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.


Changing My Thinking About Change

Times, They Are a’ Changin‘” is not a strategy.

What’s The Matter with Kids These Days” is not a plan.

I’m 37. I’ve been ordained for nearly a decade, and I’ve only ever known decline in my denomination. I started my seminary training the week of the September 11th attacks. The rapid, unpredictable change gripping the church and the world has been my constant companion from day one. It has neither surprised nor troubled me. I have taken change as a given in my vocation and have thought condescending thoughts toward those who lament or, worse, resist it.

Defending the status quo is not a vision for ministry.

But neither is embracing every change.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our calling in times of changing patterns, mores, and norms is to discern which changes ought to be resisted and which ones embraced. To ask together: which changes promote bonds of community and which fray them? Which elevate virtue and which vice? Which compel compassion and which apathy?

Neither fighting for nor fighting against Change is a good unto itself, and the choice between the former and the latter is false. Today’s rebel is tomorrow’s bore.

I’ve written a bit in this space about Youth Ministry 3.0, Mark Oestreicher’s provocative vision for youth work published in 2008. Its description of the changes shaping youth culture compelled me early in my present call to cultivate a menu of student programs, each of which might appeal to different students in the church and community but none of which would have central importance.

Out went The Youth Group and in came youth groups–two on Sunday afternoons and two on Wednesday afternoons. Also, special events became opportunities to engage particular groups of students in ministry and not another thing The Youth Group is expected to show up for. Scheduling a youth retreat does not cancel the weekly youth group.

Specifically, I heard clearly Oestreicher’s plea for smallness:

Smallness is both a value and a practice, though the value has to precede and continue on through the practice. Smallness values community in which teenagers can be truly known and know others, rather than being one of the crowd (even if it’s a really fun crowd). Smallness champions clusters of relationships rather than a carpet-bombing approach. Smallness waits on the still, small voice of God rather than assuming what God wants to say and broadcasting it through the best sound system money can buy. Smallness prioritizes relationships over numbers, social networks over programs, uniqueness over homogeneity, and listening to God over speaking for God (emphasis mine).

Clusters of relationships. Social networks. That’s what I’ve nurtured these past four years.

Today, though, I’m looking at these clusters and feeling acutely what they’re not doing. They’re not making much of a claim on student’s passion. They’re not holding up well to the carpet-bombing approach of homework and soccer and band and debate and water polo and A.P. classes and college applications. They’re not growing student’s knowledge of the Bible. They’re not compelling commitment to the gospel of Jesus.

Maybe they’re not experiential enough. Maybe they’re not fun enough. Maybe they’re badly led.

Or maybe the splintering changes gripping young peoples’ lives today shouldn’t be accommodated by championing smallness. Maybe these are changes to resist. Maybe bigness and uniformity gave where they appeared to be taking.

Could the last four years have been embracing changes they ought to have been resisting?

Put Me in, Coach (Youth Ministry Version) Revisited

TheYouth Ministry Coaching Program wrapped up this week with the last of six two-day gatherings in San Diego with the great bearded Mark Oestreicher. The balance of our time was spent sharing growth affirmations and challenges we’d all written for one another–a slightly awkward thing, sitting silent for 20 minutes as people tell you what they think is great about you and how you could yet grow (the awkwardness was relieved a bit when, just as one cohort member was extolling my “thoughtfulness,” my new ringtone went off).

Peter, Tim, Margie, Armando, Wes, Pat, Drew, Josh, Jesse, and, of course, Marko: thanks for your honesty and attention. You’ve all made me better.

In the next couple of blog posts I’m going to share some of the growth challenges I received. My aim is to hear how you all do the things I’ve been challenged to do and to broaden the community of practitioners I interact with.

For example, one very helpful challenge was to build my playful and silly side. I tend toward the straight-faced and analytical, so I need to seek frivolity in my calling.

How do YOU do that? How do you seek opportunities to be playful? How do you build silliness into your work? For those of you who do, what is the effect it has on you and your work?

Here’s something to get us started:

Meditate on This

Help me understand something that’s happening with the youth ministry I’m responsible for:

A student of mine (call him Steve), on his own initiative and without consulting me, approached an adult in our community to teach him and some of his friends meditation, and he offered the church as a sponsor and venue. The adult in question is known to me, and I regard her highly.

