No need is more important to students than their longing to belong—to be known and enjoyed for who they really are. But a “radically hospitable” community environment never happens organically—here’s how to shape your ministry culture into a relational magnet.
Guide your ministry toward authentic community
Threaded through the thousands of conversations I’ve had with students is one overriding need—to belong to something bigger than themselves. Teenagers have a hard time expressing what they really need, beyond their surface pursuits. But when you study their behavior, their longing is obvious.
We all have a powerful and innate longing to belong.
We’re hard-wired to find our identity in close relationships, because we’re made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Because of this, it’s natural that our students have a longing to belong in every aspect of their life. And that means their “belong-hunger” is an open door to life-altering experiences—with strikingly mixed results.
When the need to belong is not met, students wrestle with these problems:
• Loneliness—When students feel like they don’t belong in a certain area of their life, even if they have friends in other arenas, they can experience persistent loneliness.
• Insecurity—“Outsider” students have to make sense of that dissonant feeling, and it’s easy for them to point to their own brokenness.
• Isolation—Past the occasional feeling of loneliness, some kids move into the more hopeless territory of isolation—they suspect they’ll be alone the rest of their lives.
• Rejection—For those who feel forgotten or “un-belonged,” life feels thick with rejection. And that feeling extends to their relationship with God, who (they’ve been told) is supposed to love them, but seems to have rejected them.
The vacuum of belonging-ness is a powerful motivator!
Some students try to fill the void by joining a gang or feeding off the “hood” mentality. Others shoehorn themselves into a club or sport just so they can fit somewhere. Once we recognize the strength of this “current,” we can help direct their longing toward a life-giving and God-honoring community. Discover how to turn cliques into community here.
THE YOUTH GROUP AS A ‘BELONGING MAGNET’
If we’re intentional about it, youth ministry can offer students an unmatched opportunity to belong to community that is bigger and better. We’ve been charged by God to reflect the “radical hospitality” of God’s family. To welcome the “harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:36) into a community that sees and enjoys them well. A culture of belonging doesn’t just happen! In our ministry, we practice seven “acts of belonging” that are transforming our environment into a magnet for students…
It doesn’t get any more biblically pragmatic than this: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). So let prayer be the first thing we do to help students belong and be known.
2. Assess your program with a critical eye.
Think critically about the things we’re doing and ask ourselves these questions:
• Who are we targeting with our program?
• Are we helping students connect with God, other leaders, and other students—or are we fundamentally offering a (often forgettable) 20-minute TED talk sandwiched between a concert and a game show?
• Are we seeking and getting feedback from students about our program?
Just because some of our students have to go, doesn’t mean they want to go. Have the courage, and the humility, to get honest feedback.
3. Meet and greet.
Meeting and greeting every student that walks through our door is an intentional habit that reflects the unconditional love of Jesus. Don’t underestimate the gift of “paying attention.”
4. Strategically use your leaders.
Connections with other students are powerful magnets, of course, but adult leaders who show genuine care and concern are priceless. So think strategically about how you’re using your leaders. Ask yourself these three questions:
• What opportunities do our leaders have to connect directly with students?
• Do we have a plan for our leaders to follow up with new students?
• Are we equipping our leaders to help students feel a sense of belonging, a sense that they’re known?
5. Create an inviting environment.
As connection (rather than program excellence) became our first priority—we wanted every single student to feel connected to someone who knew them well enough to enjoy something about them. The tenor of your ministry environment reflects the core of your motivation. Inviting environments happen because we plant and tend them—only weeds grow naturally.
6. Think culturally.
Establish a new culture through creating an environment that produces a natural sense of belonging for each student.
7. Involve your core students as ministers.
To raise the culture of belonging within your group community, challenge your core students to come up with ideas that would help everyone in the ministry—from first-time attenders to longtimers—feel a greater sense of belonging. Give student leaders the opportunity minister in practical ways!
We make too many assumptions about our teenagers…
• Having both parents in the home doesn’t guarantee their child feels they belong.
• Just because the family has money doesn’t automatically mean the kids are happy.
• A student may not feel known and cared for, even if the student has a close family and a constellation of acquaintances.
I’ve learned to look at every student that walks into my ministry as someone who needs a smile, a high-five, and a hug. It’s important to view every student as one who desperately needs to belong and be known by God’s family.