In our book, Evangelism Remixed, Dave Rahn and I raise the importance for youth groups to be socially safe. We were researching factors that contributed to effective outreach, but social safety seems even more important to small groups and similar groups focused on existing attendees.
Socially awkward moments look different from group to group, but they are easily monitored – and veteran group leaders know how to pay attention to the social interactions among members. Further, they’ve developed the expertise and know-how to gently address them so that all members can feel positive about the group’s role in their lives. However, this aspect of group leadership is often lost, and we’ve both encountered youth groups where students didn’t want to return, or they left the group mad and beat-up from the sarcasm and interactions – and often the adult leaders will never know of the hurt.
As we stated in chapter six, “Transformational youth ministries have found a way to be true to the Gospel and yet demonstrate an awareness of adolescent learning styles, social dynamics, and developing values. Youth ministers who spend time with their students in informal settings can learn much of what’s needed to ensure this safety by just inquiring and listening … [These times] provide a vehicle for feedback concerning how the youth ministry relates to the important social values. Students are thinking of the social relevancy of the group meetings. Youth workers should be too.”
- Make sure everyone avoids criticism and sarcasm. Watch any “comedy” show on television and keep track of what percentage of the “jokes” are just making fun of others. It’s off-the-chart high. That has little place in youth groups where any form of positive growth is a goal. And, if leaders are sarcastic, it’s even worse.
- Avoid social ‘rankings.’ Certain people may be popular outside of your group, but everyone should have equal footing within a group. Are certain members favored? Used more often? Talk more than others? Think of ways to help draw out those who may feel left out. Don’t wait for them to tell you. They won’t.
- Spend time one-on-one with your members and listen well. When you spend time with group members, make sure to get their HONEST opinion of your group and its dynamics. And, don’t break that confidence by bringing up the subject in front of the entire group.
Remember: Poor social dynamics of any community can offset the potential in its teaching and other ministry elements.