I spoke with her, and we scheduled three dates for a meditation experience that she would lead at the church. We sent out general publicity to our roster of students via email and text, but I insisted that participants primarily be recruited through Steve. I wanted him to invite his friends.

I couldn’t attend the first week (another adult did), but I attended last night. There were nine students there. Two of them are part of our congregation. The other seven represented Steve and six of his friends (five of which were girls). Steve’s mom is discouraged at the lack of participation by church youth, but my reaction is the exact opposite. I love this.

I love it because I have a growing conviction that ministry as a platform and youth ministry 3.0 insights are for real. During the last program year I blogged about Maggie and her use of a couple of church programs as platforms for her and her friends to do good work. This seems to me to be the same thing. Except it’s Steve and his friends.

Going into next year, it seems that several youth ministry “participant communities” are emerging. While there is still the traditional community of students from the church who come to weekly youth groups, there is also the community of Steve and his friends and the community of Maggie and her friends. The challenge will be to work with that traditional community on programming for them while also discerning opportunities to work with those other communities in meaningful ways.

Help me out: is this the right way to be interpreting what’s happening? Where else do you see this happening, and how does one discern well opportunities to do good work with new communities of students?

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.

The Collective: A New Culture of Learning pt. 2

In an earlier post, I introduced Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s book  A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, asking how youth leaders actually get at the internal motivation that, married with access to an unlimited source of information, drives learning.

Here’s another key idea in the book: the collective.

“As the name implies, it is a collection of people, skills, and talent that produces a result greater than the sum of its parts. For our purposes . . . they are defined by an active engagement with the process of learning.

“A collective is very different from an ordinary community. Where communities can be passive . . . collectives cannot. In communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn. Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives derive theirs from participation.

“[Collectives] are content neutral platforms, waiting to be filled with interactions among participants.”

What if youth ministry were viewed in a particular context as a constellation of collectives? What if, instead of The Youth Group, where one Youth Leader was trying to expose all participants to Scripture study, service, spiritual practice, worship, community building, etc., you instead had a collective of students who were participating in service and a collective that was focused on Scripture study, and any number of youth collectives engaging any number of things?

A student could choose to participate in whichever collective appealed to her. She could form a collective of her peers around forms of participation that don’t yet exist at the church.

In our congregation this year, a particular student has gathered a collective of her peers around her to engage issues of hunger. She recruited them to raise money for and participate in a walk. She got them to do the 30 Hour Famine. What that collective does next I don’t know. But I’m sure they’re not done.

I like what the collective suggests. What are the limitations, though? Does this appeal to you as much as it does to me?

Jeff Jarvis, Maggie, and The Walk (part 2)

I blogged yesterday about Maggie the Magnificent and her really stellar leadership of our church’s involvement in a local hunger walk.  Maggie is a high school student who is “disconnected” in programmatic terms from the church’s youth ministry activities. But she’s doing good work in the world, and it made me sad that the church wasn’t positioned as a platform for her to do some of that work. So I invited her to lead the walk efforts, and she killed it. She totally killed it.

Another thing that emerged, though, from this year’s walk effort, was that the youth at our church who participate in it are not necessarily the same ones who come to youth group.

In the past, Sunday youth groups would be cancelled on the day of the walk, since our youth would presumably have already done something that day. I had my doubts about that presumption.

So this year we held youth groups on Sunday night per usual, and, as I expected, that was exactly zero overlap between the students who walked for hunger and those who came hungry for Sunday night community. Ze-ro.

The walk involved the same number of youth as regularly come to youth group gatherings, but they were (this week at least) a totally different group of youth.

This is an emerging attempt on my part to put into practice Mark Oestreicher’s Youth Ministy 3.0 contention that there’s no such thing as a youth ministry, in the singular. Instead, churches have ministries to different groupings of youth. Trying to craft a comprehensive program that will attract all manner of students is foolish. It’s also kind of lazy.

Of course, it’s also a continued grappling with Jeff Jarvis’s thoroughgoing What Would Google Do? with its unambiguous answer that Google would create a platform for youth to do what they already want to do.

My next question, then, is this: if a hunger walk gives youth a platform to do good work on behalf of needy people, then what are youth groups a platform for?