It was summer of ’93.
Man United topped the league.
Will Smith was still the Fresh Prince.
Jurassic Park CGI wowed us at the cinemas.
And a pimply 12-year-old me was faced with a choice... Will I go to the youth group or not?
I thought I would.
Not because of the diluting juice & abundance of custard cremes on offer.
Not because of the fun, but slightly quirky games.
Certainly not because of the Bible bit – I wasn’t a Christian.
I went because… my friends were going. Louise. Ricky. Jonny. Sonia. Conor.
And that’s normal.
For most 12-year-olds their primary motivation to attend a youth group isn’t to become like Jesus. They want to be with their mates. I’ve learned to roll with this reality & not fight it. Especially as I now approach this age group through fatherly eyes.
In our church we make friendship forming a key priority for our 11-14s. Why?
1. Friendships are foundational.
Having friends is good for us. God didn’t make us to be alone (Genesis 2v18). Having friends reduces isolation, boosts confidence, decreases stress, increases purpose. “A sweet friendship refreshes the soul.” (Proverbs 27v9). Friendship is foundational for living.
But they’re also foundational for discipling groups of young people. Friendship leads to greater belonging & participation. If your friends go, you go too. The dominant question before leaving the house is often “who’s going?” Even the most enthusiastic parent will find it hard to persuade a teen to go to a youth group when their mates aren’t there. But form rich friendships and it’ll be homework that’s tossed aside to get out the door.
In my experience, most young people who haven’t formed friends at youth group by 14 stop attending; but an established group travels far together, increasing disciple-making opportunities. Sometimes in our enthusiasm to teach as much of the Bible as we can, we forget the power of group dynamic over the long haul.
2. Friendships are formational.
Imagine providing the first moment where a young person soars down a zipline? Or builds their own burger? Gets away overnight & eat sweets at midnight; no parents watching over their shoulders. Prays out loud in a group. Hits a bulls eye. Those moments are gold… but nobody want to high five themselves***.
We want to share these moments with others. We’re made to share these moments with others. These joy-drenched moments of self-discovery & celebration are the place many friendships are born. As youth leaders, we have a unique opportunity to help forge friendships through new experiences, adventures and fun.
Friendships take time, but the long-term impact is huge. Our programmes can give 11-14s space to be together, play together, to get all that early adolescent energy out and discover God’s massive world. And over time they gather up this shared positive experience. They’re more likely to attend. They’re more likely to be open & honest with each other; sharing ideas about life & faith; less of those awkward silent small groups. They take the masks off & be themselves. They form “family-like” relationships. The young people feel comfortable inviting other friends – even those who don’t normally do churchy stuff. Parents trust the leaders more as they see their kids are noticed, valued & having fun.
Squish group forming moments at your peril; but prioritise friendship building, play the long game & reap the rewards. Ultimately, it’s about discovering and learning to walk together in the steps of the one friend who sticks closer than a brother… Jesus (Proverbs 18v24)
***in case of pandemic exchange for elbow bump***