As youth ministers, we are no strangers to the mental health crisis facing the teenagers we serve. LifeWay Research recently highlighted a new study revealing a correlation between young people’s resilience in mental health and their sense of belonging in community. The study suggests that ministry leaders can help to prevent mental health struggles by helping teenagers to feel welcomed and known. In this series, we explore the different ways youth ministers can lean into Rooted’s pillar of relational discipleship to create a culture of belonging, welcoming teenagers as God has welcomed us in Christ.
One aspect of belonging that challenges high schoolers (and to be honest, adults) is our human propensity to form cliques. It’s natural to gravitate towards PLUs (People Like Us), but the formation of groups where certain people are “in” and others are “out” is antithetical to the gospel. Cliques and favoritism have no place in youth group. Below you’ll find a conversation between veteran youth pastor Chelsea Kingston Erickson and mom Anna Meade Harris, in which they discuss the impact of cliques on teenagers and the radical welcome of Jesus.
Chelsea: It seems like the formation of cliques is one of the quickest ways to kill the culture of belonging in any youth ministry. According to this article, the categories for cliques might be a little different than when we were in high school, but nothing has really changed. Have you observed this dynamic of cliques as a parent? If so, how did it impact your kids’ spiritual lives?
Anna: That article, oh my goodness. The more things change the more they stay the same.
As a mom, I learned that cliques were alive and well among teenagers, and that boys are as susceptible to hurt feelings as girls are. My own kids experienced being both “inside” and “outside,” and it was very hard to get them to talk about feeling “outside.”
One thing that surprised me: Christian kids form cliques too, even within a youth group, and their boundaries are at least as impermeable as any group of athletes or popular kids might be. The standards are particular to “good Christian behavior” – the kids don’t “drink or chew or date girls who do;” they go to a lot of Bible studies, speak respectfully to adults, and volunteer a lot. They tend to dress modestly and date within the confines of the group and they never cuss. And in many cases, these kids avoid students who cross those boundaries like the plague. This is where the real problems start. In their more extreme iterations, Christian cliques project a general air of judgmental piety and are off-putting in the extreme, presenting a stumbling block for both unbelievers and for teenagers who don’t follow all the Christian rules so perfectly.
Youth ministers and parents can unwittingly contribute to hardening the boundaries of these cliques. When we react to unbelieving teenagers – or even Bible-believing teenagers who break some of the “rules” – with fear and disapproval, we feed the self-righteousness of a rule-follower and ostracize the boundary-pusher. We risk reducing the Christian life to a set of behaviors, and burden teens who yearn to be faithful with an unsustainable yoke of performance. Not only does their salvation appear to hang on following a set of rules, their friend group does too. Reinforcing the cliques is bad for everyone.
Cognitively, teenagers can be pretty black and white, which means they can be diehard Pharisees, often out of fear that the sins their peers embrace will overtake them too. As adults, we must help kids see that exclusionary tribalism is also sinful. Examining the life of Jesus and his generous, compassionate interactions with all walks of people will likely help teenagers realize that they need Jesus as much as any human ever did.
Chelsea: I was definitely one of those die-hard Pharisees as a teenager, judging the kids who were going to youth group but not taking their faith seriously (according to my own assessment) the rest of the week. At the same time, I was struggling with lots of sin and contradictory behavior in my own life. I didn’t grasp the grace of Jesus, or how much I needed his work in my place.
Then in college I experienced a taste of the reverse. I pledged a sorority, which I saw as a missional opportunity to share Jesus in friendships. But I often sensed that my peers in our Christian campus group wondered about me: Was I partying the way these other sorority women did? Was I still serious about Jesus? Maybe that feeling says more about my past judgments than anyone else’s! But I had to learn to be okay with not fitting the neat mold of a Christian I had tried so hard to maintain up until that point. Thankfully there was a group of Christians in the Greek system who met together regularly, and both there and in my church I saw God’s grace on full display.
This is one of the really practical things about gospel-centered youth ministry. As parents and youth ministers, we get to tell teenagers the good news that neither they nor their peers need to earn their place. Jesus offers us his radical welcome, and then he empowers us to live in a new way—we can’t rely on our own efforts. I think when teenagers really grasp that, they also begin to welcome one another, in youth group and beyond.
I think most youth pastors desire to create this kind of welcoming culture—but it’s easier said than done. How have you seen youth ministers contribute positively or negatively to setting a tone of belonging for all students?
Anna: It’s essential for youth pastors to remember that in Christ, we are family. And if there’s one thing that’s true of family: everyone belongs. Everyone is essential. What happens to you affects me, and I am diminished if you are not present (Rom. 12:3-4).
As a parent, I would hope that my kids would find brothers and sisters in youth group. With that in mind, the youth pastor assumes a role akin to big brother or sister in the faith, even as they lead as an adult. My sons’ youth minister at church loved his students in just this way. Caleb genuinely liked and admired every student. He cultivated an appreciation for each one’s individual gifts and passions, and offered praise and affirmation liberally. He marveled at how much their questions challenged him to go deeper into the Word, and took joy in leading them and learning from them.
I have also seen a situation where a youth worker played favorites. This person favored attractive, popular students who excelled at sports and students who were able to speak eloquently about their faith and project a squeaky-clean image. These students were singled out for leadership, praise, and affirmation, often in front of the whole group. The students recognized that she favored a type (we adults are more transparent than we think), and many students avoided the ministry altogether because they knew they didn’t fit the mold. Unaware that in many ways her leadership contradicted the welcome of Jesus, she unintentionally created a Christian clique in which teenagers on the “inside” did hear the gospel, but those on the “outside” struggled not to become offended with Jesus because they didn’t fit a mold.
