When I first started out in youth ministry I desperately wanted the students in our church all to feel like they were part of a bigger family. I naively believed that if I could get students to show up to enough youth events, they would start to build the kind of community where everyone would feel loved and included.
However, I soon realized that even when students showed up consistently to youth group, they rarely interacted with anyone outside of their immediate group of friends. They almost instinctively and immediately formed cliques that rarely interacted with other cliques. It felt less like a family and more like a scene out of the movie, Mean Girls.
Myself and the other leaders worked hard at trying to integrate the different social groups, encouraging interaction between the different groups and reaching out to those on the outside. However, we quickly realized that it was going to take much more intentionality on our part if we wanted to see these very different groups of teenagers to evolve into a diverse and familial community.
The first change we implemented involved starting each youth group with something as simple as a basic introduction. Each week we started youth group by sitting everyone down in a circle and asking each student to share them name, school and their answer to an icebreaker question.
This obviously took up a good chunk of our socializing time at the beginning of our gatherings, but that was a sacrifice we were willing to make. Instead of students spending that time socializing with friends they already knew, this time was now spent interacting with those beyond their immediate group of friends. It was a little awkward at first, but it ended up becoming the highlight of the night for a lot of us.
Getting to Know You:
Upon seeing the progress being made from our time of introductions, we decided to take this idea one step further. We began a segment called “Getting to Know You”, where each week one student would get to share for 10 minutes about their life. They could bring pictures, props, show a power-point, whatever they want to share with us. There was a time of Q and A after, where their peers could ask deep and meaningful follow-up questions about their hobbies, experiences and whether or not they wad or fold their toilet paper.
Neither of these activities would have yielded much growth if our youth leaders hadn’t modeled honesty, transparency and openness from the very beginning. These activities could had continued to remain just as superficial as the pre-youth group small talk, if our leaders hadn’t been intentional about using these activities to share beyond the surface level answers and push back on students when they tried to blow off an important question. Of course, we can’t force students to open up, but we can show them what it looks like, and that is sometimes all it takes.
It was amazing to watch as these shallow and fragmented relationships began to evolve as we saw the forming of many unlikely friendships. As these friendships deepened at church, so did their friendships outside of church. It wasn’t long before a lot of our students who would have never hung out together in the past, were taking day-trips to the beach together.
I found it well worth the sacrifice to use valuable program time for opportunities for students to get to know each other on a deeper level. They will benefit from that time of developing deeper relationships more than they will from any talk I have ever given or silly stage game we play.