For ten years I experimented with creating safe spaces where youth could belong and build community together.
I started by organizing small concerts in the basement of a local church with some friends. We had coffee and popcorn and live music with some bands I knew. It was fun, but highly event focused. I learned a lot about how people invest in spaces where they belong.
Over the next six years my friend and I, + a team of amazing youth workers, played around with different environments where teenagers could experience what following Jesus looks like in the context of other people. We ran events and gatherings of all shapes and sizes, in a wide variety of times and places, all the while learning more about the basic elements of a self-giving community.
Around year seven (2013) we decided to try something different.
What would it look like to apply missional church planting ideas to youth ministry?
We shifted from our old attractional, consumer driven, event focused model and tried to create something more organic, communal, and missional. Instead of one big thing, we moved to six smaller things in homes around our neighbourhoods. Some wonderful families opened up their living rooms, basements, and kitchens for us as we gathered around tables each week.
We called it Tribes and it was fun and weird and messy.
"Tribes aren't about stuff. They're about connection." - Seth Godin
Tribes was sort of like the culmination of all those years of learning. It was an opportunity to have six little laboratories to put those basic elements to the test. For the next year and a half I was involved with offering strategic guidance and administrative help to the Tribes.
"Hospitality is healing because it does not take away the loneliness and pain of others, but invites them to recognize their loneliness on a level where it can be shared.” - henri Nouwen
Getting Out Of The Youth Room & Into The Neighbourhood
For years I was obsessed with trying to create the best, most exciting experience for youth. This meant bigger sound, brighter lights, better bands, & more dynamic speaking. We got pretty good at it too.
But, after much reading on missional church planting, we became convinced that the way forward was an emphasis on relationships, hospitality, & mission. So we moved our communities out of the youth room and into the neighbourhood.
"Isn’t the whole point of evangelism that the Church needs to get out of its buildings, programs, and services and go to the people within our communities?"
- Jake Kircher
Putting the Tribes in people's homes was a key component to how the whole thing was structured. I don't know if you've noticed this, but community forms best around tables. I recall asking a group of youth workers to think back to when they were in high school and tell me about somewhere they felt like they belonged. After thinking, they gave answers like "a friend's home", "my kitchen", "in my house." Not one of them said the church. We wanted to create spaces that built upon this realty; and so we found families whose houses were already being used as natural gathering spots for teens.
"We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet too, even with a crust, where there is companionship."- Dorothy Day
It's About Following Jesus... together
As I said, we wanted relationships to be the glue that holds this whole thing together (as opposed to programs). Understanding the relational DNA of a Tribe was an important part of the process. We used three words to map youth relationships within the Tribe.
- The Core
- The Committed
- The Connected
The Tribe is basically made up of groups 1&2. Group 3 provides a practical missional opportunity. The whole idea is founded on the premise that human beings have a natural drive to belong somewhere. We wanted to help them find that in a healthy, safe space that was centred on the self-giving love of Jesus and then exploring together how to live in that way.
"There is an insistence that no one should be alone. Alone, people have no protection. Alone, people have no fellowship. Alone, the tribe or clan does not exist and and harmony cannot therefore exist. Hospitality and generosity are the natural economy in the Harmony Way community." - Randy Woodley
Anyone who has done youth ministry knows that measuring success is no easy thing. It's one thing to count attendance; it's another to figure out how to know if young people's lives are being changed.
After 7 years of seeing the same problems, we began to ask questions around whether what we were doing was actually working. Sure, you could step into our program for the evening and assume that (based on the numbers) we were running a thriving youth program. However, few were seeing what we were. Grade 9 groups entering our program with over 30 students and graduating with under 10. The problem with numbers is that they can tell more than one story. While critical mass is helpful for making something feel like success; we needed smaller, more manageable communities in which we could actually measure it.
Our discipleship model hinged on three scales relating to three aspects of what it means to become more like Jesus.*
Belonging (moving from self-contained individual to positively shaping Tribe community); Following (moving from living life my way to living spirit led); & Serving (moving from selfish to self-giving). Each youth worker would be working with up to 5 youth helping them grow in each of those 3 ways.
*This was a concept that was never fully developed during my time there.
REsources For Further thought
Interested in how we came to this? Here's some resources we found helpful along the way as well as some that I am discovering as I continue learning and experimenting.
- Hemorrhaging Faith Report
- 'Five Reasons Millennials Stay Connected To Church' (Barna)
- Target by Rich Atkinson. (Great book on creating missional communities for youth.)
- Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt.
- The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity by Soong-Chan Rah.
- Missional Church by Lois Barrett and Darrell Guder.
- Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World by Alan Roxburgh
- The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.
- The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighbourhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block.
- The Very Good Gospel by Lisa Sharon Harper
- Foolishness to the Greeks by Leslie Newbiggen.
- Becoming Human by Jean Vanier.
- Post-Christendom by Stuart Murray.
- With Justice For All - John Perkins.
- Church In A Circle Blog.
- Missional Bible Study Questions by Donald Goertz.
I had to stop myself from adding more. You could also check out some of the work that I've done on community.
Tribe Starter Pack
Looking to try something similar? We put together a starter pack to help you out.
In it you'll find:
- 8 weeks of teacher curriculum that we tried out (Genesis and Romans). Includes some daily bible reading for take home.
- 9 weeks of game and hangout ideas.
- Expectations for host families.
- and more!
A Final word:
In the fall of 2015, I moved on to go work with Youth Unlimited.
In terms of the state of Tribes - they are still operating, though with a significantly different philosophy of leadership guiding them. Alex and I are still big believers in Tribes, our old ministry context, and have much love and support for all those committed to creating safe spaces for youth to build community and follow Jesus together. We're currently experimenting with house churches and other fun ideas.
The last two and a half years I have also been doing graduate studies on understanding church and trying to discern what is needed moving forward. You can see some of my academic efforts here. I also occasionally blog about stuff I'm thinking through.