Nudging A Group’s Culture: Part 2

Last week we began by recognizing that the culture of a student ministry can determine its future trajectory, the group’s influence on the community, and gives people a taste of Jesus. Also, we discussed the importance of creating a Ministry Culture document and how it will help you learn about your group’s current dynamics. (Click here read Nudging A Groups Culture Part 1).

The first nudge that can help us push a group in the right direction is in Matthew 15:1-3.

“Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (NIV)

During this encounter, Jesus is confronting many things- one of these things is the tradition that the Pharisees followed over many years. You see, they had let many things influence their customs. The least of which, as called out by Jesus, is the command of God found in Scripture. I wonder, have we done the same thing in student ministry? Do we know why we play that game? Why do we have small groups or why do we not have small groups? Why do we use a dinosaur for your collection plate? Where and why do we have that weird painting on the wall? Why do we have the lock-in and what activities do we have at your lock-in?

Often we end up with a culture in the student ministry that just happened. We allow things to begin because we are busy or because we didn’t think through what we were attempting. Our groups develop, and we do not always give it much thought. At times this is acceptable, I mean happy accidents can happen (Thank you, Bob Ross!)

I would challenge though that we as youth workers need to give more thought to the traditions that develop in our groups. We cannot be a people of, “this is how it has always been.” Are your traditions founded on Scripture and your theology?

The Pharisees would have done well to consider more closely their theology. As youth workers, we would also benefit from further reflection. Reflection upon Scripture and theology is the first real nudge that would be a great benefit to the culture of your group. Look at your Ministry Culture document and ask yourself, how does the content of this document speak to our beliefs about God?

For my context, in a Wesleyan Holiness context, we give considerable weight to the way we understand God’s grace. For instance, we believe in God’s prevenient grace (God’s grace given to those who do not yet know Him). So we ask ourselves when a student enters our youth room how we can express this form of grace to each student. Our theology, formed from Scripture, is teaching us about the environment we need to create in the student ministry. Everything about our group should be understood by how it helps or hinders our message that we hope to express to students.

The first nudge to creating the right culture for your group is this, allow your theology and Scripture to play a significant role in shaping everything you do as a group. They should form your traditions, actions, words, decorations, games, events, everything.

Begin with your next event or ministry season. Be intentional about allowing your congregation’s beliefs bring life to a few things in your future. I believe you will begin to see your message more clearly communicated to your students without the use of words.

May we use the nudge of theology and Scripture to move our groups closer to Jesus.


*For my Wesleyan friends, I strongly encourage you to read Jeremy Steele’s book Reclaiming The Lost Soul of Youth Ministry. The early chapters of this book do a great job at helping us consider theology, and it’s influence on student ministry.

Nudging A Group’s Culture

Beyond the work of God through His grace, the culture of a youth group may be one of the most crucial factors in determining a group’s trajectory and impact.

A culture that is exclusive will quickly hinder your ability to be God’s prevenient grace to those distant from God. An attitude such as this will describe God as unwilling to allow outsiders on His team. Our understanding of God says just the opposite- there is no such thing as outsiders. There are those who are wanted by God but do not realize their distance from Him.

A culture that is overly competitive will suffer in its ability to speak of a God that loves regardless of one’s worthiness. If your group is all about the win, what about those that lose? Competition can be healthy, but it can also speak falsehoods of God to those who already feel unworthy.

The Reality

The culture of a group is complicated and takes its developmental cues from many places: geographical location, leadership, congregational history, students’ preferences, socio-economical backgrounds of the families, local school district environments, etc. The reality is that we can never fully control the dynamics of a group. Nor should we try. Some sway or variation in a group’s culture can be a breath of fresh air and a form of God’s grace.

Although we do not want to control a group’s culture, we can choose to steer it a little. I like to think of it as giving small nudges much like the pushing of a boat in the water. A little nudge can move a boat significantly.

Where To Begin

To know where and how to nudge our culture, we must first understand the culture of the ministry. I know you think you have a good hold on your group. I agree- I know my group’s culture also. As any good leader should, we must admit to ourselves that we may have blind spots. We do not know everything that happens. So before nudging, it is time for a gut check.

First, create a one-page Ministry Culture document that describes the culture of your group. Be clear and concise in this document. In this document, you will explain what a new person would experience and what that would say to them about God. Honesty in this document is essential.

To do this, assess the culture of the group. Imagine you were an outsider, how would you describe the overall feel of the group? What stands out as positive? What gives you a negative feeling? Or maybe, you feel blinded because of your proximity to the group. If that is the case, ask an outsider that you trust to give you some feedback.

Involve others in the development of your Ministry Culture document. Ask student leaders, adult leaders, parents and even visitors questions like:

When you walked into the room, what was your first impression?

What two words would you use to describe people here? Why did you choose those two words?

What do our gatherings tell a person about God?

Over the coming weeks, we will look at ways to create the type of culture we would hope to see in our student ministries. First, I strongly encourage you to take the time to develop a Ministry Culture document. Ask the tough questions, the right questions, and the questions that will reveal your strengths and weaknesses. Then review the document with your team. Do you like what you see? Do you like what you are saying about God?

Warning, you should be prepared to be encouraged and discouraged at the same time. I believe though, that if you are willing to face the good and the bad, then a better future awaits your student ministry.

Simple. Important.

With a crackle of the speaker you hear the words, “may I take your order.” Suddenly, your mind goes blank. Have you ever experienced a momentarily lapse in memory? You knew your spouse’s lunch order, and then amnesia strikes. Have you experienced this before? As a leader, have you had this moment when leading?

