presence of cliquitis.

Cliques are a particular feature of ministry to teenagers because:

(a) High schools have more students than junior schools - there is a larger population from which to choose friends. This encourages the development of more distinct friendship groups or cliques.

(b) High schoolers are more involved in extracurricular activities - special activities draw kids into new and well-defined subgroups. So football players hang out with other football players, and artistic or musical youth hang out together.

(c) Cliques offer status and self-esteem - status is the fuel that fires the clique engine. In standard five there are few stable cliques and no clique that appear to have more status than others. In standard six, the cliques are more stable and a hierarchy is beginning to emerge. By standard seven or eight, there is a clearly defined hierarchical system of stable cliques.

The negative effects of cliques include:

(1) Youth begin to define their identity by the parameters of the clique - for example they begin to believe that attending a certain school, or playing a certain sport actually determines how much they are worth.

(2) Cliques stunt individual growth as they withdraw into themselves and become too comfortable to change.

(3) Cliques harm the larger group because a small group of people try to force the larger group to do what they want to do. If the larger group ignores the clique, the clique becomes unproductive and refuses to participate. When cliques dominate a youth group, they can control the entire group. Some group members, if they are excluded from one or more of these inner circles, may feel so left out that they leave or refuse to participate at all.

B. Sibling Conflict

Siblingus confictus is a condition of emotional and spiritual immaturity that can debilitate community in a youth group. Bickering brothers and sisters may cause other group members to wonder how their group can ever be the family of God when even the biologically related members can't get along. Vulnerability, as expressed in acts of confession, displays of emotion, praying out loud or at a public altar; or sharing a controversial viewpoint may not take place in the presence of a sibling for fear of ridicule or exposure to parents. Invisible walls of silence such as these may be more deadly to community than open warfare.

Youth ministry can provide a context in which this condition can begin to find wholesome resolution. Games, cooperative learning environments, and service projects, for example, can involve siblings together in positive experiences that can translate into the home setting. Even loving confrontation in light of the biblical call to unity as members of the body of Christ can provide inspiration for growth in Christian maturity. Family events can promote harmony and provide an environment where siblingus conflictus gets a rest.

C. School Rivalry

This is a community-threatening disorder reflecting misalignment. Subtle symptoms include unintentional avoidance of students from rival schools, playful putdowns of other group members based on their school loyalty, and good-natured taunting by the victors following an inter-school sports contest. Blatant outbreaks include deliberate exclusiveness, vicious verbal attacks, and even brawling--all precipitated based on the different school districts in which group members happen to live. The Christian youth group is an arena where such artificial barriers of prejudice can be directly and biblically addressed. Paul's scolding of the childish Corinthians could be appropriately paraphrased as follows:

"For the body is not one school district but many. If the Spartan should say, ?Because I am not a Viking, I am not a part of the youth group'; it is not for this reason any less a part of the youth group. If the whole body were from Randburg High, where would the Northcliff High students be? But now God has placed individuals from each school district in the youth group, just as he desired, that there should be no division in the body, but that students should have the same care for one another." (See I Corinthians 12:14-27)

One way we have addressed this disorder of community is by decorating the youth room with the colours and logos of all the schools represented. Our statement is intentional and clear: School spirit is encouraged, but everyone belongs and is equal in this place.

3. The Development of Community

Community in youth ministry doesn't happen by accident. It's the result of a sound philosophy of youth ministry and intentional person-centered programming on the part of a leader who is committed to building the body of Christ. Perceptive youth workers are aware of the symptoms and conditions that indicate a problem related to community exists. Upon the diagnosis of cliquitis, siblingus conflictus, or schoolosis rivalrhea, leaders must be prepared, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, to administer treatments to remedy the particular disorder. As in chiropractic medicine, treatment may take the form of adjustments, therapy, or both.

A. Making Adjustment

By adjustments I mean major philosophical or sweeping programming revisions that address the problems of dysfunctional community. What is needed is a better balance of service projects and fun activities. Another way that a group can promote community is an intentional move away from competition in programming philosophy. Students' lives are already filled with competition at school with sports, grades, music groups, drama parts, and relationships--why pit group members against one another on a weekly basis to see who wins a prize? Even games meant for crowd breaking and fun can become divisive when the competition aspect is overemphasized. If cliquitis and schoolosis rivalrhea is a problem in a group, leaders must become philosophically intentional about how they divide the large group into small groups for various activities. Other adjustments may involve the leaders themselves realigning their ministry style with objectives.

B. Considering Therapy

Therapy is day-to-day treatment--the creative tools and practical techniques that encourage healing and strengthen community. One form of therapy in our group, for example, is a ?Barnabas Board' upon which teens can graffiti words of encouragement or record accomplishments by other members of the youth group. Another form of therapy that has been meaningful was the creation and framing for display of our youth group covenant. The covenant outlines the biblical ideals of our group, and community is an integral element in several statements (Cliquitis and schoolosis rivalrhea are directly addressed). Regular signing ceremonies provide the opportunity to keep the ideals of the covenant before the youth group.

