Maybe cliques aren’t bad: Stop trying to make your youth group like each other

“What are you doing about the cliques in youth group?”

If you are in youth ministry, you’ve probably heard that question. It may have come from a tattle-telling teenager, a concerned parent or a critical church member. In each case, the assumption is this: Making teenagers get along is part of your job. I disagree.

C.S. Lewis writes in his book, The Four Loves, about the difference between lovers and friends. Lovers stand face to face but friends stand shoulder to shoulder, looking at the same thing. Friendship is built around a shared interest for something else and their shared gaze keeps the friends side by side.

D.A. Carson writes that the church is “a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake” (Love In Hard Places). What this means (I think) is that outside of Jesus, we Christians wouldn’t necessarily be pals. What makes us a part of God’s family is not how enamored we are with each other but how in love we are with Jesus!

We exert a lot of wasted energy in getting teenagers to like each other. The problem is that outside of Christ, you can only appeal to self-serving or self-preserving reasons to get teens to get along. The cruel twist is that the more a group grows to like each other for reasons other than a shared love for Jesus and His mission, the more likely they are to stop caring about both Jesus and His mission!

If you take Carson’s thought and combine it with Lewis’ thought then you begin to realize that what you really need to do is help teenagers see and appreciate the person and the work of Jesus. That alone will lead to true biblical community. No community is more powerful than a community made up of Christian friendships built around a shared love for the Savior.

The next time someone asks you what you’re doing about cliques maybe you should reply: “Nothing. But I’m doing everything I can to help those teenagers grow to love Jesus.”

Guest Post: David Hertweck served as senior associate pastor of Trinity A/G in Clay, NY for over eleven years. He served as the lead pastor of inside-out student ministries and element young adults ministries and as a worship leader. He is an ordained Assembly of God minister. He presently serves as the District Youth Ministries and Chi Alpha Director. He’s also the author of The Word: a 31 day devotional… buy one and make as many copies as you want.

  • Bob Anderson

    Nice Doug. Thanks. In our church I have so many schools represented and so this seems to come up from time to time. Jesus seemed to have a clique (His disciples) and yet He and the disciples still cared for people. The complaints about cliques seem to come from students or parents of students that do not attend regularly. If students would attend youth group regularly they would find that they would connect with a few students better and probably make some great friendships.

    • David Hertweck

      Hey Bob,
      Thanks for jumping in and sharing! I’ve also found that nothing builds those connections better than serving together. We would always try to create service opportunities that were accessible to teenagers of all varying levels of commitment and abilities. Thanks again.

      • jamie scobbed

        I would have to agree with Bob. That. Not just youth but adults will complain about the church because they don’t get involved with Sunday school or small groups or community outreaches. I find the best relationship cliques, if u will, is time spent with youth. I stills have a connection with youth from 5 years ago THAT re now adults. Adults invading those cliques. Being a part of their lives leading by example will have the biggest impact

  • Jeff

    The problem I see with cliques is that you are going to push people out of the church and the faith, if you continue allow the group to reject “unpopular” Christian kids. You can’t stop cliques from forming in large groups, it is just part of the human social hierarchy, but you can address the rejections of fellow Christians and rejection of people who refuse to be part of the “group think” attitudes of cliques. From my experience Christian cliques is reason why people leave the church

    • David Hertweck

      Hey Jeff,

      Appreciate your honesty and willingness to share!

      I completely agree that friend groups that are intentionally exclusive can be detrimental to a youth ministry and that they need to be addressed.

      I’m suggesting (sometimes) that the way we address them is no different than the way any other religious or even non-religious group would address them. I think we have a different way because of Jesus and because of the unique approach to heart change that Christianity offers.

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  • Rick Ingraham

    I certainly agree with this. As I see it we, as leaders need to recognize our groups like God Himself said.. as ‘bodies’. Each part of the human body is uniquely different and yet all serve together to accomplish one goal… life!

    Naturally, cells from the heart will become more connected with other cells having the same purpose/goal while simultaneously not having much in common with cells from say the liver or the kidney. Does that mean that the kidney or liver cells are outcast? No! They just have a different but equally necessary purpose. The goal of the leader should be to focus the group around the ultimate goal of ‘life’ and lead each ‘clique’ or subset within ‘the body’ to appreciate each other group but to remain focused on their individual purpose and contribution to the whole. This way we are not trying to force them into cookie cutter molds and encouraging them in their own unique giftings.

    I say, let them gravitate naturally to the group or ‘clique’ that attracts them and then work on the loving, appreciating, teamwork part so that the large group of smaller groups works together as an effective whole. And I’m willing to bet that when we really stand back and take a fresh look at these little ‘cliques’ we will begin to see the giftings within each and a picture of their individual callings will become clearer.

    I know that ‘diversity’ has become a word popularized in culture, but many have mistakenly assigned it only to ethnicity and missed the true depth that the concept contains. This concept reaches much deeper than just the skin color and heritage of a person, but to the very core of their God given calling and purpose in ‘the body’. We must encourage and coach them in how to appreciate, value, and work with other ‘groups’ for a common goal.

    Great article! Very timely indeed.

    • David Hertweck

      Hey Rick,
      Thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts! I love your point on diversity and the value of it as it relates to the personalities and gifts that we all have. Thank you for valuing all different types of teenagers!

  • Sad Mom

    We have been active, integrated members of our church for many years. Our daughter moved up to youth group last year and is constantly miserable because of rejection. The entire group is “cool” kids and my daughter is a geek (her words, not mine). I hate to abandon our church family, but the youth leadership has a sink or swim mentality that I find abhorrent from people who call themselves Christ followers. She cries every single week! For the record, she has friends – it’s just that they all have different churches and don’t come to ours. So I would say cliques *are* a problem. Youth leaders need to teach and expect a kind, inclusive attitude among kids, making it clear that church is not the place for exclusive, us & them behavior. After all, Jesus ate with the rejects.

    • Sad Child

      I also felt very excluded and miserable in youth group. My condolences to your daughter. The issue with the author’s claim is that we teenagers are only human and therefore we tend to focus on our biggest problem at the moment, which as a teenager is often social pressure and exclusion. When we are in a terribly painful social situation than it is incredibly difficult for us to focus on religion. The issue needs to be resolved before growth can be made. Would you preach to ER patients with severe injuries and expect them to be open to the word while they are in terrible pain? No! The pain needs to be helped before they can reflect on life. The same goes for teenagers, when exclusion is extremely overwhelming and painful, as it often is, it makes it incredibly difficult to focus on spirituality.