Cliques and gossip will infiltrate your youth group unless you take an active stand against them. Popular culture and social behavior have become so pervasive, and some church cultures so accommodating, that your youth group can simply become a reflection of “the world” without much godly effort on your part. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way students interact with one another. With all the news bullying is getting, we should take a look at what’s going on with bullying in your youth group.
There’s no bullying in your youth group… right? There’s probably no punching, hitting, or outright name-calling, but, if you’re not working to avoid it, Christian teens will simply transfer their social hierarchy from public school to the youth group environment. The “in” group in the school will be the “in” group in the youth group. The popular kids and athletes from school will dominate all your “games” and activities. They will do it instinctively.
“Bullying” within Christian youth groups tends to be limited to gossip, cliques, and exclusion. Exclusion is the most subtle, the most difficult to detect and probably the most painful. When teens engage in exclusion, they physically, verbally, and emotionally “block out” children they don’t find acceptable. It’s not that they hit them or verbally abuse them… they just ignore them. And, most don’t even know they’re doing it.
At your next activity, watch your teens. Really watch them. Is there that same group of girls that huddles in the corner? Is there a group of “alpha males” that dominates all interaction and activities? Is there a group of teenagers who sit quietly, not speaking, united by default? Does your group “self-segregate” socioeconomically or racially? Do you get gossip complaints? Are there any young people who just wander from one group to another, not really engaging in conversation or interaction? Are there teenagers standing or sitting alone? If you answered yes to some of the questions above, then you have a “peculiar” youth group that won’t grow. Why would a visitor feel comfortable when teenagers who have been coming for years are uncomfortable and not included?
The first thing you should do is verbally address the problem. Should. Use the scriptures to support what you are doing. My favorites are Mt:7.3 and 1st Sat 16:7. However, leading a Bible study or preaching a sermon alone will not put an end to click 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 the culture of your youth group. Don’t just verbally address the clicks—separate them. I break up cliques when I sit down or create groups. You can do this anytime you’re about to engage in an activity that requires some sort of social grouping: eating, riding in the van, crafts, or games.
Just “break up” cliques before they settle into an activity or get on the bus, etc. I walk over and say something like, “You guys always sit together, let’s make new friends,” and then point to who’s going where. “It’s time to get out of our comfort zones,” I declare and move on. Or I make an announcement that will cause the “clique breakup”, “Everyone sits with someone from a different school/grade level/neighborhood.” If you don’t do this, they will simply fall into the same social hierarchy over and over again. This approach looks pretty forced on print, but teens will “reshuffle” with your direction. They know that their small groups are boring, repetitive and ungodly, they just can’t stop. They need your help.
I always break cliques the morning after I’ve done my show; “The redneck was right.” This program is about acceptance, making new friends by reaching out, and God’s desire that we not judge each other by outward appearance, speech, or finances. When it’s done exclusively for young people, I use it to fight against youth group cliques, gossip, racism and prejudice. I love putting on this show on the first day of camp because it clears the air and gets camp started on a positive note. I meet teenagers when they get out of line to eat breakfast the morning after the show. I make the pronouncement: “You will sit with someone you don’t normally sit with.” Then I make sure it happens. I’ll guide a great soccer player and have him sit with a clarinettist. I’ll guide one of the “in” girls and have her sit with a “quiet girl.” I will mix and match, seating teenagers out of their comfort zones. Some of the young people will be uncomfortable with this, but they will talk to each other. (After all, they are teenagers) It’s a beautiful thing; Teens who have been in groups for years and never talked to each other will find they have something in common… all because you took a stand and pushed them out of their comfort zones.
And you? Do you encourage cliques with your own behavior? Do you choose the same teen to lead the prayer, the same group to lead the activities? Are the same kids hanging out in your office before “group”? Do you greet some teens more enthusiastically than others? Through my years as a counselor, public school teacher, and traveling speaker/comedian, I’ve learned that teens look at us, actually looking isn’t hard enough…teenagers scrutinize us. Everything we do is at stake. Teens also have an internal timer that is always ticking when it comes to your interaction with them. How long do 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 had better be different.) If you have favorites, why shouldn’t they?
It’s not just who you spend time with in the group; it’s how you spend your time. How do you greet the children and how do you interact with them? If your youth group is like most, there are probably some very difficult, needy, and dysfunctional individuals in your group. Do you greet and interact with them as enthusiastically and frequently as the “in” kids? Teenagers are looking at you, what are they seeing? If you practice “exclusion”, why shouldn’t they?
You can have the inclusive and tolerant youth group you’ve always wanted, one where you know any visitor from any socioeconomic level will be welcome. Creating a group that practices individual outreach and avoids mundane social behavior will take effort. But it can be done if you actively break up cliques and model the nonjudgmental behavior you expect.