I’m grateful for the diversity of ministry experience I have been exposed to. I’ve had the opportunity to walk alongside high school students, middle school students, children, families, and young adults; in more rural settings, urban settings and in the suburbs, and the diversity has often made it hard to draw parallels between the settings I’ve encountered. But there is ONE, and only one phrase I’ve had crop up over and over and over again, exactly the same, everywhere I go.
“I don’t feel like part of the group.”
At the end of time, every knee will bow, but that day hasn’t arrived yet. It’s something we’re still looking forward to. And as we look forward to that day, it’s good to remind youth there is still something we’re looking forward to.
If you’ve heard this, you may have been tempted to throw up your hands and ask why sink hundreds of hours in community building meals, games and studies if it’s all for naught?! Before sinking into a black hole of personal conviction that I haven’t done enough or launching accusations towards this family, there are three important things to remember.
1) Take a step back, breathe and count to 10. This isn’t about you, your incompetence as a leader, gross negligence of your volunteers, or blind spots in your ministry. It’s about them. This person has come to you to talk through a problem. Listen―whether it’s the student, parent or friend―and ask a question or two to help you understand where this is really coming from. Above all validate, validate, validate. Help them remember that coming to you with this concern was the right choice.
2) Close the loops on your side. Is there a possibility they’re coming to your programming and haven’t been welcomed by name at the door? Is there a clique of youth in their grade they just aren’t friends with? Clue in your volunteer leaders or student leaders that someone’s feeling left out and let their welcoming powers bathe the room in their warm acceptance.
3) Refocus on the gospel. This is part of the already and not yet of life in Christ that students feel so acutely. They don’t belong. They were built to yearn for Christ. They (we) are empty until filled with the fullness of the gospel. At the end of time, every knee will bow, but that day hasn’t arrived yet. It’s something we’re still looking forward to. And as we look forward to that day, it’s good to remind youth there is still something we’re looking forward to. We are aliens in a foreign land, and if our feelings reflect that from time to time, that is in actuality healthier than when it doesn’t.
This gospel message is at the root of why we hear this phrase so often. Being a part of the group wouldn’t heal the wanting―needing―to “be a part” that we experience. Even though I have a nice group of friends, my family is healthy and happy, and I work with an incredible team that shares deeply, I still feel this way sometimes. It’s a trigger that reminds us how deeply we are wired for relationship with God. He uses this holy feeling of “apartness” to remind us that we belong to Him, and to Him only. It’s His way of calling us further up and further in to His great family.
And this highlights the “already and not yet” of life in Christian community that is a tension to be managed. Yes, in a special way youth will always experience this longing. No, this does not absolve the Church from doing everything it can to welcome, love, care, know and show hospitality to its members, especially ones that are developmentally predisposed to feeling this way more often than not. But putting to one side the theology of who God has made us to interact with Him and each other and the biology of how students minds and bodies work in this season of life, there are places YOU have agency in your community that can directly impact how people interact with your group. How can the occurrence of disconnected youth be a catalyst for better cohesion, connection and unity among your group?
First, allow this to be a moment to clarify the vision for you, your teams, your families and your youth. What is our group trying to be? Who is our group for? The more you can say YES to God’s yes for the youth you have, the youth you want, the church you operate in and the context you serve, the easier the no’s become. As Andy Stanley says, do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. You can’t do everything, but you can absolutely do something.
Second, as far as you’re able on behalf of your youth, make the implicit explicit, especially when it comes to hospitality. Are your youth equipped for community relationships? What skills do your youth already have when it comes to building and sustaining community? What are your strengths as a team? What skills do you want your students to have? What practices do you want them to embody when they welcome people to your group? What should they do when they see others disconnected from community? How will they have conflict together? The more detailed you can brainstorm together, the better. Perhaps they could extend hospitality to others by standing in one place. Or by making non-creepy eye contact. By asking what school another student goes to, what they do after school or if they know how to yo-yo. By introducing them to someone else in the group. By making a spot for another student next to them on the couch. Youth have phenomenal capacity when equipped specifically and concretely.
Above all, community takes time. Stay the course, encourage, communicate, and pray regularly. God has called you into this work for this season, and He goes with you as you serve Him faithfully.
Katharine Staples is the Assistant Director of Youth Ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. She has a Masters in Theology and Biblical Studies from the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland and her dissertation focused on Art as a text of and for Theology with particular focus on the Isenheim Altarpiece. Her middle schoolers just call her The Captain.