Understanding the culture of your church and the wider community
A simple definition – culture: the word culture has been defined as “the predominating attitudes that characterize the functioning of a group or organization. Every church has words, beliefs, customs and traditions which have been adopted by a group of people. Every church & community has a culture.
In my view one of the most important tasks to embark on, is to understand the culture of the church and community in which the church is located. So practically, how do we go about understanding culture? Primarily through observation and reflection. Ask questions like:
- What is the history of this church?
- Are there particular doctrines or ideas that are emphasized?
- Who are the leaders?
- What is the history of youth ministry at the church?
In short, don’t underestimate the impact of the past on the present. Spend the first six months to one year observing and reflecting on the culture of the church and wider community. Our ability to understand the church culture and wider community’s culture will have a large bearing on the types of programs that you will choose to implement as part of the youth ministry.
Mapping the landscape
The next important step in ‘finding your feet’ in a new youth-worker/pastor role, is to ‘map the landscape’. Mapping the landscape involves identifying the key people within the youth group and church.
1. Tribal leaders
There will be leaders within the youth group who are ‘key stake-holders’. They may have been a youth leader in the particular youth group for a number of years. For this reason, they might feel they have a degree of ownership in the youth group that other youth group leaders might not possess. Make sure you ask the ‘tribal leaders’ for their perspective on the youth group. Do not limit yourself to simply asking the pastor or vicar for their view.
Don’t alienate tribal leaders. Keep working with them even if there is initial disagreement. Listen to the tribal leaders.
Get to know the locals, in and out of the church. Get involved in the community, even if it means just joining a local sports club. Don’t give into the temptation to simply immerse yourself in the youth group.
3. Respect their customs
It is easy to spot what’s ‘wrong’ with a youth group, especially if you are new to the youth group/church. Keep your thoughts to yourself! Jesus said that servanthood is the essence of leadership. Servant leaders gain respect. Get involved in the programmes that already existed before you table your new ideas.
Discouragement and disappointment often cause many youth leaders to throw in the towel. A cause of discouragement that we can easily overlook, concerns the unrealistic expectations we have of ourselves. Therefore it is important that we manage the expectations we have of ourselves.
To manage your own expectations, identify realistic goals.
Example goals for the first year:
- make no changes to the existing programmes
- identify tribal leaders, build relationships
- serve in all existing youth programmes
- have opinions, but don’t express them
- survey church and local community culture (reflection)
- develop a good schedule
- have a retreat with youth leaders or, if you have no youth leaders, have a retreat with potential youth leaders. If you have no potential youth leaders then identify young people in the group that you can begin mentoring on a weekly basis with the aim of developing them as potential youth leaders.
Example goals for the second year:
- identify three changes that you want to make to existing programmes. Meet each youth leader individually and gather feedback on your ideas. Modify changes/implement changes, depending on feedback received.
- identify 3 potential new youth leaders, mentor each of them on a weekly basis
- lead your own small group
Youth leaders’ expectations
Generally youth-leaders will have mixed feelings about a new youth minister/pastor. Those feelings may be largely tangled up with feelings towards your predecessor. Be careful not to compare yourself with your predecessor, work to your strengths.
What types of expectations might youth leaders have?
- You will make changes – which may or may not be a positive expectation. Their feelings depending on how they perceive the youth group to be currently working.
- You will make time – time to get to know them, build relationship
- You will get your hands dirty – get involved with the existing programmes
- You will listen – listen to their version of the story
- You will lead by example – be punctual, work hard and be energetic
Responding to their expectations – youth leaders and youth group
Overall, the expectations listed above don’t really amount to much – especially if you make sure that your focus on meeting these expectations.
When you initially begin a new role it is easy to get focused on making changes to the current programmes. Don’t make that your initial objective.Instead focus on journeying with the youth group through the transition period. Focusing on building relationships, trust and respect from your youth leaders and youth group are vital ingredients.
You may find that most youth leaders are not expecting you to make sweeping changes to the current programmes, and if they are, then it may be only in a negative sense. Building relationships and trust is important.
About the “How to” Series
This resource is part of a “how to” series that was designed to assist youth ministers in their ministry to young people. We have conducted interviews with experienced youth workers on a variety of subjects. These interviews can be found here. The interviews are short (each interview is less then 12mins in length), and practical. Each interview is accompanied by a written contribution. The written contributions are not long in length – they are easy to read and designed in such a way that busy youth ministers can quickly pick up important and useful tips on a range of practical topics. We hope you enjoy these resources.