How to Create a Welcoming Youth Ministry Environment

I know this may seem weird but I am always worrying about what an unchurched student thinks when he/she attends a “church youth ministry program”.

For example, a few weeks ago, I observed two new middle school students attend and enter a church environment for the very 1st time in their life.  I just sat back and watch them process their 1st “church experience.”  They were really quiet and non-responsive.

I wondered:

–  What are they thinking?  Are they overwhelmed?  Do they think church youth group is stupid and irrelevant?

–  Do they think the Biblical message matters for how they live their life?  In fact do they even respect the Bible?

–  What do they think about the worship, especially the lyrics they are suppose to sing along with?

–  Do they feel included or judged?

–  What adults have greeted them and made them feel important? Did any other students meet and greet them?

I am learning more and more that it is okay to constantly be considering the unchurched student who shows up to our  church youth group environments.

As youth workers I think it is wise to be asking the question of:  How can our youth ministry create an environment that will be safe for a student who says No to church and No to God?

It doesn’t matter what youth outreach strategies you adopt: Inside/Out approach (go on to the unchurched students’ turf) or the Outside/In approach (unchurched students come to our turf (church)).  But what does matter is architecting places and spaces where unchurched students feel comfortable with Jesus following students and leaders.

When I was in Los Angeles, CA (circa 2004-2005) I was on mission to figure out how to architect warm, nonjudgemental, accepting and inclusive environments that communicated to unchurched students that they could BE in “church environments” and not feel weird or judged.  In my pursuit, I stumbled upon Mosaic Church (aka Erwin Mcmanus’ church) where I learned (by visiting Mosaic and taking a class with Erwin) how they were able to create spaces and places that highly encourage both believers and nonbelievers to fellowship together.  The major value that Erwin injected in Moasic’s culture was architecting places where unchurched people didn’t have to believe in order to belong. Erwin articulated that the church/youth group is often a 1st space where no outsiders are allowed.  The 2nd space is a generic set of relationships where not everyone is like you, yet there’s still relationships.  The 3rd space is where there’s no relationships, and there won’t be unless invited.

Third spaces are when nonbelievers feel included in “neutral” spaces.  Third spaces allow students to belong before they have to believe.

The problem is…..  we (myself included) immediately want unchurched student to behave before they “officially” belong.  I get it… it is so much easier not paying attention to the unchurched student because they don’t talk like us, believe like us, pray like us, behave like us, dress like us, and think like us.  Unchurched students make professional paid Christian church youth pastors feel real uneasy because unchurched students don’t know the church rules and their worldview and behaviors are way more risky.

But………

Could you imagine if students felt like they already belonged before they had to  behave? And these unchurched students were immediately  surrounded and greeted by adult who care?

Chap Clark writes in Hurt:

“Today’s adolescents are, as a lot, indescribably lonely.” (p. 69)

“Midadolescents believe that few if any adults genuinely care about them.” (p. 68)

“Adolescents have suffered the loss of safe relationships and intimate settings that served as the primary nurturing community for those traveling the path from child to adult… (50)

Today’s postmodern students long to belong!  They need places where trusted-committed adults genuinely care for them.

My point is:  create 3rd space(s) that communicate to an unchurched student they belong and that they will be cared for before they have to believe.  Create a place for others – where people different from us feel welcome.

How To Create 3rd Spaces in Youth Ministry:

–  make all service mission trips open to all students.

–  recruit and train leaders to be incarnational witnesses who unconditionally love and accept any type of student.  It is important to teach leaders how to think incarnationally.  Feel free to read my posts about the theological understanding of incarnational outreach and strategies in youth outreach.  I highly recommending reading Pete Ward’s book:  God at the Mall to better understand how to create environments that will engage any student.

–  look for neutral places and spaces in the community.  i.e. coffee shops, mall, school campuses, beach, bowling alley, restaurants

–  intentionally create time in youth ministry programs that acknowledges, affirms and invites unchurched students to belong.

–  create church environments that are relevant to any teen.  Think through your teaching style (especially your language) and environment athesetics.

–  visit a local young life club and observe how they program around the unchurch student.  Essentially their programming is centered around the non-believer.  Young life is brillant in how they create Third Spaces.  Their third spaces are highly relational.

–  do events outside of the church walls and invite every student in the community.  i.e. concerts, BBQs, bowling nights, dodgeball tournaments, sporting events, laser tag, arcades, etc. Remember the goal is building relationships with unchurched students not whacking them with Bible verses.  I love third spaces in youth ministry because it highly encourages FUN and CRAZINESS!!!!!!!!

Questions I Want To Ask Youth Workers:

–  Do you also worry about what unchurched students think about your “youth ministry environments”?  What is the general feedback when an outsider attends your youth group?  How often are you thinking about the unchurched students in your youth ministry programming?

–  Do you also have a tendency to get students to believe before they officially belong?  Or do you allow unchurched students to fully participants in your youth ministry before they accept Jesus?

–  What other third places examples would you recommend that encourages the unchurched and churched students to intersect?  What are some neutral spaces in your church environment and in your community?

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Jeremy Zach
Jeremy Zach easily gets dissatisfied with status quo. He reeks with passion and boredom is not in his vocabulary. He becomes wide awake when connecting with student pastors, thinking and writing about student ministry, experimenting with online technology, and working out. He is married to Mikaela and has two calico cats, Stella and Laguna. He lives in Alpharetta, Georgia and is a XP3 Orange Specialist for Orange—a division of the REthink Group. Zach holds a Communication degree from the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities and Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.