A Place To Belong

(This is sort of an autobiogaphical exploration of what I learned doing youth work for a decade. If that doesn't interest you, feel free to move on.)

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For ten years I experimented with creating safe spaces where youth could belong and build communitiy 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. 

But something about our model just didn't seem to be working. So we decided to try something different.

In 2013 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 and volunteers.

"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 and Into The Neighbourhood.

I admit that I used to be 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 doing a bunch of reading on missional church planting, we became convinced that the way forward was an emphasis on relationships, hospitality, & mission. So we traded our flashy program for basements, living rooms, backyards, and parks.  

"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

Hosting 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.

We wanted relationships to be the glue that held this whole thing together - as opposed to programs. So 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

A Tribe is mostly made up of core and committed teens. The third category, the connected, provides the 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

Measuring Change

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. 

"Youth ministry as an experiment has failed. If we want to see the church survive, we need to rethink youth ministry." - Mike Yaconelli

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. 

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A Final Note:

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.