The young man had given his life to Jesus, but for some reason we didn’t see him after that—until I went to get some pizza. It wasn’t on purpose, either. I was eating out with my family and happened to see him behind the counter. Given our ministry’s size and my schedule’s pace, I suddenly realized I’d never personally followed up with him.
I headed over and began a short conversation. “How’s it going?” I asked.
“Alright,” he replied, looking at me with a sideways glance. “What’s up with you?”
“I’m doing okay. I’d love to catch up with you if you have a moment.”
“Yeah, man,” he said, “I’d stay away from the pizza, though.” (The irony wasn’t lost on me that he was making one as we spoke.)
“So…I’ve noticed you haven’t been around church in a while,” I said. “I feel bad that I haven’t followed up with you.”
“Aw, man,” he replied, “nothin’ to worry about. It’s not like you aren’t busy with other things. Besides, I got a lot of stuff keeping me busy anyway.”
“I appreciate you saying that, but that doesn’t make it okay. You went on that road trip with us last summer and gave your life to Jesus. For a while you seemed to be in a really good groove, and then all of a sudden we didn’t see you anymore. Someone should’ve followed up with you then, but I can only speak for myself. I’m really sorry, and I’d like to reconnect with you. Will you forgive me?”
As those words came out of my mouth, this “tough” young man suddenly looked me straight in the eyes. His strong mask became tender transparency as tears welled up in his eyes. He couldn’t even get a full sentence out. “Ye…yeah,” he barely blurted.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “I’m serious. I want to connect with you, but you’re going to have to want in, too. A whole community of people would love for you to be part of what God is growing in and through us. And I know there are others who miss you being around.”
The tears paused but didn’t go away. Something within the young man started taking over.
“Then how come they don’t say anything to me at school?” he asked.
What a great question. You’ve seen it, right? The same students who celebrate each other at church overlook each other everywhere else. We can’t always control this, but we can address the thin line between a clique and a community. (By the way, I’ll be on the road this fall with the rest of our Youth Ministry Local Training Team, leading half-day trainings on “3 Crucial Practices that Fuel Unstoppable Growth,” and one of those practices we’ll be targeting is “How to Help Teenagers Build Relational Intimacy With Jesus and Others. We’ll be in 55 cities, so one of them is near you. Check it out.)
Jesus left the comforts of heaven and “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message)—not to make converts but to grow disciples. Conversion creates an “us versus them” mentality, while discipleship is about us stepping into each other’s world to better embrace God’s Kingdom . Although we can never simply will community to happen, we can provide some essential ingredients:
- Reconsider time. Instead of a battle between quality versus quantity, the two must work together. The pace of our ministry and events also matters. Our group once attended a camp that was incredible at energetic programming but lousy at slowing down so teenagers could go deeper. When was the last time you cultivated a qualitative, non-anxious, peace-filled, calm, reflective environment so something unpredictable could occur? (Yes, I used some big words there to slow you down as you read.)
- Pray together for others. Ask your core teenagers to consider peers they’d love to see take their next step with Jesus. Together, talk with Jesus about these people—brainstorm normal, everyday ways to invite them into what you’re doing, and to join what they’re doing. Model this by asking kids to pray for the people you’re reaching out to, as well.
- Redefine why you have a core group. Sometimes we organize a core group to get teenagers to do ministry. But that creates workers instead of disciples. Genuinely love and lead kids so they learn how to genuinely love and lead their peers. When someone bothers them or they have a breakthrough at school, work, or home, be available to listen and debrief. Pray together often.
- Create a five-minute walk. At a previous church, we formed a team of teenagers who made sure every attendee had another person spend five minutes with them at each meeting or event. Because sitting down with someone wasn’t always conducive to conversation, we used a walking method instead. A team member said, “Hey, come with me. I want to show you something.” It might have involved getting a snack or playing a game, but it also formed a friendly connection. Those initial five-minute walks forged a relational culture that blessed everything else.
- Use outsider language. How often do we say things like “Remember the story of David and Goliath?” Don’t take for granted that everyone does, because those who don’t will feel excluded. Regularly explain everything, including communion and baptism.
- Make spiritual invitations inclusive. Give opportunities for everyone to surrender to Jesus, taking whatever the next step is for them.
The teenager at the pizza place asked a valid question we all need to wrestle with. Do your teenagers feel they matter as much as you may say they do? Or do they believe they can slip out of your community without anyone noticing?
You’ll have to wrestle with that, because your group’s sense of community happens both inside and outside the environments you directly serve in and oversee.
That’s important, so let me repeat it:
Your group’s sense of community happens both inside and outside the environments you directly serve in and oversee.Click to tweet
What do you think? How do you battle cliques and create community?