Youth Group Culture: Avoiding Creating a Church within a Church

This is the third piece in our series on youth group culture that asks the question, “How do we create a culture of participation, passion, and engagement in the broader church in our youth groups?” The second piece can be found here.

We were careful. And thoughtful. We were intentional. And frankly, it blew up in our faces. 

I had taken a new job as the Student Ministries Pastor at a pretty large church in New Mexico. The student ministry was called “The Xtreme.” It felt a bit like a 90s throw-back name. So, a team of volunteers, myself, and a couple of our student ministry paid-staff began the process of creating a new student ministry identity. 

At the time, and even now, I think we developed a really strong identity. We came up with a cool name that was based on a Bible verse. We came up with a cool logo (for all those absolutely necessary student ministry T-shirts), and we incorporated the logo into the way we painted the student rooms with the new carefully chosen paint scheme. We did this because, as Erik Erikson (a prominent psycho-social developmental theorist) believed, “Group identity precedes individual identity and specifically that adolescents determine their identity by immersion in community [1].” A strong sense of belonging to a group is absolutely critical to healthy identity formation and spiritual formation.

The problem was: we did too good of a job. We would be attending school functions in the community, or events where multiple youth were participating, and we would hear teens ask each other where they went to church. More often then not, when a teenager in our student ministry was asked where they went to church, they would not reply with the name of our church; they would reply with the name of our student ministry. 

This was a big problem.

Noticing this issue also helped me to quickly identify that many of our students didn’t have families that attended our church – or any church for that matter. And it also helped me to recognize that these teens didn’t attend our church; they attended our student ministry. Our student ministry was a church within the church. We were teaching teenagers to fall in love with youth group instead of teaching them to love Christ and his bride, the church.

I am not against having a cool youth group name or a healthy student ministry group identity. But that mistake taught me many things. A student ministry’s identity must reflect the identity of the individual local church that it ministers within. A student ministry’s mission should be the same as the local congregation that the youth ministry serves (or a contextualized version for teens). The identity and methodology of a student ministry in an individual congregation should encourage participation in that congregation and participation in the wider body of the church. And, it should teach students that their participation in the wider local church is not just for their spiritual benefit. Because, as the International Mission Council declared in Willingen, Germany in 1952, “There is no participation in Christ without participation in His mission to the world [2].”

Although much research, and particularly the Sticky Faith research, shows that participation in the local congregation (along with intergenerational worship and relationships) is key to the long-term spiritual health of teenagers, we want to emphasize that love serves others. Participation of teenagers in the wider body of Christ, the local congregation and the global church, is absolutely critical and necessary for the long-term health and vitality of the body of Christ. 

Paul writes to the completely corrupt church in Corinth, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it (12:26).” Teenagers aren’t just necessary for the health and vitality of the church because they are the “future of the church,” they are necessary for the present health and vitality of the church because the church is an incomplete expression of the body of Christ without their participation, their gifts, and their service. The local church’s health is contingent on and dependent on the health and participation of teenagers in that church!

At the church where I’m currently serving, it may seem like our student ministry does not have an identity. Our student ministry’s name is “Christ Community: Olathe Student Ministries.” The room where we gather on Sundays and Wednesdays only reveals that it’s a room where teenagers hang out because there is a ping-pong table and a foosball table. The chairs are the same as the rest of the church. So is the paint scheme. 

Our group identity is not grounded in cosmetics or aesthetics. It’s grounded in the local expression of the body of Christ; it’s grounded in our church. And it’s grounded in the kids and volunteers who come. Our student ministry’s identity is found in our church as our church is stumbling forward, skinning our knees, one step at a time towards being a complete expression of the body of Christ – an expression that seeks to involve students, use their gifts, and value them because even the weaker parts are seen as indispensible (1 Cor. 12:2).

[1] Mahan, Brian,  Michael Warren & Dave White. Awakening Youth Discipleship: Christian Resistance in a Consumer Culture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008): 18.

[2] Gary M. Simpson, “The Reformation is a Terrible Thing to Waste,  in The Missional Church in Context ed. Craig van Gelder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,  2007), 76.

Join us for Rooted 2015, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore how the good news of God coming to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ offers student ministers and teenagers, hope, healing and connectedness.  

Kris currently serves as Director of the Kansas City Fellows and has been a youth ministry practitioner for more than 20 years. In addition to loving Jesus and loving teenagers, he also has a deep appreciation for all things coffee, cycling and Djing. He recently completed his Doctor of Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a Sticky Faith certified coach. He's been married to his wife Heather for more than 20 years and has two daughters.

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