Affinity or Community

Doublas Rushkoff made a prescient observation in an opinion piece about Donald Trump for Digital Trends yesterday, but instead of Trump it has me thinking about youth group. Here’s the observation:

Digital media, on the other hand, is all about choice and boundaries. We don’t have communities so much as affinity groups. We choose evermore specific sets of connections and feeds of information – and if we don’t, Facebook’s algorithms will do it for us. Your Google search is different than my Google search, because the company’s algorithms know how to parse what is different about our predilections.

I’ve been a big advocate of an “affinity-based” youth ministry approach over the past three years. My enthusiasm for it stems from my reading of Youth Ministry 3.0 and my interactions with the author, Mark Oestreicher, through of of his organization’s Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohorts.

One of Marko’s keen insights is that adolescent development has a lot more to do with finding affinity today than it did in previous iterations of youth culture, when you were either “in” or “out,” you belonged or you didn’t. Humans almost always seek out belonging, and that search is particularly urgent in adolescence. What’s important to note is that, in the Google and Facebook world Rushkoff is pointing to, “It’s easier to find a place to belong,” as Marko observes.

So I have focused a lot of my youth ministry efforts on working within groups where teens already have some affinity with one another. The best example is these weekly after school groups of youth who come as a group. They are one another’s people already, and they’re together when they’re not at church. At church, we do something different.

I’ve focused a lot less effort on building community among divergent affinity groups or among teenagers on the margins who don’t feel like there is a group for them. Rushkoff’s assessment stings a little bit and makes me want youth ministry to model a different way.

Affinity is not the same as community. Community is harder.