Mission Impossible?: Why ‘Community’ Doesn’t Work in Youth Ministry

October 1st, 2009

Community—it’s quite possibly the most misused and misunderstood word in youth ministry today, and yet it has become a buzzword for an entire approach to youth ministry that has shaped much of what we do. The thesis offered in this approach is that young people are lacking meaningful relationships; provide them with these, we’re told, and we’ll see them grow closer not only to each other but also to Christ.

Really? Let’s cut right to the chase. Despite what the sociologists may tell us, “community” isn’t high on the list of needs drawn up by our average student—at least not community as youth ministry commonly understands it and approaches it. But community can work and in fact must work if we’re to do effective ministry.

So before we go any further let’s explode the myth: Despite the hunger for relationships, few young people really want, or are even looking for, true community— an outward focused relationship with a diverse group of people with whom they may have little in common. Some may tell you otherwise, out of some sort of idealism or Christian obligation, yet most aren’t willing or able to really make it happen. Why?

Why Young People Don’t Want ‘Community’

First of all, most already have their own communities—a homogeneous group of culturally-similar people approximately their own age. While they may call this “community,” a better term is “tribe.” This tribal phenomenon has been created in no small part by the absence of adults willing to involve themselves in the adolescent world. Patricia Hersch comments:

“In the vacuum where traditional behavioural expectations for young people used to exist, in the silence of empty homes and neighbourhoods, young people have built their own community. The adolescent community is a creation by default, an amorphous grouping of young people that constitutes the world in which adolescents spend their time. Their dependence on each other fulfils the universal human longing for community, and inadvertently cements the notion of a tribe apart. More than a group of peers, it becomes in isolation a society with its own values, ethics, rules, worldview, rites of passage, worries, joys, and momentum.”

Within these well-defined tribes diversity is acceptable only if it doesn’t cause discomfort in others, and so the pressure is on to conform to a set of norms, with failure to do so resulting in ostracism.

Secondly, young people lack the motivation to develop relationships beyond their own tribe. Stepping outside of one’s personal world of values and rules and seeking to connect with the personal world of another takes effort. Like most adults who already have significant relationships in their lives, they simply won’t bother to invest time and energy into community-building with those outside their tribe unless presented with a compelling reason to do so. In the minds of egocentric young people is the question: Why invest in something that may not offer anything I want in return?

This is in part a reflection of a third point, namely the busy lifestyles young people lead. Amidst the growing pressures that come through expectations of academic achievement, they have to fit in part-time jobs and activities such as sports, church, cultural clubs, etc. Maintaining tribal friendships, either in person or remotely through cell phones and the Internet, squeezes out time which could be spent developing a new community.

Fourth, young people lack the skills to communicate adequately to those beyond their normal sphere of life. Many have grown up in families where real communication has been lacking, and they haven’t yet learned the skills of conversation necessary to initiate and develop relationships with people outside of their own immediate world. Search Institute research indicates only 30% of 6th- 12th-graders experience “positive family communication” and are “willing to seek advice and counsel from parents.” This lack of communication is further illustrated by a survey conducted by the Global Strategy Group that shows that nearly one in four parents (24%) report eating no more than four meals a week together as a complete family, while one in 10 say they either eat one meal a week with their teens or never eat with them.

Finally, young people lack the trust necessary to completely invest in relationships that require vulnerability. When you’ve been let down by those closest to you, including parents and church leaders, why trust those with whom you find it difficult to relate? How can you trust others when hurts inflicted by those closest to you are still raw? These are real questions that make it easier for young people to gravitate away from diverse community and back into like-minded tribes.

Challenging, but Not Impossible

Despite these obstacles, the situation isn’t hopeless. Community can and must work as a means to growing young people toward maturity in Christ, because faith grows best within true community. As Chap Clark notes:

“The message of reconciliation with God is an invitation to join with others, who recognize their individual and collective need to love God, and to live in love with one another. Thus, the goal of youth ministry should be to make disciples of Jesus Christ who are authentically walking with God within the context of intimate Christian community.”

The key to success is this: stop making community-building the aim, and make growth together toward Christ the overriding goal.

We’re doomed to fail if we say to young people, “Because we’re Christians, we should be a close and loving community. Therefore, let’s work hard at getting to know each other and caring for each other.” Essentially this is applying extrinsic motivation (“because you’re a Christian you should…”) to something which must be intrinsic if it’s to be lasting and effective.

Instead, we should say, “Because Christ died for us all and we are his children, let’s learn to collectively love and serve him.” In other words, instead of relying on a strategy based on an expectation to be a community because we ought to, let’s adopt a strategy built on the theology that Christ is the head of the church and we collectively are his body, already in community with him (see Colossians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 1:27; Ephesians 1:22, and Ephesians 5:23).

Such a strategy recognises that Jesus is the vine, the source of life, and our young people are linked together through him (see John 15:5). Two branches of the same vine are closest together at the point at which they grow out of the main vine. Rather than try to gather a cluster of branches together and hope they’ll stick, draw their focus back toward the main vine they share in common—and community will develop.

Does this mean that we don’t encourage community-building in our youth ministries? Not at all. But we encourage with the understanding that words of exhortation have little effect if the young people aren’t acknowledging Christ as their collective head and aren’t together pursuing the goal of becoming more like him. So let’s look at some practical keys to going about this.

1. Create an Awareness of Christ Within

As believers we’re called to be one, not because we should be but because we are. Since it’s Christ who unites us as one body and as branches of the one vine, the only effective starting point is for young people to realise that the strange and diverse group of individuals gathered in the youth room are each made in the image of Christ and are indwelt by Christ through the Holy Spirit—the very same Christ who dwells in them.

