We have all seen it, heard about it, or been part of it. Cliques are one of the strongest “habits” to break in a youth group. The kids have them at school, and they have might even have them in their neighborhoods. It does feel good to belong, but it feels even worse if you don’t. If the youth group has a visitor that came with a regular attendee, they can tend to slide into the group that person belongs to; but what about the kid that just walks in off the street? We need to be able to find and enlist the help from the people that are closest to the kids… the kids themselves. How can we do that? Who are they supposed to hang out with and how are they supposed to get to know everyone? What can we, as leaders, do to eliminate this unhealthy part of youth groups? Finally, what can we do to let the kids know that we are not the only ones that are there to support them?
One thing I have found out over the last 15 years as a leader is to pray for some humble, spirit filled kids that have the personality that makes everyone want to be around them. They are not the rich kids and their dad or mom may not have a prestigious position in the church, but they are respected. They are encouragers. They are spiritual leaders in the fact that they have a continually growing relationship with God and they do not apologize to anyone at school, work, or play about it. They have that something extra that people can confide in, and they are prayer warriors for their peers. There might be some kids out there that are not wearing holes in the knees of their jeans, but you know that they are diligent about their relationship with God. Parents may share exciting stories of their child praying or even offering a sound revelation from God about a situation in their family life at home or school or work… they are just on fire and you know it. These are the kids that can offer the strongest defense against cliques. They are your front line to help others learn how to welcome “newbies” into the group. Explain to them what your concern is, what your goal is, and how they can help. Pray with them over the youth group and visitor cards and also for them. If they know you are praying for them, it will encourage them even more.
The next thing to do is be real and true to your personality style. Some kids have don’t really care what other people think about them and some kids have a complex so complex it is just too complex to explain. But you know what? Jesus wants EVERYONE to know how much He loves them; so we have to adapt. Change up the lesson, the teaching style, or even the teacher. Pray for leaders that are not afraid to… how do you say it? LEAD? Being a youth leader is not a spectator sport. It all starts from the top down. Prevent burnout among the leaders and “tag team” teach. It might be from week-to-week or it might be right in the middle of the lesson. Some adults have more credibility with kids on a given subject than others. If you don’t believe me, just try and remember how dumb your mom or dad or significant adult was when you were growing up and think about how smart they may seem now regarding a particular issue. Some teachers are great at integrating humor into their lesson and others are great at handling the “heavy” lessons. I used to lead a youth group in a rural community and one of the leaders was a former lead singer for a rock and roll band. Before he was saved, he did the drugs and drinking and the other things that go along with that lifestyle; but he knew where his salvation came from and he could relate that to the kids. He could certainly relate to them MUCH better than I could; I played the saxophone and clarinet in my “band”.
Get everyone involved. If you are going to do games as an icebreaker before the lessons get started, do it with teams. I am not saying ALL games have to be with teams, but at least make 75%-80% of the games team oriented so the kids don’t feel like a spotlight is on them. Remember, we are trying to include everyone. Have other adult leaders make sure that the same people are not on the same team every week with each other. Keep notes if you have to, the kids do. Make it guys versus gals, age groups or the grade they are in at school, hair color (natural or otherwise), and eye color… whatever. Just be sure it is consistently inconsistent. It helps the kids get to know each other and it helps offer balance to the personalities of a group. Some of the strongest relationships between kids have been because they found out another kid was not so different or weird after all. Remember, and teach, that weird hair color and face jewelry does NOT mean the kid has leprosy or cooties. I look back now and find that some of the best lessons we had were where we could come off of some of the goofiest games that included everyone in the group, visitors too. The “walls” they build through the day or the week tend to be a little more permeable and honesty and the Holy Spirit can move them to make that commitment or recommitment that they have needed. I am so glad that I am not a kid today, but my heart breaks for them. I have talked to some of my old leaders and they agree it is tougher for kids too. I never had a problem fitting in because I have always been my own little party. However, so many kids today have never had a REAL friend or even a close relationship with someone.
Get the kids into the community. Being a servant and learning the principle of “less of me and more of You, Lord” is tough for some kids. Plan a couple months ahead and talk to a local gas station and explain that you would like to help their customers. Arrange a date and a time for the leaders and kids to go pump the gas for the customers as they pull in. Go to the grocery store and see if your kids can carry groceries to the car for people and help them load it. Go retrieve all the carts out of the parking lot so they don’t ding the cars at the local Mega-Mart. Go shovel snow out of driveways in the winter or even visit a nursing home. Teach the kids to be a servant. Being a servant isn’t about getting recognition, but it is about people. Have a small tract that might say nothing more than “Thank you for letting the youth group from _____ help you out today. Please know that we are trying to make a difference in our local families, schools, and community by teaching our kids to be a better neighbor for you.” Just leave it at that. Don’t ask for money, don’t invite them to church, and don’t present the plan of salvation to them. Your character and the Holy Spirit will speak volumes through your actions. The kids will also learn that it isn’t really all about them; it is about those around them. When you are done, teach them to be a servant at home to their parents and siblings as well. You really will start to impact more than that particular child.
Finally, let the kids know the community is into them. For several years, I would write a letter in the late summer and petition local businesses to donate to our youth group. I wasn’t looking for money -I was looking free hamburgers, free pizzas, free movie passes, CDs, gift certificates, gift cards… anything I could get my hands on. You know what a lot of businesses are looking for? More business. They know that the kids of today have a lot of discretionary cash to spend. You have the ability, being a not-for-profit organization, to offer the business a receipt for donations. If a kid wins a free McWhopper or a small pizza, you can bet they are not going to eat it alone. They are going to have a friend or a family with them and they are going to want more than that little snack to keep them going. I can’t tell you how many managers and store owners have just reached out to us to help us reach out to kids… and about 99% of them never ask for a receipt in return. This will let the kids know that they are not on an island when they come to church. As a leader, relay to them how important the businesses in their community see them. Help them understand their role in the future of their community because the businesses in town sure do; especially if they want to stay in business. By the way, please make sure you follow up with a thank you letter or a certificate of appreciation to show the business you truly are thankful. It might encourage them to give to you next year as well.
You know, you don’t have to have a hundred kids in your youth group to get these fundamental ideas to work for you. Even if you have just a few kids, put these practices into place. Is there a leader in your group? Is there a kid open to growing spiritually? You might be amazed at how that seemingly quiet person becomes an on-fire servant of God if they are given the chance; some kids are just waiting to be asked or included. Don’t be wrapped up in how many kids are in the youth group; be wrapped up in how many kids you are getting into heaven with a deeply rooted relationship with Jesus Christ. Pray over everything, worry over nothing, and love everyone around you. If you do this, and believe me – it isn’t an easy thing to do sometimes, then God will transform you and your group. We can never forget that while we are reaching higher for Jesus, we need to have a hand reaching behind us to take those kids along. Eventually, they will get it, they will get you, and they will get God in them. When that happens, show them how to do the same thing for the next person. Before long, you are going to have a strong group of kids being led and being leaders. There are going to be bumps, but that doesn’t mean we have to end up in the ditch. God didn’t promise to make it easy, but He did promise to make it worth it.