I hesitate to share that story, because this young woman would never intentionally hurt any student. She always kindly affirmed the kids on the margins, but she never could see that the group culture she created prevented those kids from truly feeling like they belonged.
Chelsea: That second story absolutely breaks my heart. Teenagers are met with so much of that competition and exclusivity in the world—they need their churches and youth ministries to be radically different, to reflect the welcome of the gospel! Sadly I think favoritism is so common in even the adult ministries of many churches. And the insider-outsider dynamic you’re pointing to represents the very opposite of the ministry of Jesus, who came to turn outsiders into insiders.
As much as I can get on my high horse about playing favorites in the church, I’m also convicted by your story about my own human propensity to pick favorites. As youth ministers, I think we always need to be asking God to test our hearts. Are we over-identifying with kids who remind us of our younger selves? Do we gravitate toward the charismatic or popular kids in the group? Have we been proactive to seek out new or disconnected students? Are we intentionally recruiting youth leaders to the team who reflect a wide spectrum of the life of our church and a diversity of interests—or choosing people who are just like us?
Anna: As a parent of teenagers, I became very aware that my own sense of being a misfit in high school led to the temptation that my kids be “well-liked.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting our children to feel the warmth of being generally liked by their peers. God made us to enjoy other people and to thrive in the company of others (“It is not good for man to be alone.”) But when a parent is overeager for their kids to fit in or even be popular, we often don’t disciple our kids wisely or teach them to set boundaries in their less healthy friendships.
So for me, one of the first things I had to do was recognize where I had been hurt by cliques in high school. I will never forget one Monday morning in gym class where a girl (whom I had counted as a close friend—wrong!) shared photos of her spend-the-night fourteenth birthday party with me. It was surreal to see the pictures of twelve girls I thought were my good friends celebrating together when I had not been invited. To this day I have no idea if she was clueless or mean to show me those photos, but the message was clear: I did not belong where I thought I belonged. My heart hurts for teenagers who feel that kind of rejection every day when they scroll through social media.
Youth ministers absolutely must process their own high school hurts before they can minister effectively to teenagers. In my first career as a high school English teacher, this was something I discussed frequently with other faculty. We were, in a sense, back in high school, but this time we held positions of some power and influence. It was NOT the time to cozy up to the popular kids because their approval made us look cool too. Our own bullies were long gone, and the kids we taught didn’t need for us to project our retribution onto them. The same is true for youth pastors and parents; we must not work out our own high school hurts in our teens’ social lives.
This can be painful. Many (most?) of us have residual hurts around this issue of belonging. Talking with old friends from our teenage years can give us perspective; perhaps our own myopic, self-absorbed teen brain could not see what our adult brains can now see differently. Lamenting the genuine sadness of that time in prayer will open us up to healing. Repenting of idols like approval, popularity, or an elusive self-image can open us up to appreciating a wider variety of teenagers. When we don’t need teenagers to think we’re cool, we are freed to love them as Christ has called us to love.
Doing the spiritual work comes first, but there are also practical ways to foster a greater sense of community and appreciation for each kid in your ministry. Based on some of the things I have seen that work well (and some things that don’t!) here’s a mom’s eye view of possible strategies to use:
- Do not weight your youth group activities towards sports, drama, music, or any one particular skill set. When you plan for fun, make sure you offer a wide variety so that the athletic kids or the intelligent kids don’t always have more fun than everyone else. Make sure to plan some activities that are outside YOUR comfort level too, so the kids can watch you fail in good fun.
- Invite musicians of all skill levels to participate in youth worship, if they are willing and comfortable.
- Validate the testimonies of every student, not just the dramatic conversions or the kids who can bring the room to tears. And not every kid wants to give a testimony.
- Students can be sensitive to anything that makes them feel different. Students whose families are less affluent than your group norm, students with disabilities, students with single parents, students with a unique heritage or background- get to know them well and affirm both the beauty and the pain of their particular circumstance.
- Some students go out of their way to differentiate themselves from their peers. This can range from dying their hair to changing their gender. These students are asking for special attention because they need it.
Youth minister, your approval carries weight, even with kids who act too cool to care. If you give that approval disproportionately to certain kids or certain types of kids, you are confirming for other kids that they are outsiders and they fail to measure up. Your attention assures the individual student that their presence matters and the group is better because they are there.
Chelsea: Yes and amen to all of that! It’s so encouraging to hear from your perspective what makes a difference in creating this culture of belonging and welcome.
It reminds me of a story of a middle school student from several years ago who needed a lot of…shall we say…”redirecting.” I felt like I was constantly correcting him or trying to keep him from injuring other students in games. I feared all of that could easily be interpreted that I didn’t like him very much. I was desperate for a win with this kid. And then, I heard through the grapevine that he had invited a newcomer to our youth group to play pick-up basketball with some other guys from the group. When I approached him—in front of his crew—to tell him about the “good gossip” I had heard about him and to thank him for being so kind, he positively beamed.
That experience was a reminder to me that as you said, my approval as a spiritual leader meant a lot, even to the toughest kids. This is another reason I’m passionate about marking transitions in youth ministry. Celebrating milestones—and even a small gesture like sending birthday cards—gives us a chance to speak words of life, encouragement, and welcome over each student equally, whereas in our day-to-day interactions we’re probably not as equitable as we want to think.
Anna: “There is no partiality with God,” but there sure is with me (Rom. 2:11)!
Chelsea: Too true! Thankfully our impartial God came and sought us, welcoming us in Jesus. By his grace, may our youth ministries and homes be communities that reflect the belonging we have in Christ.