Cliques and gossip will creep into your youth group unless you take an active stance against them. Popular culture and social behavior has become so dominate, and some church culture so compliant, that your youth group can simply become a reflection of “the world” without a strong Godly effort on your part. No where is this more apparent than in the way the students interact with each other. With all the news that bullying is getting, we should take a look at what is happening with “bullying” in your youth group.
There is no bullying in your youth group…right? There is probably no punching, hitting, or overt name calling, but, if you are not working to prevent it, Christian teens will simply transfer their public school social hierarchy to the youth group setting. The “in” group at school will be the “in” group at youth group. The popular guys and athletes from school will dominate all your “games” and activities. They will do this instinctively.
“Bullying” within Christian youth groups tends to be limited to gossip, cliques, and exclusion. Exclusion is the most subtle, most difficult to spot and probably the most hurtful. When teens practice exclusion they physically, verbally and emotionally “block out” those kids they don’t deem as acceptable. It isn’t that they hit them or verbally abuse them…they simply ignore them. And, most don’t even know they are doing it.
At your next activity, watch your teens. Really watch them. Is there that same group of girls that huddles tightly in the corner? It there a group of “alpha males” that dominates all the interaction and activities? Is there a group of teens that sits quietly, not talking, stuck together by default? Does your group “self segregate” along social economic or racial lines? Do you get complaints of gossiping? Is there a youth that simply wanders form group to group, not really engaging in conversation or interaction? Are there any teens standing or sitting alone? If you answered yes to a few of the above then you have a “cliquey” youth group that will not grow. Why would a visitor feel comfortable when teens that have been coming for years do not feel comfortable and are not included?
The first thing you must do is verbally address the issue. Do it. Use scripture to support what you are doing. My favorites are Mt: 7.3 and 1st Sam 16:7. However, leading a Bible study or preaching a sermon alone will not put an end to cliquey behavior. I have several ideas that will help you create a more loving and accepting youth group. At first it will be an effort and then it will become your youth group’s culture. Don’t just verbally address cliques: break them up. I break up the cliques when I seat or create groups. You can do this anytime you are about to do an activity that requires any type of social grouping: eating a meal, riding in the van, crafts, or games.
Simply “break up” the cliques before they settle into an activity or file onto the bus, etcetera. I stride over and say something like, “You always sit together, let’s make some new friends”, and then I point out who goes where. “It’s time to get out of our comfort zones,” I declare and move on. Or I make an announcement that will cause “clique breakup”, “Everyone sits with someone from a different school/grade level/neighborhood.” If you don’t do this they will simply group themselves in the same social hierarchy over and over again. This approach looks rather forced in print, but the teens will “reorganize” with your direction. They know their little cliques are boring, repetitive and ungodly, they just can’t stop themselves. They need your help.
I always break up cliques the morning after I’ve performed my show; “The Redneck Was Right.” This show is about acceptance, making new friends by reaching out, and God’s desire that we not judge one another by outward appearance, speech, or economic status. When performed exclusively for youth, I use it to fight youth group cliques, gossip, racism and prejudice. I love performing this show at the first day of camp because it clears the air and gets camp started off on a positive note. I meet the teens as they come out of the chow line at breakfast the morning after the show. I make the pronouncement, “You will sit with someone that you don’t usually sit with.” I then make sure it happens. I will guide a large football player and have him sit with a quite clarinet player. I will guide one of the “in” girls and have her sit with a “quite girl.” I will mix and match, seating teens outside their comfort zones. Some of the youth will be uncomfortable with this, but they will talk to each other. (They are teens after all) It’s a beautiful thing; teens that have been going to group for years and have never spoken will find they have something in common…all because you took a stand and pushed them out of their comfort zones.
What about you? Do you encourage cliques with your own behavior? Do you pick the same teen to lead prayer, the same group to lead activities? Are the same kids hanging out in your office before “group”? Do you greet some teens more enthusiastically then others? Through my years as a counselor, public school teacher, and touring youth speaker/comedian, I’ve learned that teens watch us, actually watch is not strong enough…teens scrutinize us. Everything we do is up for grabs. Teens also have an inner timer that is always running when it comes to your interaction with them. How long to you talk to them? Who did you sit with on the way to the retreat and how long did you sit with them? Who did you sit with on the way home? (Hint: it better be different). If you play favorites, why shouldn’t they?
It is not only who you spend time with in group; it is how you spend time. How do you greet kids and how do you interact with them? If your youth group is like most, there are probably some very trying, needy and dysfunctional individuals in your group. Do you greet and interact with them as enthusiastically and frequently as the “in” kids. The teens are watching you, what are they seeing? If you practice “exclusion” why shouldn’t they?
You can have the accepting and inclusive youth group you always wanted, one where you know any visitor from any social economic background will be welcomed. Creating a group that practices individual outreach and shuns worldly social behavior will take effort. But it can be done if you actively break up the cliques and model the non judgmental behavior you expect.