It's a problem in pretty much any youth group - how do you stop people feeling left out? You've got a small group of four. Three go to the same school, so are often laughing as the group starts about something funny that happened at school this week, or something annoying a teacher did. Meanwhile the fourth person listens in, perhaps awkwardly, because they can't take part. They have nothing to add. It feels like there is nothing that can be done, but here is the key point:
GOOD STRUCTURE CAN LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD
Small comfortable, sometimes exclusive groups of friends - cliques, for want of a better word, thrive in unstructured time. General chatting time, games of table tennis or pool: 'Hey John, I'll give you a game of pool' and then they play together all night, not noticing the person on the side, just watching the game. Might they want to play? Maybe, but they're never asked.
First of all, remember that cliques are often caused by insecurity, so go easy on people when you're working to break them down. Think of this work as opening the circle, rather than crushing the circle. Secondly, here's the key - add some STRUCTURE.
Don't be afraid to put name badges on the youth sometimes. Even your leaders will thank you for that. This is a great leveller. Now everyone knows everyone else's name. Call out anyone (and it's normally those that think everyone else should know who they are already) who swaps name badges or puts the wrong name on their badge.
Start with structure
Our older youth starts with a meal. Think about that for a moment. You're sitting down on a table (the jury is still out for us in terms of whether a circular table of eight, or a long Go-pak table is better for the newcomer) and you can only have one person on either side of you, and maybe two or three opposite you. Everyone has an equal chance for conversation. Watch out for the ninth person pushed off the table. You could ask some of the eight to move to start a new table. That's levelling the playing field.
If you don't start with structure, then those first minutes will be a time when you are reminded that YOU DON'T KNOW ANYONE and they all know each other... Or that's how it may feel.
Icebreakers are great, but are probably most complained about by confident people who are already in cliques. They are well known. They don't feel they need icebreakers. Icebreakers stop loud and confident people being the centre of attention, by evening the relationships. You say: "Get into twos and ask them this question, 'What's the most exciting thing you've ever done?'" Everyone can take part in the same way. Push it a bit further by each person feeding back what their partner says.
If you haven't yet checked out 'Speed chatting', check it out here:
How does that level the playing field? Everyone is equal. Noone gets more time as the focus of attention. Everyone is asked the same questions and hopefully listened to for the same time.
We regularly break into different groups. We do this on every camp we run, but also every Thursday night older youth group. We put people together from different age groups, which tends to break up groups of friends who may have become exclusive. Then we give them a task to work on in which they all need to play their part. This allows people to get to know each other around that task. Find some ideas here:
In my book Raising the Bar, I talk about a small group attendee that wanted more Bible study time, because the regular unstructured time at the start of the small group was taken up by the girls who went to the same school and she felt left out. When it was a Bible study, 'What does Jesus say people should do in response to this?' levelled the playing field. Anyone can answer it. You don't have to be part of the in crowd. God's word becomes the focus, not which school people go to, how long they've been in the group, who their parents are, or anything else.
Think about your teaching. Notice this is a great leveller too. Everyone is sitting listening to God's word. We're all equal under his word. But watch out for those in-jokes. Watch out for those Christian words and phrases that you might expect the regulars to know. Watch out for an expectation that people can find John 3.16 without any help. Watch out for the expectation that everyone in the room is a Christian. Explain things to people. That's a real help for the Christian young people in their own witness, but it also levels the playing field for everyone.
And do consider a session or a series on caring for people on the edges well. We call it cherishing. See the link to my book below which has a whole chapter on it.
This does not mean that you can never do unstructured time, but be aware this may be a time when people feel left out. Where do they go? Who do they talk to? This is a really important time for you as a leader to keep your eyes open: Who is on the edges of things? Where can I add value? What pastoral conversation can I have? Who can I offer to pray for? Who can I introduce that newcomer to? It's very easy to be drawn into conversation and laughter with the people who we've known for years (and that includes the other leaders), but it's so important to make sure we help level the playing field for those who may not feel the centre of attention. I still remember when one guy walked into the youth group in that unstructured time, and everyone flocked round them, and another youth turned to me and said, "When they are here, nobody notices me..." That's a sharp rebuke for all of us.
Let's level that playing field...
Roller photo by Ray Shrewsberry on Unsplash. Name badge drawing by Manfred Steger from Pixabay.
If you want to think more about this, read the chapter 'Cherish' in my book, 'Raising the Bar: Nearly Everything You Need to Know about Christian Youth Ministry' which you can buy here.