The video was depressing. A youth pastor asked his niece from a different community to come to Sunday night youth group and just sit in the back before service. Then he set up a hidden camera to watch what would happen. The camera showed groups of kids talking, laughing, and generally being kids, but no one even noticed the visitor sitting alone. When the video was played back to the youth, it was an eye opening moment. While the youth group would have described themselves as friendly and inclusive, the video evidence showed otherwise (By the way, youth pastors…DO THIS ACTIVITY!)
On my challenge course at Lake Williamson Christian Center (the St. Louis region retreat center in the Christian Retreats Network) one of the things I hear frequently from youth pastors and teachers is, “I want to break up the cliques.” Truthfully, challenge courses are a great tool for forging relationships and restructuring group dynamics.
“Damien and Carlos” (not their real names) were two students that did not get along in school. Teachers actively kept these boys separated. I did not know this the day I put the two of them together on our high ropes course. As both boys struggled with their fear of heights, they only had each other to rely on. When they came down off the course, Damien turned to his nemesis and said, “Carlos, you are my friend for life!”
“Valerie and Emma” had come to a point where they did not interact with others in their youth group. Some considered them stuck up, but the truth was they felt uncomfortable and unaccepted by the rest of the group. During a session of team initiatives, the youth pastor asked that I separate the pair into different small groups. The decision paid off as each girl found their voice in the subgroups. Their friendship remained solid, but they realized they could have fun with the other members of the youth group.
All this leads me to free time in your retreat schedule. Free time is probably the WORST way to create group growth and breakdown cliques. Without an outside catalyst, few teenagers have the nerve to step out of their comfort zone and meet new people. During free time, kids will naturally gravitate to their cliques, and shy kids will sit alone.
A 10-year old survey once stated the main reason people left a church was because they did not feel like a part of that community. My hope is that you will actively seek to make your group a welcoming one.