We need to recapture the understanding that the key to discipleship lies not in more Bible study, mentoring, or mission activities (as important as these elements are). It lies in connecting young people with Jesus, the discipler, and helping them to develop their own relationship with him.

The first step in this indwelling approach to discipleship is the continual reminder that the same Jesus they meet in the pages of the Bible now lives inside them and desires to develop community with them. Only an experience of this sense of divine community will engender in our young people an inner desire to connect with others who share that same sense of community.

2. Keep Focusing on Christ

Curricula that fail to focus on Christ and instead major on the “do’s and don’ts” of daily living divest our ministries of much of their power. When Christ and his sacrifice on our behalf are lifted up and become the very core of what we communicate, young people will be drawn to God. To do this we must share the Jesus story often—verbally and visually.

Two weeks ago I was leading a program for 20 junior highers and played them a DVD clip of Jesus as a boy in the temple and of his subsequent baptism. This was hardly riveting content compared to other events from his life, yet they sat silently throughout and when I stopped the DVD a number let out an audible groan asking, “Can we watch some more?” Truly this is a visual generation, and while we must never doubt or downplay the power of the written word, we mustn’t overlook the power that “seeing” Jesus has on these young ones.

Whatever the theme of our youth program for the day and whatever the issue we’re discussing, I make a point of summing up the whole event with a message about Jesus’ life and his loving sacrifice on our behalf. It is the story of his Passion that ignites in young people a passion to grow closer to him. Whatever discussion and opinions have preceded it, the young people consistently go away with a clear message that youth group is all about Jesus.

Kenda Creasy Dean puts it this way:

“The biblical account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ functions as an overarching narrative in which the passions of adolescence are subsumed in a larger, more encompassing story. Yet the Passion of Christ is more than a guiding narrative; it creates a community where the ongoing practices of passion invite young people to participate in this story as well as receive it. As adolescents imitate Christ, they identify with a Passion that transforms their own.”

Focusing on Christ also means developing a real and practical awareness of Christ’s presence in the group. He has freedom to shape our agendas, to touch our hearts, and to whisper words of comfort, encouragement, and correction. Young people come with expectancy—a faith that the Jesus who indwells them also indwells the community as they gather. Youth programs become a time when we not only talk about Jesus but also encounter Jesus.

3. Focus on Helping Others Draw Closer to Christ

To do this we not only tell the Jesus story often—we tell our own stories. Through testimonies of God’s goodness in our lives, both past and present, we’re drawn closer to the divine, building one another up with stories of God’s faithfulness. The people of Israel understood the power of the collective story. Central to their life together was the recounting of what God had done for them as a people (see Psalm 136).

Yet as I look at my junior highers I ask myself, “How will I ever get them to share anything deeper than what happened at last week’s game, what was on TV last night, or who likes whom at school? How do I get them to share their stories when they’re either not sure if they have one or they’ve completely lost the plot?”

The answer starts with me. I’ve begun by sharing my story and will continue to do so. Furthermore, I’m inviting adults in the church to come and share theirs. All I ask is that they speak for five minutes on how they came to love Jesus and what he means to them today. Through the sometimes quiet passion of these adults, it’s gradually beginning to sink in, and the young people are becoming more forthcoming about their own stories. We all have a story, and in sharing it we’re reminded that we’re all in this together. Our lives might look very different, but because of Jesus we are one.

As our stories draw us closer together we’re inspired to want to minister to one another in prayer, offering words of comfort and hope, and inspiring each other to pursue Jesus with greater desire and intent. In prayer, both the one who prays and the one being prayed for draw closer to Jesus and in the process find themselves drawn inexplicably closer to each other. I have such fond and precious memories of times when I’ve been in groups with teenagers who’ve experienced together the power of focused heartfelt prayer for a peer. In these moments we’ve had such an overwhelming sense of God’s closeness that those things that seemed to keep us at arm’s length no longer seemed important.

4. Focus on Serving Christ Together

Having told the Jesus story often and shared in one another’s stories, we must forge our own combined story as a community. In a youth ministry I led for ten years we had many traditions—events held annually that the young people looked forward to each year. Photos and videos were taken and viewed in the days that followed while memories of the hilarious and the meaningful were shared sometimes for weeks afterwards.

This is true, I’m sure, for many youth groups. However, the sense of closeness felt through shared events and traditions is simply an accepted sociological dynamic that again works equally well in a sports team or secular youth club. For that reason it’ll bring only a temporary sense of closeness and shouldn’t be relied on to create lasting Christian community. We need a different dynamic—one that transcends sociology.

The events and activities that brought the greatest sense of community to our group were those in which Christ was central to what we were doing. Whether it was at Easter symbolically nailing our sins to the cross or a service project that saw us go in Jesus’ name to meet the needs of the elderly within our community, these events created closeness far beyond the singular experience through our fellowship traditions. In these activities we collectively exercised faith in Christ and witnessed firsthand God’s presence in the lives and situations of those we met. At these times young people forgot their differences and lived as community.

Pursuing Community

Despite the title of this article, community does work in youth ministry. One of the great joys I have in youth ministry is to meet young people from years past who are not only still following Jesus but continue to have close friendships with those they met in youth group. Community works, but not as a sociological dynamic and not because we tell young people that it should and insist they try to make it so.

But for many of us, community too often seems to be elusive as young people eye each other with a mixture of fear, dislike, and indifference. A sense of guilt or a carefully planned series of community-building activities may draw them to the center, but neither is sufficiently powerful to hold them there.

What they need is to be captured. Captured, not by something bigger than themselves, but by someone bigger—that someone is the creator of the universe—the someone who died for them—the someone who lives in them and through them.

That someone is Jesus, and his prayer for us today is to be one even as he and the Creator are one. And that prayer is not in vain.


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.