By Andy Sahl
I served for several years with a leadership camp in Western Illinois. High school kids labeled as “student leaders” (read, well connected to their youth group) from all over the country would come together for a week of small groups, worship, workshops, and free time fun on a college campus. What was amazing about this camp is that they had a culture and structure of assigning kids to random roommates and assigning the small groups so that they were not with their friends from church.
And it worked.
Not only did it work, but it worked amazingly well. This camp had a year to year return rate of over 80 percent. I was just reminded of the strong connections and sense of belonging that is fostered at this camp. One of my Facebook friends from this camp just wished another Facebook friend from camp happy birthday, six years after I had them in a small group together for a week in the summer.
As much as we like to think of youth ministry as laid back, relaxed, and unstructured, sometimes creating a rigid, no compromises structure that nurtures a culture of belonging may be a biggie that missing in the church/youth ministry setting?
Group Magazing published a study about “Cool Churches,” where they asked approximately 10,000 high school kids to rate ten different factors that influence their commitment to church. The top two responses were 1: a welcoming atmosphere where you can be yourself and, 2: Quality relationships with other teenagers.
Last on the list, "A fast-paced, high-tech, entertaining ministry approach."
When I look at numbers 1 & 2, I see belonging, and camps create immediate, highly structured places and groups to belong (think cabin and counselor assignments). Often our youth ministries are drop in, start late, loose boundaries places where only those that already have a sense of belonging feel like they belong.
What might it look like to create a structure and culture in our ministries that fostered belonging?
What are you doing structurally that fosters belonging?
As much as youth ministers like to be anti-structure people whose ministries are more “organic” than “programmed,” I think it’s possible that our “organic” thinking isn’t fostering the belonging that camps have (necessarily) built into their structure.
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Andy Sahl is the Director of Youth Ministry at Saint Michael and All Angles Episcopal Church in Dallas Texas and has been serving in youth ministry for 15 years. Andy is passionate about developing authentic community and families through the ministries he helps lead. You can often find Andy out for a run with his dog Charles, sharing a cup of coffee with a friend at a local café, or at a favorite restaurant with his family. You can follow him on Twitter @andysahl.