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.