THE REBOOT BLOG | February 11, 2021

Making Room for the Other

A Realization (Part II)

By Bart Patton

“Can I invite my friends to go?”

This question was the most pressing one youth asked me before any trip or event—not where we were going, what we were doing, or how long we’d be gone. Through nearly two decades as a youth minister, I answered the question affirmatively—and without much pause. I believed that opening up our trips to friends from outside of the church and youth group was a practice of hospitality ipso facto.

Then as a parent, I experienced my own child pushed aside at his very first youth group retreat. He was there under the same banner I had flown for years of youth ministry leadership—to make new friends and connections with other youth in the church. Much like Priscilla’s full back seat, no space for any new friends existed at an event boasting such a purpose (“come and get to know other youth in the youth group”). Everyone else had brought their friends with them. Years of “missing it” flashed in front of me. In the name of hospitality, I had unintentionally assisted in the alienation of young people seeking welcome, connection, and friendship from a youth ministry.

Just as often as from a youth, I would hear the “Can my child’s friend come?” from parents. Typically it was accompanied by this kind of justification: “My son/daughter doesn’t know anyone who is going.” The practice of filling our trip rosters with these stranger-friends became subverted as a kind of comfort wrapped up in vacant evangelistic ideas, like “all are welcome” or an “inclusive youth ministry.” What it really meant, however, was that church youth only came on a trip if their friends from outside the church joined them—which acted to further alienate both youth from within the church and those who hadn’t come by personal invitation. The youth group was being leveraged to reinforce existing social barriers.

After a while of observing that this openness was ineffective in encouraging regular attendance and deeper connections, I shifted my strategy to emphasize the importance of our having some familiarity with youth who go on our trips. There was no prayer to pray, no pledge to sign, no membership dues, no covenant to initiate—just a simple ask for attendance at a youth ministry event six times during the semester before a trip. The options included multiple events each week, such as Sunday School, Sunday evening youth group meetings, mid-week Bible studies, small groups, or breakfast devotionals. It wasn’t a time-consuming ask.

Along with a desire to deepen relationships and faith commitments, this strategy focused on safety and practical knowledge that would come in handy if ever far from home with a youth—custody arrangements, quirks, allergies, romantic interests, and personal preferences. By this time, I was a parent myself, and I couldn’t imagine any parent sending their child on a trip with a group of adults they didn’t know or have any connection with.

The response to this strategy? There was tremendous resistance from youth and youth parents. Busy schedules were often offered as a rationale, yet that was strange given that church youth and their “friends” were unable to attend events with minimal time requirements—but were all in for a week-long mission trip. What I came to understand is that their response demonstrated a lack of interest in building relationships within the youth ministry. In my naivety, I had assumed youth were bringing their friends to introduce them to their “welcoming” youth group friends. Instead, there was little fruit to show in the way of genuine relationships being formed in our youth group—a testimony in and of itself.

I had bought into the following claim from the attractional youth ministry model:“If their friends go and have a good time, then they will want to come to church.” To that end, proponents of this model encourage using youth ministry trips as an evangelistic outreach. Over the years, however, that has not been my experience. Youth bringing their “outside” friends on trips was never really evangelistic. It wasn’t a practice of philoxenia (hospitality) either. Honestly, it was often the stumbling block to such efforts.

In retrospect, over twenty-two years of youth ministry across three states, I can count on one hand the number of times inviting “outside” friends worked out evangelistically. It can happen, but rarely is it going to happen accidentally. And I as learned from my own trial and error, it won’t happen solely because of policy changes or attendance rules. What stands out in these “success stories” is this significant truth: It was the environment of strong relationships in the youth group that allowed for intentional and significant friendships to be developed that in turn fostered faith development.

I’m not suggesting that youth group leaders outright refuse to allow friends of youth to join in trips and events. Instead, my plea is that we think well—strategically—about how this actually works and how it informs the culture we want to cultivate.

What if youth invited their friends to experience the culture of hospitality and friendship they have already discovered at church?