Every week we focus on our theme for the year “The People.” This week’s blog is about…..

The People we need in our youth groups

Daniel Potter

Daniel Potter is originally from Chapel Hill, NC and is a third year M. Div student at the Wake Forest School of Divinity. He is a current CBF Leadership Scholar and a past recipient of the Daniel and Earlene Vestal Scholarship. Daniel was ordained in March of 2015 at Mount Carmel Baptist Church of Chapel Hill, NC and currently works as the Interim Youth Minister at Knollwood Baptist Church of Winston-Salem, NC. He is passionate about youth ministry and hopes to find new ways to empower youth to be the current and future leaders of the Church.

When we talk in our churches about growing the church body, we often talk in terms of the type of people we need to attract. Most often, I think, these conversations boil down to a need for young adults with budding families. After all, churches that are equipped to handle young families may have well-developed children’s and adult education programs. Such programs might be able to guarantee the lively hood of the congregation, assuming that those kids stay involved to become youth and the parents become adults or senior adults in the congregation. Conversations on growth center on different demographics when it comes to youth ministry, but the premise is still the same: churches want youth who will be super-involved in hopes that they can connect the ministry to larger networks of other youth who might also be drawn into the fold. In theory, both ideas are logical. The church needs to enlist some amount of new membership to bring new ideas, new longevity, and in many cases new resources to the communal pot. Similarly, youth ministries need new youth to bring those things and to help form a critical mass that helps capture the attention of like-minded youth. There is a sort of chicken-or-egg conundrum around growth between meeting the needs of the current community or launching the newest marketing campaign. I would argue that the most natural and best growth comes when churches meet current needs really well and congregants bring others seeking the same sort of care. This requires churches to fulfill their calling to minister to those present and growth becomes a byproduct. What if, instead of looking to grow the youth ministry by attracting new “all-stars,” you know the ones we think we need in youth groups, youth ministers focused on welcoming and empowering the youth that are already present? Perhaps, in this light, the people we need in our youth groups are already there.
Over the past four months, specifically, I’ve tried to better develop my understanding of a welcoming and empowering youth group. Being a graduate student, I’ve had the added incentive of semester-long research papers that allowed me to do some deeper reading into this. The first thing that I found in my research is that youth ministry must begin with understanding the stage of life in which youth are located. One perspective that I found particularly helpful, here, was Erik Erikson’s Life Cycle Theory. Erikson suggests in that model that youth are caught in a struggle between identity and identity confusion. Further, he asserts that identity confusion is the normative experience for adolescents. There are many books and resources that point to various techniques for helping youth to manage this difficult, liminal space. I would argue, though, that the best way to help youth through that transition is to simply create space for them to be. Youth ministries can’t fall into the trap of labeling their perfect, target portion of adolescents. And, efforts to capture only a specific segment might backfire. They can limit the scope of those to whom the ministry actually offers care. Instead, in an effort to imitate Christ, youth ministries must work to fully welcome whoever comes in the door. For example, this may mean redesigning youth group meetings to better meet the needs of current members. I’m thinking specifically of deconstructing our tendencies to plan towards “typical” youth and then to mold pieces of the curriculum for those we deem “atypical.” In these tendencies, we focus on accommodating certain youth because they “need” exceptions or deviations from the general course. Instead of this approach, though, viewing each youth as a necessary and important part of the community changes one’s mindset from accommodating to engaging each youth. One of the things that became most evident in my research on youth with disabilities is that supposed accommodations for particular youth create a more empowering space for the entire group. For example, I work to maintain a specific rhythm of youth group that allows each youth to know what to expect, at least partially, when they walk through the door. Also, as a youth ministry, we have implemented a “Chill-Out Room.” We have transitioned an old, unused office space into a comfortable respite for youth who might feel particularly overwhelmed or vulnerable on a given night. The Chill-Out Room, though initially developed to create space for youth with developmental difference, is a resource that all youth can use when they need space to process individually. These two examples are holistic and intentional efforts to make the youth group meeting time meet the needs of all youth. It is a new, slightly different style of planning. Certainly, as I have implemented changes to youth group that were informed by my studies, some of the “typical” youth group activities have fallen to the wayside. They are set aside to make way for something that better suits the whole of the community. In their place, there is room to better focus on the particular youth that make up our group and the community formed therein.
If we approach our youth groups from a point of meeting the needs that are presented, we are not dismissing the notion that there are youth outside of the church that need to feel the love of God. Instead, we are saying that the important work of creating wholesome community that can only be done when youth are fully present in the mutual vulnerability of youth group. Space is created for each youth to simply be, in whatever state they arrive. It is an approach that describes a need for each and every kind of youth so long as they are willing to journey together. So, who are the people we need in youth group? We need them all, and especially those that are already right in front of us.