C. Dealing Directly with Cliques

People who work with youth groups have a difficult time seeing the good in cliques and spend much time and energy trying to figure out how to break them up. In reality, it can't be done. Good or bad, cliques are here to stay and are a necessary part of growing up. They must be considered a given of the adolescent years, and generally, a youth worker will have greeter success working with and around them, rather than against them.

It is possible, however, to reduce the negative or destructive aspects of cliques in a youth group. Provide, for example, as many opportunities as possible for group interaction and participation. Any time the group is doing something together--playing games, talking to each other, working on a project together relationships between cliques are likely to improve. Group interaction also allows "outsiders" the opportunity to find close friends as well. But when kids come into a meeting in their cliques, sit together in their cliques, listen to or participate in the program in their cliques, and then leave in their cliques, there is little chance that conditions will improve. Rather than lecturing the group on the evils of cliques, involve the kids in a variety of activity-centred experiences that require communication and cooperation with each other. A small youth group makes it possible to involve everyone together in activities that may not eliminate cliques entirely, but may give everyone a chance to feel accepted and included.

As youth grow up their self-esteem gradually goes up. When this happens, cliques are less important. But in the meantime, you're stuck with cliques. And that means your kids are actively alienating others almost all the time. Jolene Roehlkepartain (Why Kids Clique, Jr. High Ministry, April/May 1992) and Christine Suguitan (Expert Clique-Busting Strategies, Jr. High Ministry, December 1992/January 1993) suggest the following ways to battle the clique monster and help youth move out beyond their comfort zones:

(1) Plan Interactive-learning Activities

Competition tends to enforce the "us vs. them" mind-set that is fundamental to cliques. So plan activities that force kids to work together with people they'd normally avoid. Make cooperation one of your ministry goals. For example, form groups of four for a 'Foot-Washer Scavenger Hunt" Make a list of 10 to 20 quick ways a small group could serve others, then let your kids loose to see which group can do the most activities in 30 minutes.

(2) Extract Kids from their Normal Environments

You can encourage your kids to form ?one big clique' by planning frequent outings together. If you can get kids away from the church and their regular haunts, you can break down the walls built by cliques. For example, take your kids on an overnight rafting trip. Give each trip participant an important responsibility to fulfill. Put kids in situations in which they're required to depend upon each other. Teach them the importance of acceptance and forgiveness.

(3) Build Communication

Youth make quick judgments about each other and label each other, and then they are unable to see past those labels. Leaders should talk with youth and help them to develop open and listening communication that will see others points of view and remove bitterness.

(4) Teach Youth Friend-Making skills

Most youth friendships happen by default. Youth just don't know how to make friends. Leaders should teach them how to actively listen, affirm others' gifts and look for opportunities to serve each other. By developing these basic skills youth will find their high school years easier and less stressful.

(5) Emphasize New Friendships

To foster cross-clique relationships. I planned several meetings around the "friendship" theme. We talked about why cliques and gangs form. We did role-plays and had one person write a skit about cliques.

(6) Develop Leaders

Clique leaders usually have natural gifts that can benefit the entire group. Encourage and appreciate their talents by recruiting them to help you. They can make phone calls, take offerings, give announcements and organize some aspects of your meeting. When you ask them to help, they gain self-respect. And this cuts into their need to lead a clique. After a while, these leaders are usually willing to do what it takes to bring everyone together.

(7) Draw Out Shy Followers

Cliques are led by strong leaders; but they're made up of mostly quiet followers. The followers reap security in belonging to the group. It takes too much effort for them to break in elsewhere, and they may be too afraid to try. To draw out these followers, build their security by increasing their self-confidence. Make special efforts to talk to them before and after your meetings. Compliment them openly. Ask them to do tasks as honoured assistants.

(8) Practice Greeting Visitors

How will your junior highers act the next time a new kid comes to class? Help them beat the fear that holds them back. Show them by example how to greet new people. Then have them practice by taking turns saying "hi" to someone you designate as the "new kid," then starting a conversation.

(9) Reward Youth Who Reach Out

Openly appreciate those who don`t get caught in the web of cliques. Make the most of their thoughtful examples. Encourage talking to others by giving a prize to those who remember the names of last weeks visitors. This will show your kids that welcoming visitors is a priority.

(10) Pray

Pray for the love referred to in Colossians 3:14: "And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity." Have youth pray together in designated small groups. Pray as a class for God's love and unity to flow. Or assign prayer buddies to pray for each other through-out the week. Facing struggles together is the greatest relationship builder of all.

*To understand Mark Tittley's concept of the "Commitment Model" of youth ministry, see his articles at http://www.youth.co.za/model/main.htm


Mark Tittley is lecturer in youth ministry at BTC Southern Africa http://www.btc.co.za/youth/index.htm

For a full profile of Mark, see http://www.youth.co.za/model/mark.htm

To see other fine articles professor Tittley has written, go to his website at http://www.youth.co.za/model/index.htm

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Direct any comments and requests for permission to use this paper to
Mark Tittley at mark@btc.co.za