This is a picture of me with my boys at our Christmas party a couple of months ago. Seems like it was over a year ago. Although I had been a leader for many of them at camps, being their Life Group leader was like starting over with new boys. With new boys, the good news is my jokes are funny again. I can catch them off guard with a joke I’ve told a million times. It’s glorious. I’m cool again.
The struggle, however, is building in some more unnatural parts of Life Group culture. For this post, I’m specifically writing about hugs. These are super important to have a level of bonding that makes the boys like family with me and with each other. This week was my first glimmer of hope that it’s taking hold. While I didn’t acknowledge it verbally, I for sure took note.
Starting on the second night of Life Group, I start to turn handshakes into hugs. Every boy gets a hug when he arrives at Life Group and when before he leaves. For some of my boys, this could be the only hug they get all week. I don’t make a big deal of it, I just make it happen. Sometimes I’ll even say, “You’re a good guy” or some other quick word of encouragement in the split second of the hug.
They’re always good about it. I even have a “cool” way of doing it that makes it seem a little more masculine. I kinda give them a soft punch on the back with both fists instead of going in for the bear hug. Baby steps, right?
We will let out for the summer in just a couple of weeks and it finally happened. I was in the kitchen the other night when one of the boys had to leave. His mom was here to get him. He sought me out to give me a hug and say goodbye before he left. WE. HAVE. ARRIVED!!! Of course, I acted like nothing special had happened. I gotta keep it cool, right? However, my consistency to build this caring part of our Life Group culture has now become something they initiate.
All of this to say, building culture takes intentionality, consistency and determination over time. If you try something to build culture, don’t be bummed out if it doesn’t take hold right away. We’ve been meeting in Life Group for about 6 months. This is the first time one of my new students has sought out the hug. Caring aspects of youth ministry are too important to give up on. Be the culture until they catch it and take initiative to do it. It’ll happen.
I teach Life Group in my home. I want the group to become like family and feel welcome in my living room. One way I accomplish this goal is giving them wall space among my family pictures.
Where ever you meet your students, I highly recommend having pictures of your group in the space. Even if you aren’t allowed to permanently hang pictures, I recommend bringing items where you meet that can make the space feel like home to the group while you’re there. It could be a photo album of your group, a paper mural they made, etc. Make your meeting space feel like the you and your students belong.
Repetition and caring builds positive memories. In their adult years, I want my Life Group students to look back on good times they had in high school and remember Life Group. One of the positive memories I create each year is by remembering their birthdays with the same dorky video of me making the same birthday chant. Every year each student gets a video like this by text message (click the play button on the image above). Memory made.
Transferable Principle: Memories we make for our students are breadcrumbs they can follow back to the cross when they find themselves struggling as adults.
Each week parents are sending desserts with their boys to Life Group. I got to where I couldn’t remember if somebody said they were bringing it. I always had a box cookie mix I could make in a pinch, but then a youth ministry friend told me about SignUpGenius.com. I used it to create a schedule for the entire year of life group. Parents can sign up for which ever weeks they want. They get an automatic reminder a couple of days ahead of time.
Taking it to the next level
I miss making desserts. I believe the boys should have homemade desserts because in today’s culture, for some of them it may the only homemade thing they get that week. I also believe if they can make the dessert themselves, it becomes a memory. I’m for sure going to take pictures of the night which will become part of the senior slide show for their graduation in a few years.
To get the best of both worlds, I’ve started putting the ingredients on the sign up list for parents to sponsor a theme dessert night. Next up on the list of stuff for parents to send is 4 tubes of crescent rolls and 2 containers of ice cream. I’m providing strawberries. Students will put the crescent rolls in the waffle maker, then top them with ice cream, strawberries and whipped cream. It’s going to be amazing!
- Parents still get to participate
- Students get homemade dessert
- Everybody gets a memory from the night
Dessert is such an easy way to make our ministries more dynamic. If we put a little thought into the “why” behind the “what” we do, our efforts can be much more effective. Those memories are amazingly helpful to make connections with students a little easier and relationships with them a little deeper.
This is a follow up to my last post about meeting with the new small group leader my recent high school graduates have. Their new leader has the same passion I do for seeing the boys grow spiritually. We even have some of the same personality traits. We’re both kinda shy until you get to know us. For that reason, they are having trouble connecting with the guys like I did over the course of 4 years.
Here’s what our conversation helped me realize. While I did a great job of loving the guys, teaching the boys the Bible and Christian living, I didn’t set them up well for what comes after they leave my group. I knew it would be a struggle whereever they went because they would never find exactly what we have. We have developed traditions, and a unique culture.
I emailed the boys after I met with their new leader. I gave them some tips on how to connect with them. During my meeting with their leader, I also gave him some ideas for how to replicate the connections I had with them, and even gave some insight on the personality of each of the boys.
This whole conversation made me realize something that I will do from now on. Instead of hoping my boys land in a good situation whereever they go after my group, I will teach them how to take the culture of our group with them. They will, rather than look for how they will be served by their new ministry, learn how to recreate what we have in our group in the new group they join after high school.
By doing this, they will be trainers that will help other leaders develop the relational skills and traits we develop in the 4 years they are with me. Here’s the benefit, by taking this approach I am not only teaching my boys how to love God and live for him, I’m also teaching how to take our culture with them and develop it in others. I am teaching them to be teachers of healthy small group culture. This will also greatly reduce the likelihood they will graduate from their faith when they graduate from my group.
I highly recommend my leaders do the same with your students. Think of the impact you’ll have on people you’ll never meet by teaching them to take your unique culture with them. That’s for sure leaving a legacy. After we’re gone from this earth, we can still make an impact that way. I love that potential.
To read about the culture I develop with my students, download Volunteer Youth Ministry, A Roadmap For Effective Leadership