There are a variety of aspects to community but one of the most important ones (and one that can seem to be the most fleeting) is openness. See, community is more than just hanging out. It's more than just being buds. (Or whatever the female equivalent is. Budettes? Gal-pals?) It's more than inside jokes and shared experiences. These things are important. But if you don't experience real openness, it's not community.
Openness, or transparency if you're feeling buzz-wordy, is a hallmark of genuine relationships and genuine community.
I define openness as "the freedom to discuss any personal issue (both your own and in response to others' issues) without fear of the issue being mishandled in any way, and with a confidence that sharing this issue with the group is in an individual's best interest." When you experience real openness in a group, it's a sure sign that something good is going on. But it's not easy to develop. Here are a few thoughts on what you can do to encourage openness in your small group:
Openness Isn't Necessarily Born In Your Youth Room
Building openness doesn't exclusively happen during the time you spend at church, or wherever your organized meeting place is. You have to break through the invisible wall of formality that exists between you and your students. If you never break this barrier, you'll always be the youth minister or the youth worker. But when you engage students' at their ballgames, or at the coffee shop, or at their choir recital, you step out of "formal" and into "personal." You become Chris or Michelle, not just the "student pastor."
Openness Is A Two Way Street
It's impossible to develop openness in a group without you being willing to be open as well. You can't expect students to invest the emotional capital in opening up to you if you are unwilling to open up to them. Obviously, because we're dealing with students and not our peers, we must know what's appropriate and what's not. Should you tell your students about the fight you had with your spouse? Probably not. But could you tell them about your strained relationship with your sibling? In the right context, maybe so. There are no hard and fast rules. But it has to be a two-way street.
Trust Is Key
What is shared must be safe. And this isn't just about you. It's about the other students in the room. The first time a personal issue that is shared in small group "shows up" in the school hallways or on Facebook, kiss your transparent community goodbye. Or at least be willing to watch it go on vacation for a while. Your group has to truly value trust. It can't be taken lightly.
Your Motivation Must Be Pure
You will never (and I mean never) experience true openness and community if your motivations are anything other than pure. If your agenda is to create a sense of openness to gain an edge on students, or to somehow use students' vulnerability as part of a spiritual growth process (as if disciples were made in factories), you'll never see real openness. Not only that, you run the risk of damaging the concept of openness for these students. You must be willing to engage in a reciprocal relationship with your students, one where you learn from them as they learn from you. One where you are open to having your faith shaped as you lead in shaping the faith of your students.
Openness Can't Be Rushed. It Takes Time
The truth is that there is no "5 Step Process" to building openness in your small group. You can't force it. It's an organic by-product of real, (buzz-word alert) authentic community. And sometimes, openness takes a long time to develop. It depends a lot on you and your students. I am currently discipling a group of 8th graders. We're over a year into our time as a small group. And we're still a long way away from a community where real openness occurs. And while I wish we were, I know that every group is different. We'll get there. It's slow work. But it's worth it.
What have you noticed about transparency and openness in your small groups?
I'd love to know your thoughts.