I sometimes wonder about our standards for what constitutes ‘good’ youth groups.
If young people are as varied as humanity itself (which they are), and a leader’s love for them can express itself in many different ways (which it can) – then who are we to decide if it’s quality youth work?
I get to visit lots of different youth clubs as part of my job – and one of the things I’m supposed to do is say what’s not working and how to fix it. A few years ago I visited a ‘rubbish’ youth club.
It met in the evening; too late to be an after school group and too early to be an evening out. It was right around dinner time, so the kids were missing food and missing family time.
The meeting – which was a completely random mix of young children and teenagers – gathered round a few nasty looking go-pack tables, sharing over-diluted orange squash, and too-soft biscuits that had been stored in cling-film.
There were no games, and a completely incomprehensible craft. The materials they used were both too young for most of the group, and too dated to have been considered relevant for any of them; the weirdest bit though – was the youth leader.
She was about 85 years old, wearing every manor of doily, and smelling faintly like old spice and fish. She sat a the end of the table and ruled the room like a quietly spoken drill master. I sat in the corner making a long mental list of everything wrong with how she ran the group.
At the end of the session, this leader broke the news to the young people that, because of her diminishing health, she would have to step down from being their leader. I was totally unprepared for the response.
Tears. Everywhere. From the youngest children to the hardened 16 year old boys. There were quiet sobs, many hugs, and a real brokenness in the group. She then proceeded to talk to every single person around the table one by one to tell them what she loved about them, and what her favourite memory was of each of them.
She had remembered everything! And – as was clear from her examples – she had spent decades opening up her whole life to these young people. She had taught many of them to bake; she was a math tutor to several more; she had provided a home for some who had lost parents, or had run away. She had looked after their parents, and she had been there for many of them, literally, since birth.
I had never seen anything like it!
They were committed to coming to this ‘terrible’ youth group, because she had committed to loving them.
I had never seen love like that.
These were healthy, holistic, cared for, supported, nurtured, discipled young people – in the worst looking youth club I’d ever seen – technically speaking.
Let’s get our youth clubs right, of course! Let’s be clear, fun, relevant, engaging, and accessible. But – so much more than that – let’s love.
If we get nothing else right – let’s get that right. Let’s love these young people. It’s that which holds everything together, it’s that that makes the pieces work, and it’s that which changes young lives.
Love transforms everything – genuinely. Whether or not you can afford the latest gadgets, or coolest paint scheme is irrelevant if you don’t love first.
1 Cor. 13