How much does a youth ministry environment matter? Can it make a difference in who attends—and who returns? This may seem weird, but I’m always concerned about what unchurched kids are thinking when they first attend our program.
I like to sit back and watch newcomers process their experience, especially if they’re unfamiliar with churches in general. What are their first impressions? How do our regular attendees treat them? And how do the visitors respond?
Here’s What I Wonder About Our Youth Ministry
- What are visitors thinking? Do they seem overwhelmed? Do they think church youth group is stupid and irrelevant?
- Am I communicating that the Bible matters for how they live? In fact, do they even respect the Bible?
- What do they think about the worship, especially the lyrics they’re supposed to sing?
- Do they feel included or judged?
- What adults greet them and make them feel important? Do any other students meet and greet them?
I’m learning that it’s okay to constantly consider the unchurched students who show up.
Creating a Safe Environment
As youth workers, it’s wise to ask. How can our youth ministry create an environment that’s safe for kids who say no to church and God?
It doesn’t matter what youth outreach strategies you adopt: Inside/Out approach (go on to the unchurched students’ turf) or Outside/In approach (unchurched students come to our turf, church). What does matter is forming places and spaces where unchurched students feel comfortable with students and leaders who follow Jesus.
When I was in Los Angeles circa 2004-2005, I was on a mission. I wanted to figure out how to build warm, nonjudgmental, accepting, and inclusive youth ministry environments. The goal? Communicate to unchurched students that they could be in “church environments” and not feel weird or judged.
In my pursuit, I stumbled on Mosaic Church (aka Erwin McManus’ church). I learned how they created spaces and places that encourage believers and nonbelievers to fellowship together. The major value McManus injected in Mosaic’s culture was creating places where unchurched people didn’t have to believe in order to belong.
He says the church/youth group is often a 1st space that doesn’t allow outsiders. The 2nd space is a generic set of relationships; not everyone is like you, yet relationships still exist. The 3rd space is where no relationships exist, and they won’t unless they’re invited.
The Need for 3rd Spaces
Third spaces are when nonbelievers feel included in “neutral” spaces. Third spaces allow students to belong before they have to believe.