I’ve been leading and influencing young people for a long time, both in a church setting and also as a public-school coach. And threaded through the thousands of conversations I’ve had with students is one overriding need—to belong to something bigger than themselves. It’s easy for parents to miss this hunger in their kids, because teenagers have a hard time expressing what they really need, beyond their surface pursuits. But if you study their behavior, their longing is obvious.
I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where gangs were overshadowed by a broader influence—the expectation that all of us were responsible to “represent our hood.” The hood is where you come from, and our unspoken code of conduct dictated that we had to stand up for our territory. So, if you were from the west side of Detroit, that’s where you belonged—and nothing was more important than fighting for your identity.
If you jump to suburbia there’s really no difference—the reason cliques and sports and clubs have such a strong pull over students is that they offer a path to belonging. As a coach I remember some kids tried out for the team just because they wanted to belong to something. I’d literally have parents asking me to put their children on the team because they were feeling lost in high school.
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 that their “belong-hunger” is an open door to life-altering experiences—some incredibly good, and some profoundly bad. For example, when their belong-hunger is not met, they’ll likely 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.
This 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 or shoehorning themselves into a club or sport just so they can fit somewhere. So, once we recognize the strength of this “current,” we can help direct their longing toward life-giving and God-honoring directions.
The Youth Group as a ‘Belonging Magnet’
If we’re intentional about it, youth ministry can offer students an unmatched opportunity to belong to something 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. But 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…
Most of us are tempted to sink into a results-driven mentality, and so we forget that prayer is the most powerful tactical tool we have. Jesus said it with characteristic bluntness: “…Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When we lean into prayer first, we’re acknowledging that God cares more about our students belonging and being known than any of us. He longs for them to feel the comfort of belonging in his family. And he holds the wisdom you need to create a ministry that enters into students’ lonely, disconnected reality.
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 [tweet_dis]let prayer be the first thing we do to help students belong and be known.[/tweet_dis]
2. Assess your program with a critical eye.
It makes me wince to admit it, but sometimes our ministry feels just as inviting as a distant, distracted greeter who’s going through the motions. When we say we want a ministry that reaches every student, we must embrace the truth that our ministry will reach only the students it’s set up to reach. That means we must 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?
By the way, the only companies I know that don’t care about what their consumers have to say are the ones that don’t have to care. Most of us dread going to these places–does your last trip to the DMV come to mind? 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.
We generally have no clue what our students are dealing with day-to-day, so a heartfelt greeting that communicates “I see you and am glad you’ve come” could life-changing for them. More kids than we would suspect never get the message that they are enjoyed and known. One of my students was in foster care, but I had no idea—he’d been abused by his mom and dad his whole life before he came to our ministry. Six months after it happened, this guy told me that a simple hug from me had finally made him feel like he belonged to something. I don’t even remember giving him that hug.
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.
Our capacity to care for and love on students expands exponentially when we use our leaders strategically. All of us could use more leaders, but this is not a numbers issue—it’s about how we’re using the leaders we have to create a “radically hospitable” environment. In our ministry, I decided to create “traffic zones” so students would have to funnel through a loose gauntlet of strategically selected volunteers. Their job is to greet every student who shows up with an “I see you” energy—it’s awesome to see our leaders forming organic bonds with students, even through this intentional micro-practice.
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.
When I first started to prioritize an inviting environment in our ministry, I was looking for ways to completely disrupt our large-group time. I wanted an environment that naturally invited kids to let their guard down. So, 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.
It’s been a year since we started using our leaders more strategically to build a relational “web” in our ministry, and we’re just now seeing the fruit of it. Cultural shifts take a long time, and require the sort of conviction that fuels perseverance. Cultures are shaped, not “switched on,” and that means maintaining what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” We want to make changes that will bring about long-term culture-shifting results, not short-term “growth gimmicks.” [tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]The culture-shift we’re aiming for is simple—an environment that naturally causes students to feel like they belong, and where they can be known.[/tweet_box]
7. Get core students involved.
I met a student who was visiting—she came by herself. I was super-excited that we had a visitor, so I asked, “How did you find us?” She answered: “Well, I came last week just to check it out, and a person who recognized me from school came over and started talking to me. So we sat together and I loved it, so I came back.”
Do your core students, or the kids on your student leadership team, understand your environmental priorities? Do they see themselves as ministry “owners” or ministry “consumers”? Do they see their peers who walk through the door as their focal point for unconditional love?
What if you challenged your core students to come up with ideas that would help everyone in the ministry—from first-time attenders to long-timers—feel a greater sense of belonging? It’s incongruous to tell students that they’re the “church of today” if they have few functional opportunities to live that out in our ministry.
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We make too many assumptions about our teenagers…
- Just because both parents are in the home doesn’t automatically make for a “belonging” environment.
- Just because the family has money doesn’t automatically mean the kids are happy.
- Just because the student has a close family and a constellation of acquaintances doesn’t mean they feel known and cared for.
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. And I’ve learned to view every student as one who desperately needs to belong and be known by God’s family. ◊
Aaron oversees pastoral care for the high school ministry at Saddleback Church in Southern California. He’s married with three children.