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The Anatomy of Community, And Three Disorders That Cripple Its Life

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October 1st, 2009

A youth group with cliques, bickering, and rival schools—and what group doesn’t have at least a couple of these?—may require some spiritual chiropractic in order to realign aching members of the body.

 

Read more: Reluctant Community

Receiving treatments for upper back pains has given me a new appreciation for the field of chiropractic medicine. The nagging discomfort and frequent sharp pains under my left shoulder blade affected virtually every area of my life, from sleep patterns to work performance—even my personality.

 

During my second visit to the chiropractic physician, he diagnosed the problem—it was as plain as the X-ray on the light board. The vertebrae in my upper back had, somehow, become misaligned, causing compression of the spinal column and pinching a brachial plexus nerve. The doctor explained that the vertebrae were not working together properly to provide the necessary support for my shoulders, back, arms, neck, and head. These vertebrae also insulate the spinal cord—the switchboard of the central nervous system that connects with nerves from the entire body with the brain. With the problem properly diagnosed, the doctor recommended a two-fold treatment process: Adjustments and therapy three times a week for the following sixty to ninety days.

As I reflect on my experience (I’m still early in the healing process), striking spiritual parallels for youth ministry occur to me. A Christian youth group, as an expression of the body of Christ, needs to the support of a strong “spinal column.” I am convinced that biblical community is the backbone of a healthy Christian organism.

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.” Richards goes on to describe what could be considered some of the individual vertebrae that make up this column:

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. When a group lacks community, you’ll see symptoms of a dysfunctional Christian organism—some not immediately identifiable as being community-related.

Richard’s description of a healthy Christian organism is, of course, an ideal to which every youth leader aspires. Youth ministry in the ‘90s presents unique challenges to community building that cannot be avoided. 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.

Cliquitis

As a part of a Wednesday night series on friendship and community building, I asked my students to rate our youth group’s openness to newcomers on a scale of one to ten—and to be prepared to defend their ratings. The popular, outgoing kids predictably scored the group from seven to nine. “I didn’t have any trouble making friends here,” said one. Another gregarious individual concurred: “Everyone was so friendly and open to me when I started coming.”

At that point I intentionally called on two fairly new girls who I knew were struggling with acceptance. Their honesty was a wakeup call to the “in” crowd.

“This group is very hard to break into,” said one girl. “The adult leaders were friendly,” the other girl added, but the teens practically ignored me. Everyone seems to have their own little group of friends.”

Our group was fortunate not to lose those girls. Their strong family involvement in our church and the fast friendship they made with each other kept them coming.

Junior and senior high students 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. (It was somewhat liberating to finally admit that they weren’t coming because of my biblical insight and charismatic personality.)

In contrast, cliquitis is a condition that causes these 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.

Your group members can be sensitized to the problem of excluding others and must be trained to overcome the symptoms of cliquitis. One creative way of exposing the problem of cliquitis is to show and discuss the Dr. Seuss video, “The Star-Bellied Sneetches.” (Introduce it as a documentary on adolescent herd instincts prepared by Dr. Theodore Geisel!) The video reveals the folly of excluding others and has rich application for the many ways teens both unconsciously and consciously exhibit cliquitis.

Siblingus Conflictus

Stacy and Keith fight like cats and dogs at home. Their mutual animosity occasionally finds a new venue at our youth gatherings. Their verbal jabs, glares, physical slaps, and bossing of each other attracts embarrassing attention—especially from visitors to our youth group. My frustration is exceeded only by the frustration of their parents—allies to whom I gladly turn them over after our meetings and activities.

Siblingus conflictus 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.

Ninth-grade siblings coming into a youth group that includes senior highers is a common scenario for such conflict. Even when there is relative harmony among the brother and sisters in a youth group, this ailment kills unity by squelching openness and honesty. 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. I’m certain that was at least part of the incentive for a scene at our church altar recently—Stacy and Keith crying and embracing one another and praying for their family feud to cease.

Also, when parents are secure enough to admit that siblingus conflictus is plaguing their home, they should find an ally in the church youth worker. He or she can reinforce parental efforts at peacemaking and be another caring adult to whom their teenagers are accountable.

