How We Worked to Create a Healthy & Safe Environment

Stephen D Kennedy
July 25th, 2019

When I was hired at my current church five short years ago, I arrived to meet a group of students who had serious trust issues, past ministry hurts, and carried serious misconceptions on what a Youth Group should look like. In fact, the first 2 years of my ministry time with these students was spent simply helping them heal some of these wounds, and supporting them as they traversed a new Youth Group environment. Year 1 our core group was seven timid students. In year 3 we finally saw a culture shift. And now in year 5, we have a healthy and safe Youth Group of over forty students. While I don’t say our numbers to brag, or to have larger Youth Groups judge my lower numbers, I say it to show this truth in a tangible way: Students gravitate towards safe communities & stay. 

5 Simple Suggestions in Creating a Healthy & Safe Environment that Students Will Gravitate Towards:

1. Leaders with a special super power: Goodness

While we often try to find the most relatable, energetic, and young volunteers, there is a fruit of the Spirit that trumps all of these: Goodness. Regardless of your budget, décor, merch or venue, if a student arrives and immediately experiences a handful of leaders who are radiating goodness they will keep coming, they will keep connecting, and ultimately they will be experiencing Jesus’ goodness through you.

2. Everybody hangs out with everybody

My students hear this before every retreat, “Everybody hangs out with everybody”. Some may respond with eye rolls or keep their headphones in, but at the end of the day, new students want to be welcomed and accepted by their leaders AND the students. While this may be daunting if your Youth culture is lacking in this area, I would suggest starting small; Inspire your core group of Christian students to begin using Youth Group as outreach. Not through over the top methods but simply by welcoming AND accepting everyone. Everybody hangs out with everybody.

3. Generosity as the foundation not the surplus. 

Now don’t be scared. I am not suggesting you go out and buy 10 hoverboards and 8 PS4s to giveaway next week. Generosity isn’t limited to stuff. Instead, what I mean is that generosity is not always front and center in our society, but Biblical generosity should be front and center in God’s Kingdom. So what might generosity look like in your ministry? Go to school sports, open your home up to students, listen instead of talk, pause your lesson to support a student, and yes, sometimes it looks like buying them Starbucks or giving something away. 

4. Student-voice > Leader-advice

I find that as I support new volunteers in our ministry, the hardest part for them to understand is that they aren’t here to give advice and fix student problems, they are here to help students find their voice. Create a safe environment by encouraging the voices of your students. Maybe Youth Ministry is less about having the right answer, and more about finding a community to wrestle with. If I am talking for more than 1/3 of the time, than I am limited the voices of students, and their ability to work together. A safe and healthy environment will always build the community up rather than limit its voice.

5. People over projects

On a recent trip to Ecuador, an organization adopted this motto as their summer mission philosophy, and I immediately fell in love with it. Ministry is not about accomplishing projects (although aspects of our job is), ministry is about loving God’s people. As I plan our schedule, our teaching series, our activities, and all of the aspects that make it run smoothly, I also need to remember to hold onto these lightly. On occasion I have completely altered the plan for youth that night just 5 minutes into the evening’s schedule. It happened because of an interaction with a person or an observation from the group. A program is just a tool. If it isn’t going to support students, then get rid of it. 

While there are many more thoughts I’d love to share, I think it best to instead share a couple stories. Although students don’t always know how to articulate their feelings or why they come to Youth, these two stories are two that encouraged me this past year and I hope they encourage you.

A highschool student arrived late for Youth one night and quietly slipped into the periphery of the activity. One of our leaders noticed and decided to sneak away from the activity to talk to the student. They said, “I just found out that my parents are getting a divorce… I don’t know why, but I just felt like I needed to be at Youth…”. 

Another student wrestling through gender identity questions began coming out to Youth on and off for a few months. Eventually they began coming regularly. One night in our Small Group time the student said, “I’ve never felt accepted at a Christian group before, but I do here… I don’t know what it is, but I feel like when I show up to Youth I feel loved…”

If  your Youth Group is healthy and safe, and you begin to hear students say, “I don’t know what is it…”, what an amazing opportunity you have to share with them that the love they are experiencing is the love of Jesus. Despite their inability to know it’s origin, they’ve felt its effect. Now it’s your chance to share with them about the origin. 

Stephen D Kennedy

Stephen D Kennedy is the Youth & Family Pastor at Grace Community Church in Guelph, Canada. Stephen received his BTh in Youth Ministry from Emmanuel Bible College, and is currently pursuing an Masters of Theological Studies at the University of Waterloo and Conrad Grebel. You can connect with Stephen on Instagram @Stevetheyouthguy and are always welcome to connect with him on any topic! Drop a message, he’d love to hear from you.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.