It is not 1985 anymore.
Back in the 80′s, Young Life was the premiere organization reaching students for Christ. They were a corrective force for the church and were the key organization to completely transition how churches do student ministry. Because of the influence of Young Life, the church has been able to expand their demographic from a closed group of church kids into youth groups that are just as missional and inviting as many Young Life Clubs. It seems that the institutional church is always slow to change and slow to change their methodologies. Since this is true, I am wondering if we are still holding on to a key ministry philosophy of Young Life had back in the 80′s.
This philosophy was simple, if you win the popular kids, the leader kids, you will win the campus. (I have no idea if this is still Young Life’s main strategy, but it used to be and was incredibly effective)
Over the last 10 years, scholars like Chap Clark and others have deconstructed the social landscape on high school campuses and have found that the stereotypical model of status has changed. Gone are the days where there was a top tier popular student that was recognized as such by the entire school, and gone are the days where those outside that popular circle longed to be seen by and included in it.
In his research, Chap Clark identified that instead of this one unified social strata, there are now small groups he calls clusters. These clusters, made up of 6-10 students are autonomous groups with their own hierarchy and power structure. And what is amazing is that most clusters could care less about the other clusters and the strata found within them.
If you observe your student ministry, I am sure that you will find this same social dynamic at work. There is not one or two people who the entire group look up to and want to be like. In fact, there are clusters, groupings of students who are connected and these clusters are independent from the others.
You notice this when you have an event and there may be plenty of people there, even plenty of popular kids, but if no one from that student’s cluster is there, they are out and feel isolated and alone.
Time to step up and change our game plan:
For me, I find myself running a full decade behind what is relevant. So for me, I am realizing that I can’t simply reach out to and pour into my leader kids who would have been the top of the social ladder back when I was in high school. By instinct, going to these kids and trying to get them to be nice to the other students is giving me much less bang for my buck when it comes to relational ministry and reaching out a larger number of students.
My new strategy is to look at all the cluster groups that my students are a part of and map them out. As I have done this I have found some surprising results. Some complete clusters are present at youth group and are having a blast because their peeps are all here, all together, all the time.
Other students are the lone representative of their cluster at school and so feel incredibly out of place at youth group. And everyone else fills in the middle.
If I want to reach more students for Christ, then I must be willing to be diverse in my relational efforts and in my execution of our student ministry. When I favor one cluster over another, I dramatically limit my effectiveness to the entire group.
I need to reach out to each individual cluster, and affirm their cluster, their group, and their passions. What Young LIfe proved to be true in the 80′s is still true in these clusters. If you can win the head of these clusters, hook in the top of their social strata, it is like shooting fish in a barrel to reach out to and gather the rest of the cluster.
My Summer Goal:
This summer, that is my goal. I am going to reach out to, goof off with, and spend time doing the things each of these diverse clusters like doing. I am going to seek out the top of each cluster and invite them to partner with me and to reach out to their friends who already love and respect them. I want to expand my student leadership base to include students from all these diverse groups, and slowly but surely our youth group will look a little less like a monochromatic group of people striving to be close to the popular people, and a little more like the diverse body of Christ we are called to be.
How do your students break down socially? Who are kingpins? Who are on the fringe? Who do you spend your time pouring into and reaching out to? Are you still living into the 80′s model of popularity and leadership or are you maximizing the reality of clusters?