This is sort-of an autobiographical exploration of what I learned doing youth work out of a local church for a decade.
I began by hosting small basement concerts with some friends. We had coffee and popcorn and live music with some local bands I knew. I saw first hand how people invest into creating spaces where they can belong.
For about seven years my friend and I, + a team of volunteers, created different types of environments where teenagers could find a sense of community and explore their faith together. We ran events and gatherings of all shapes and sizes, in a wide variety of times and places. We learned a lot.
However, year after year, something kept nagging me about our model. So we decided to change it.
Anyone who has done youth ministry over the last few decades has to have realized that things are not working like they used to. There’s an argument to suggest they never really did. Just look at the declining numbers of church retention as each new generation hits adulthood.
Our concerns with our program were bumping up against something bigger than just our own context.
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 anything we were doing was actually working. Although we could point to decent numbers in terms of attendance, youth were not truly connecting into the church beyond our events. We also had no way of even knowing how to measure real, positive change in the lives of the youth who were a part of our programs.
Not only did we need to change our model, we needed to figure out a whole new scoreboard.
Out Of The Youth Room and Into The Neighbourhood
So, in 2012-13 we shifted from our old attractional, consumer driven, event focused model and tried to create something more organic, communal, and decentralized. Instead of one big thing, we broke it down into to six smaller things across different homes around our neighbourhoods.
Have you ever noticed how naturally community forms around tables?
As I read more and more on different church movements throughout history, we became convinced that the way forward for us was an emphasis on relationships, hospitality, & mission. So we traded our flashy program for basements, living rooms, backyards, and tables.
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
These new, smaller communities were centred around tables - so to speak. Kitchen tables, coffee tables, ping pong tables, even picnic tables. Each community had a host family who opened up their home (and often their kitchens) each week to 10-20 teens. The groups were run entirely by volunteers and the youth themselves - each one forming its own unique character.
It certainly wasn’t without its problems, but we began to uncover something important, and what I believe the essence of church is: self-giving community.
Transformation took place in smaller, more incremental ways as youth learned to give more of themselves to the communities and the communities learned to care for one another. It was pretty spectacular to watch.
Regrettably, the format was not fully accepted by the wider congregation and leadership and was not given the room it needed to survive. It lasted about three years before it was abandoned and the church took it back to the old, centralized model.
So was the experiment a failure or a success?
A question I’ve circled around following my departure from that job. Certainly, depending on who you ask, you will get a different answer. And I guess it would depend on what weight you give to the person answering. There’s a subjectivity to reality that leaves me to say that everyone’s experience has some degree of validity, I can’t outright dismiss those voices who claim it didn’t work for them.
Ultimately it was an experiment that was, perhaps, too far outside the comfort level of that local church. Although it made sense to me, coming from my experience with the youth over the years and the research I was doing, it was not right for that place at that time. It pushed against sacred cows and institutional frameworks that were just not ready to bend.
In the end, I believe this experiment planted a lot of seeds of change. There were many people - both youth and youth workers - who came out of this thing profoundly different, having experienced what real community can be.
For me, that’s a win.