If you do a Google search for elements of a culture, you’ll find a mountain of answers, many of them drastically different. They range from the academic to the corporate and everywhere in between. But let’s step back and ask this same question of our youth ministries.
What elements need to be present for a youth ministry to develop a strong sense of culture, a place where students feel connected to each other and have bought into the purpose of what you're ministry is doing? I believe there are at least five elements that are necessary for building a strong youth ministry culture.
The first element is creativity.
A creative presence is an essential part of any culture. It’s especially important to our youth ministries. When we apply the concept of creativity to the cultural considerations of our youth ministries, and specifically to your youth group, it’s interesting to think about how what you create ties you together.
Building a culture that empowers creativity is relatively simple. It just takes intentionality. For instance, do you have a student worship band? That’s a powerful way to foster students to embrace the spirit of creativity. Are you creating music to lead your peers in worshiping God? That’s pretty awesome. Or what about allowing students to make the announcement or promotional videos? Or to help incorporate videos they’ve made into worship or lesson prep?
Do you allow for creative expression? Things like prayer stations or other contemplative activities? What about your environment? Can you empower students to influence it? When you allow students to creatively influence their environments, you enable the creation of culture. You set students up to shape and craft their experience.
The second element is communication.
Think about the nature of communication in your youth ministry. Do people feel like they have pathways for their voices to be heard? How about your communication? Do you clearly and consistently communicate with your students? These are important questions when considering how you are building culture.
Years ago, Seth Godin wrote an excellent little book on brand building called “Tribes.” I have never forgotten the framework he used to talk about how we create communication within groups. He said there must be communication from leader to tribe members (you to students), tribe members to tribe member (student to student), and tribe members to outsiders (your students to other students who don’t attend church). Now Godin was talking about a business or a brand. But I have always found this framework to be exceedingly helpful in ministry.
Are you intentional and excellent in how you communicate to your students? What do you do to foster communication between students? Are you working to make sure that everyone has at least an opportunity to use his or her voice? How are you helping your students know how to communicate the Gospel and their love for their community to outsiders? Communication is critical when shaping culture.
The third element is creating common experiences.
Sharing experiences together knits us to one another. And they are a crucial part of building a strong youth ministry culture. We tend to think about these common experiences in terms of big events. We think common experiences, and we think camps, mission trips, and service projects, which are definitely ways to create culture through shared common experiences. But they aren't the only or even the most culturally rich common experiences.
Sometimes the common experiences that go the furthest in building culture happen organically. Conversations at football games. Inside jokes born out of funny interactions in coffee shops or movie theatres. Going to concerts together. And so on. It's often the simpler everyday experiences that allow you to build relational connections, which in turn drive culture.
The fourth element is articulating and reinforcing core beliefs.
You may be quick to say, “Andy, we're a MINISTRY. We've got this one in the bag.” But do you? How well can your students articulate the core beliefs of their faith? Seriously. If you had them list what separated Christianity from other world religions, or what truth statements are at the heart of their faith, how would they respond? Not only is this critical for them to know as Christ-followers, being able to rally around a shared set of beliefs is key to building culture. Do you have work you need to do in this area?
The fifth element is commitment.
You have to be committed as the group leader. You have to be all in. Culture can't be created in the absence of trust. If you've not bought in, your students will sense it, and they will not buy in. But commitment isn't just about you. Your students need to be committed as well, both to your group and to grow in their faith.
That's the thing that's unique about building a youth ministry culture. If spiritual growth is absent, no amount of work on your part to create a vibrant youth ministry will be of any use. At the very core of any youth ministry culture has to be the desire to grow closer to Christ. I think the easiest way to talk about this is in terms of spiritual disciplines. As you're building a culture, are you empowering students to know God more through Bible study and prayer? Are you creating opportunities for service and worship?
Every youth ministry has a culture, whether you realize it or not. Your goal should be to intentionally craft a culture that is Gospel-centered and God-honoring. Hopefully, these elements will get you thinking in the right direction.