I’m a strong believer that belonging precedes belief. This means that if we want teens to take ownership of their faith, we have to first help them belong.
To be clear, belonging doesn’t happen accidentally. Helping teens belong takes time, intentionality, and the willingness to pay attention to details, over and over again.
Here are 10 things you can do to help teens belong:
1. Don’t assume people know where things like the Youth Room are located. Instead, describe where you’re meeting (2nd floor, to the left of the middle stair case) so teens can find you with ease.
2. Make your physical space as inviting as possible. Keep it clean. Arrange seating so as to encourage conversations. Decorate the walls with art made by the teens themselves.
3. Have the right amount of seating. Too few seats makes newcomers feel as though there’s no place for them. Too many seats makes the room feel empty.
4. Personally invite people to attend events and regular youth gatherings. Ask core students to do the same.
5. Greet people by name as soon as they enter your space. If you don’t know their name, be proactive about introducing yourself and finding their name out.
6. Through conversations with people, help connect likeminded teens with one another. When teens form friendships that extend beyond the walls of your youth room, they begin to feel a sense of belonging – both inside and outside the church.
7. Regularly tell teens, “Your voice matters here.” Then make space for all – introverts and extroverts alike – to participate in some way throughout the evening.
8. Establish confidentiality. Unless teens know that what they share won’t be used against them later or shared as gossip, they’ll never open up. Regularly ask teens in your ministry to agree to confidentiality standards – to keep what is said during youth group in youth group. As you do this, elaborate on when confidentiality must be broken and why: “Because of how much we love and care for you, sometimes we simply can’t keep what you say confidential. If you or someone you know is being hurt in anyway, we’ll need to involve more people in that conversation. But rest assured, you won’t have to do that alone.”
9. Follow-up with teens who you haven’t seen in a while. When you belong, your presence matters. That means that when you’re not there, you’re missed. Let teens know you missed them by telling them what they uniquely bring to your youth ministry’s gathering.
10. Don’t let someone leave your gathering anonymously. Instead, individually say good-bye to teens when they leave an event or gathering. Thank them for coming and tell them how much you hope to see them again at your next event.
Never underestimate the power of belonging.
Belonging gives us courage; It helps us know who we are; And in a church setting, it gives us a place and a people with whom to question, doubt, and wrestle our faith into being.