I found myself more confused than when I began. A desk covered with an empty soda can, notes, ideas, prices, financial statements, potential event dates, and crumbled up papers surrounded me. Planning one of our upcoming ministry seasons proved to be more challenging than previous seasons. After several hours of brainstorming, I had fewer ideas to bring to the team than I had when I began.

The moment I hit the end of my rope, when I was mentally exhausted, I realized I forgot a few essential questions. What were we trying to accomplish? What are we hoping will occur in the lives of our students? How do we wish to reveal God’s grace to them during this season?

Asking these questions suddenly brought everything to a standstill. The answer to these questions would be hard to find in any of the events that we were exploring. Instead, the season needed a different look. So we scrapped the events. We moved away from events and towards strategic moments within our already occurring activities. Now, we wait. We wait to see the impact of the next ministry season.

All of this brought to light a simple guiding principle that generally guides all of our decisions. When planning the future, always know your purpose. What is the end goal? For me, that question is answered through our mission statement and by asking how we are revealing God’s grace to our students. For some reason, I was experiencing a bit of leadership amnesia. It took getting to my mind’s end to remember- always know your end goal.

When Leaders Get It Wrong: Part 4

Celebration! Yes, you read that correctly.

When we as leaders, or as teams, have experienced failure the last thing on our mind is celebrating. Joy, laughter, and affirmation may not even appear on our radar in the hours, days, or weeks following our frustrating experience. Those these things may not seem important in the shadow of failure, however, they are important for our future.

In his book A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, Eugene Peterson speaks a profound truth when he states, “feelings are great liars.”1 Our feelings can quickly cloud our judgment and can keep us from celebrating the efforts of our team. The feelings that lie to us can cause us to miss the good, the beautiful, and the moments of God’s grace. Your team gave their heart. You dreamed a future that hadn’t existed before. God’s grace sustained you for another day.

No matter how we might feel, it is important to go beyond our emotions. We create teams and shared visions for more than a momentary victory or defeat. Our team and our vision are on a journey together and thus need handling as long-term investments.

A significant step in holding your team and vision together is celebrating. Celebrate the things that went right. Celebrate the team member that spent hours working on your promotional material. Celebrate that your team dared to try something that was a risk. Rarely is something so much a failure that there is nothing to celebrate. The fact that you live another day to try again is worthy of celebrating.

Some of the best leaders I have witnessed recognize the long road ahead of them. They acknowledge that their team is traveling a road filled with turns, pot-holes, speed bumps, and straightaways. Do not let your feelings lie to you. You have things to celebrate. Your team has given you reasons to celebrate. God’s grace has given you reasons to celebrate.

After you’ve done the hard work of asking questions, do not forget the important step of celebrating the good. There is tomorrow, and you need a team ready to try again. Celebrate today, and everyone will be ready for tomorrow.


1 Eugene Peters, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000) p. 54

When Leaders Get It Wrong: Part 3

In the movie, I, Robot, Detective Spooner is called to investigate an apparent suicide. The scene unfolds of course in the lobby of a major robotics company. As expected the company wants to avoid bad press while Spooner wants to find the truth. In this pivotal scene of the movie, the now deceased individual has left a message for Spooner in the form of a hologram.

At one point Spooner says to the hologram, “Is there something you want to say to me?”

The hologram responds with a generic, “You must ask the right question.”

Spooner then follows up with another question, “Why would you kill yourself?”

The hologram answers, “That detective, is the right question.”

Immediately after the hologram’s affirmation of the now right question, the hologram terminates. The significance here is profound in the plot of the movie and for us as leaders.

Many questions come to mind after a failure. Some are immediate, gut-level. Why did that not work? Who’s fault is it? These can have some value, but they often leave us with nothing more than vague assumptions and negative attitudes.

Instead, I suggest that we move past our first layer of questions. For us to come to real answers about our failure, we need to ask the right kind of questions. The best questions tend to be more thoughtful and strategic. They are designed to dissect the failure and lead to deep conversations around purpose, structure, methodology, personnel, timelines, costs, communications, and any other nuts or bolts that could play a role in our recent experience.


Here is a list of questions that you may find useful.

What elements of our event went as we hoped or better? What message did these elements communicate to those who did attend?

Why would we consider this event a failure? Specifically, what did not happen that we were expecting would happen? How would what we hope to happen, fulfill the purpose of the event? How did our hopes and the actual purpose line up? How did they differ?

What pre-event strategies or operations could have helped us make this event align more with the intended purpose?

Is there anything pre-event, during, or post-event that distracted from the purpose?

Could we have communicated better?

Go around the room and ask every person this- if there was one thing we could have done differently what would it be? What is one thing you wouldn’t change?


The above questions are not intended to be an exhaustive list. I do believe they show you the intent of the questions.

These questions are designed to remove blame from the equation. We are not attempting to find individuals at fault. So often when we ask questions, we ask the wrong questions. We ask out of anger or frustration. We ask out of insecurity. At times I think we even begin asking questions in some sad attempt to make the already concluded event, better. We must remember, it is finished. We cannot change the results of this year. We can, however, improve the results of future events.

Leaders must learn to ask questions that go beyond blame and guilt. We need to ask positive questions. We need to ask about form, structure, the process rather than questions of who or “why didn’t you.” Ask questions that inspire curiosity and conversation. Ask questions that lead the team to dream again.

I want a team of dreamers and doers, not a team of blamers. When we learn to ask the right sort of questions, then we change our future trajectory. We bring security to the team. We bring curiosity and wonder to the team. We bring unity and resilience to the team. Leaders, learn to ask the right questions. Only when we learn to ask the right questions, will we be able to grow past the pain of failure into the joy of a healthy future.