Friday, July 19, 2013

Youth Ministry Values (Part 4): Environments of Belonging


Everyone has values. Whether they're clearly articulated or tacitly underlying every action we take, our lives are defined by them. Ministries have values too. Two years ago, I created a set of ministry values that have stuck with me and my ministry. Some of them have been refined or matured, but all remain the core DNA and ethos of the ministry I want to embody. This blog series will unpack each value in the following way: where the value comes from, why it's important, and how it's practiced in my ministry.

The fourth value: Environments of Belonging
We will foster a culture of belonging, where it’s safe to ask questions and fail, where love is defined by sacrificial action. Love should be tangible, experienced by both leaders and students in every arena, grace-soaked and truth-filled. Love requires loving the marginalized, intentionally moving into the margins to embrace the forgotten and ignored.
Where the value comes from: In Mark Oestreicher's book Youth Ministry 3.0, he describes the three tasks of adolescent development: identity, autonomy, and affinity. He proposes that affinity is the central task of 21st-century Western youth culture, that young people are searching for a community of people where they can belong. In my own experience, this sort of community is marked by unconditional grace and an approachability, a sense of "I fit here" that goes beyond cultural norms or affiliations.

Why it's important
From films to music to TV shows, this cry for belonging is loud and prominent in our culture. Our social structures are becoming more of a level playing field, a mosaic of interconnected social networks, where all are equal and different. There aren't the "popular" kids and the "nerds" any more. The Breakfast Club social boundary lines are becoming more blurred. The misfits and weirdos of the world are becoming more cool and more diverse, which means finding a place of belonging is both more difficult and more important than ever. The kingdom of God should be the culture where anyone and everyone can find grace and belonging, where all are welcomed because all are broken by sin and all can be saved by grace through faith.

How it's practiced: While it's really difficult to achieve, creating environments of belonging means that anyone who shows up to our youth group, small group, big event, or Sunday morning service leaves feeling loved. They might disagree with everything said, they might even be hostile towards Christianity, but I hope that our adult leaders' willingness to graciously engage with anyone and everyone fosters this culture of belonging. We have a mantra for our leaders: we get to be awkward so they don't have to. This means that we initiate and invite and come alongside youth, both the ones we know and the ones we're unsure about.

Questions to ask: Who is finding a sense of belonging in our ministry? Who isn't? What are the social boundaries of our context, and how can the gospel break through those walls? How are we actively inviting the marginalized and outsider into our community?

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