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.



Youth Ministry as Karaoke: A New Culture of Learning, part 4

See the first three posts on A New Culture of Learning here, here, and here.

Collectives are made up of people who generally share values and beliefs about the world and their place in it, who value participation over belonging, and who engage in a set of shared practices. Thus collectives are plural and multiple. They also both form and disappear regularly around different ideas, events, or moments. Collectives . . . are both contextual and situated, particularly with regard to engaging in specific actions.

They are built and structured around participation and therefore carry a different sense of investment for those who engage in them. When, for example, a person sings a song onstage at a karaoke bar, he is doing it within a collective environment. In the karaoke bar participation is not only valued, it is the substance of the activity itself. The collective that forms as a result provides an opportunity to do certain things (agency) and a connection with other performers who are similarly situated (identity)–neither of which exists in the other two venues.

What is the substance of the activity we call “youth ministry?” Short answer: there isn’t any.

If Mark Oestreicher is right, then there’s no such thing as a “youth ministry” in any particular church. There are youth ministries: various efforts to connect young people, adults, and the world around them in vibrant expressions of faith. All those various activities have some substance to them, but the youth ministry of the church doesn’t. Trying to define it, name it, strategize around it will feel good and useful, but it won’t be. At least not to the youth we’re trying to work with.

I’m wrestling instead with the substance of my Sunday night high school youth group and my Tuesday afternoon junior high guys group and the work trip and the confirmation class and Maggie and her friends. Those are all different collectives. They are all built and structured around a different kind of participation. The agency and connection students get from those different collectives don’t really relate to each other. They don’t have to. And there’s no rule that says they have to live forever. These collective form and disappear around the students in them and the things the students are drawn to.

Yet here’s the trouble I’m having. If collectives are made up of people who generally share values about the world and their place in it, then those are two things that teenagers are notoriously bad at understanding. Most adolescents’ values conform pretty closely to those of their parents, and their sense of their place in the world changes constantly. These are things that the church is helping them figure out.

So let youth ministry be karaoke. Let a group of students who want the substance of their participation with one another in the church to be playing games have that experience. But guide them as well, so that they encounter values larger than the ones they were raised on and so that they can’t settle into an easy sense of their place in the world without being given some options their school and Mtv can’t give them.