Schoolosis Rivalrhea

Jason, one of our best athletes and a youth council member, was conspicuous by his absence at our denomination’s regional senior high basketball tournament. The following Sunday he had most of the team as his audience while explained why he didn’t bother to show up. “I told you,” he boasted, “that I wouldn’t play if Travis was on the team.” Travis, another excellent player, is a student at a rival county school. Even for a church tournament Jason wouldn’t play on the same team as his crosstown rival.

Schoolosis rivalrhea is a community-threatening disorder reflecting misalignment. Subtle symptoms include unintentional avoidance of students from rival schools, playful put-downs of other group members based on their school loyalty, and good-natured taunting by the victors following an interschool sports contest. (Having graduated myself from one of the schools I serve, I have caught myself taking shots at students from other schools.) 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.

I have witnessed the misalignment of schoolosis rivalrhea in acute form since coming to pastor in a fairly small city with only twelve junior and senior high schools. I have also ministered in a metropolitan setting where my students came from over forty different schools and where the symptoms were rare and much less intense. I would suggest, therefore, that schoolosis rivalrhea is more prominent in smaller groups, where it can do more damage to community.

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 Harding High School, where would the Taft Junior 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.

One way we have addressed this misalignment of the backbone of community is by decorating our main youth room with the colors 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.

Adjustments and Therapy

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 cliquitissiblingus 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.

By adjustments I mean major philosophical or sweeping programming revisions that address the problems of dysfunctional community. At a recent youth-council meeting, one of my adult leaders spoke passionately about the lack of respect, cooperation, and appreciation she sensed from our group—especially from the student leaders. I shared her concern, for I too had been frustrated with my group’s recent lack of enthusiasm and involvement. The apathy was directly affecting community.

The students present at the meeting responded maturely and apologetically to her admonition, and together we discussed how to remedy the situation. The turning point, however, came when another adult leader asked, “Do we do too much fun stuff as a youth group?” His question cut to the heart of the matter by identifying the disorder as a lack of community. “Perhaps” he explained, “the problems we’re discussing are the result of an overemphasis on activities at the expense of service and ministry to others.” In other words, maybe our youth group would show more respect, cooperative involvement, and enthusiasm (marks of healthy community) if we experienced the joy and bonding that result from sweating for the Kingdom. (Duffy Robbins is right when he says “Sweat is the juice of unity.”)

After discussion and a unanimous vote, it was decided that the sole item on the next meeting’s agenda would be revising the calendar to reflect a better balance of service projects and fun activities. We have just begun this treatment program, but I sense the prognosis for community building is promising.

Another example of an adjustment a group may want to consider to 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 gets to go to Disneyworld this summer? Even games meant for crowd breaking and fun can become divisive when the competition aspect is overemphasized.

With cliquitis and schoolosis rivalrhea a problem in my group, I have had to become philosophically intentional about how I divide my large group into small groups for various activities. At a recent bowling activity, for example, I designed the sign-up sheet so that students were able to bowl with a friend from their school, but the lane would be shared by a pair from another school.

Other adjustments may involve the leaders themselves realigning their ministry style with objectives. When I first assumed responsibility as youth minister at our church, I majored in personal relationships, as evidenced by my one-on-one encounters, presence on school campuses at lunches and other events, and personal notes and phone calls. Since then my focus has gradually shifted to adult staff development, preparation for teaching responsibilities, and organizing and sermon preparation for weekly youth rallies. An honest evaluation would substantiate that community has suffered and an adjustment may be necessary.

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(as determined by the members themselves), 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.

Family events can promote harmony and provide an environment where siblingus conflictus gets a rest. A personal favorite is a family progressive game night where siblings and parents form teams and play board games in a round-robin tournament with other families. Each round lasts thirty to forty-five minutes, and teams rotate to different game stations throughout the evening. Not only do the members of a family interact with one another, but the rotation schedule can be designed so that different families play together at each station.

As with any ailment, proper diagnosis is the halfway mark in healing. But I don’t expect a quick fix when cliquitis schoolosis rivalrhea, and siblingus conflictus disrupt community in my group. Instead, I’m committed to a long-term treatment program in which a strong backbone of community enhances the health of the entire body.

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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.

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