As we shifted a 'classic youth ministry' program model towards missional youth communities called "Tribes" we saw the potential for this to not only change local-church Youth Ministries, but the local-churches as a whole.
This is our story of taking a risk and trying something new in Youth Ministry.
This was never about us (myself and Ben), but was always about doing something drastic enough to get passed all the obstacles we could see keeping youth and leaders from investing in this ministry and truly experiencing life-change.
You may enjoy reading this post on its own, but to catch up on the background have a look at Part 1 and Part 2 first.
The Slow Drip
Spring is Maple Syrup season here in Ontario. Syrup-farmers go out to the woods, drill a small hole in each tree, stick a spile in the hole, and hang a bucket on it to catch all the sap that will drip out. Over a month, there might be enough sap in each bucket to make one bottle of pancake syrup. After two Pancake Saturdays in my house that bottle will be empty.
Sometimes the old way is the best way, no matter how slow and tedious (drip, drip, drip). Sometimes the fact that it's old is part of the fun. And sometimes, though the drip works, we know there must be another way.
Tweak it 10%
Every year, every single year, we would get together as a Youth Ministry team. Sometimes there was 10 of us, sometimes there was only 2 of us, and we would try to come up with all the very best ideas for the upcoming new year of ministry. These volunteer leaders were being tapped for every ounce of sweet, energetic, creativity they had left in them (drip, drip, drip). If it was enough, we could make a bucket-worth of ideas and boil that down to be good enough to impress the students and leaders to have them all be excited to show up in September.
For 8 years, we did the same thing, we just tweaked it 10%. A little twist here, a little twist there, anything to help get young people to attend more, to get leaders to engage more, and satisfy the parents more; a new kick off event, a cool opening song, more food...whatever we could change, we would. In reality, when we were in it, it seemed like this was the only way. It is a process that has been running like this for 25 years and there is no reason to stop it, just give it a tune up and drive it another year.
But what if there was another way?
This is one of my favorite questions to ask, in any situation. When you ask this, it doesn't mean you have to make a decision, it doesn't mean you are locked in to change anything, you're just asking a healthy question and you're willing to explore. When you watch the way the political race plays out in the US, what if there was another way? When you hear about refugees trying to find homes because theirs have been torn to shreds, what if there was another way? When you see your friends' marriage fall apart over a few months, what if there was another way? When most churches are wondering how to engage the next generation and seem to be playing catch-up all the time, what if there was another way?
This is where we began.
We asked, "what if there was another way to do local-church Youth Ministry in our context?"
We started to talk about the obstacles that youth expressed were keeping them from a deeper faith, and we had to remind each other to look at all of these things completely objectively - were we willing to kill any part of the program that had become an obstacle rather than a vehicle?
That's where we began.
We asked a question, and we couldn't stop thinking about it.
What if there was another way to track growth than simply attending a program?
What if there were other ways to learn about serving than just doing a service project together?
What if the effort we put into designing big events and fancy programs could be put into training volunteers to connect with youth more effectively?
What if we engaged parents by having them be a part of the program?
What if we weren't inviting people to this building but met them in their spaces?
What if we got a whole lot messier with the program and yet cleaned things up on the back end?
What COULD happen if we tried something different?
These are questions I had considered for years but was afraid to honestly engage with, because change can be scary enough to keep us from moving at all.
So, we had a conversation with our core leaders. Late in the winter they gathered around a table and we asked them to be really open about all the problems with the Youth Min program now (this alone required a vulnerability I was terrified of), understanding that the shared goal is to help youth grow in a relationship with Jesus and affect change in the world because of that relationship.
They were ruthless. For an hour they brought up all the things they had seen as holes in the ministry for years.
It was great.
Then, we took those problems and asked what it would look like to do something completely different, "what could this Youth Ministry look like if we broke down all those obstacles?"
Over the next 6 months what we came up with is affectionately known as Tribes.
Throughout this time we had a few significant conversations with Grover Bradford, a Youth Pastor in Alberta that was doing something we were thinking of, and we extensively explored the idea of missional communities in a Youth context. The book "Target" was a major influence, as well as a few other books in the 3DM library - "Building a Discipling Culture" came to be very important as we created a measurement method later on.
What even is Tribes?
Tribes became a place to see volunteer youth workers live with a deep sense of the mission they are called into, it gave a place for intergenerational ministry to thrive as more mentoring relationships sprouted up, and it became a system in which teenagers had total control of the success or failure of a faith community - what a beautiful mess.
The next post (part 4) is a 5-part breakdown of the most important aspects of Tribes, that will clarify WHAT it is that I'm even talking about. My hope is that the ideas are transferable, that as you ask the question, "What if there was another way?" you will read through these methods and something will spark in your amazingly creative Youth Ministry mind to try something new.
After the breakdown I'll explain a bit of the process we went through shifting from a 'classic' Youth Min program to the Tribes model, and then tell you some of the toughest parts of the whole journey. Buckle Up.