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.
I began 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 took a lot of work to organize and pull off. I learned a lot about how people invest into spaces where they belong.
Over the next six years my friend and I, along with a team of amazing volunteers, 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.
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.
Getting Out Of The Youth Room and Into The Neighbourhood
Hosting these communities 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
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.
[^1]: When we started this program, I used a term that I have since acknowledged was cultural appropriation of indigenous communities.