The Culture of Belonging in Youth Group

Rooted asked contributors: How will a theological concept you’ve learned or come to understand better influence or change the way you do things in the new school year?  This article is one in a series of what they had to say.

I still remember the feeling of pulling into the church parking lot as a teenager and walking up the stairs to the house my youth group met in. I could hear the music from outside, and as I made my way through a sea of faces, I opened up the front door and stepped into my own individual and personal introduction. There stood Jeremy, our worship leader, jamming on his acoustic guitar.  He was singing some made-up song that included my name, the outfit I was wearing and how cool I was. . . all to the tune of “I’ll Fly Away.”  

Weird? Yes. Normal?  Absolutely. 

This was youth group. Every night when a student opened that front door, Jeremy made sure that he knew this place was for him. No matter the age, grade, size, spot on the team or social aptitude . . . each student had a place there, and Jeremy declared it for all to hear. 

That small act has stuck with me because in the midst of being a teenager, having someone else loudly, excitedly, and intentionally welcome you into a place makes all the difference in the world. In that moment, every week, I knew I was somewhere that wanted me.  I had a place to belong. 

In Romans 12:3-5 Paul focuses on how we as God’s children should interact with each other in a very intentional way:

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought. . . Just as each of us has one body with many members. . . so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

Friends, we belong to each other. 

These words are not flippant. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now. 

There is an emphasis of belonging to one another that threads itself from Genesis to Revelation and creates a beautiful picture of the face and ministry of Jesus. 

If we are going to effectively disciple students, our ministries need to be places that cultivate this sense of belonging to each other so that we may see the face of Jesus in our ministry. 

Every group is different, every leader has different gifts, and every student needs to hear specific things in order to feel accepted and wanted.  The following list is not a catch-all to create a ministry of belonging, but these are simply ideas that have helped to create our culture:

1. Take the first 10 minutes seriously.  

What is the first thing your students’ senses tell them when they walk into group? Does the place smell like grandpa’s basement?  Is there stuff to do while waiting for other students to gather? Are there people to talk to?

Thinking about the first 10 minutes of a student’s experience is crucial to her feeling like the time was worth it.  This does not mean you need to buy a foosball table! It does mean that you should think about an activity that students can do as they show up. 

For example, our students have been obsessed with a game to get a metal ring to attach to a hook.  Our leaders got hyped about this simple game, which led the students to get hyped about it. We set it up at the entrance so that new students could see that life was happening in this place, and they could be a part of it. 

And let’s be honest, some students are hard to talk to. But according to Romans 12, they belong to the group just as much as your social butterfly student. One of the most effective pieces of advice I ever received from a former youth pastor is to take care of the students on the outskirts of the group. If you create a place that brings them in, automatically the students who tend to be the center of the group will be taken care of as well. 

2. “Be For Each Other.” 

This is a saying we have started to echo around our ministry this summer: “Be for each other.” It’s a call to action when our culture of belonging is threatened or a change needs to be made. When we say this, our students know that we intend for this place to be different from any other. 

It’s a place where we encourage them to ask questions about each other. We encourage them to stand up for each other in and outside of the group. We use it as a reminder that we are all the same: a bunch of messy people trying to figure out this world. This statement also gives students ownership to help build the culture of belonging. The church is meant to be different. Don’t let your students settle for youth group being and acting like the hallways at school.  

3. Serve and Be Together.

Find places for your students to serve and be together on a regular basis. Provide dinner downtown at a shelter, offer babysitting for a church-wide event or serve as greeters on a Sunday morning. Attend football games on Fridays, grab breakfast before school or teach students to play pool on a Saturday. Shared experiences can act as binding to our students’ hearts when they aren’t sure if they fit in the group any other way. 

Creating a culture of belonging is not easy. But it is fruitful. Take encouragement and guidance from the ultimate creator of a belonging culture, Jesus Christ. Only He could take a random bunch of people who never would have been friends on their own — fishermen, tax collectors, faithful women — and create a place they could all belong together. Romans 12:5 starts off with “so in Christ” for a reason. Only with Christ’s power, example and work can we create a culture of belonging that is also fruitful. Rest and lean on Him to show you how. 

Becca Heck is a veteran youth worker based in Atlanta, GA. She has served on the steering committee of Rooted Ministry and is currently working on her MDiv at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. In between classes she is a part of the Anago Partnership Co-hort in Atlanta, upskilling pastors to lead flourishing churches. You can find her on the weekends teaching at various trainings, conferences, and retreats.

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