Knowing When to Engage in Student Culture | UMC YoungPeople
Connecting young people and their adult leaders to God, the church, and the world
June 2016

Knowing When to Engage in Student Culture

By Chris Wilterdink

I was hired into my first full-time youth ministry position at the end of June, primed to start in August with the next school year. My interview process was rigorous. It involved an initial interview with a few youth and adult volunteers, selected from the leadership group of the youth ministry. Then a meeting with that same group plus the senior pastor. Then I was identified as one of the finalists, and invited to lead a sample youth group meeting on a Sunday night, followed by more interviews with parents and the rest of the church staff. At the end of four rounds, I was identified as their candidate of choice. Finally, at that point, they gave me the opportunity to ask questions…Here’s the question that I wish I would have asked: How would you describe the youth or youth ministry culture here?

Cliques (you know, closed social groups) were identified as a problem readily by youth, parents, and staff alike. I thought I had a great way to bring it up in the youth group. At our youth group, we had dinner, program, closing worship over the span of 90 minutes. So I created a 45-minute program about cliques, inclusivity, welcoming others, etc. I did this knowing I’d probably get a lot of stock “right” answers about how everyone needs to be welcome and everyone needs to be a part of making that happen. So, I had youth leaders video the meal-time before the program. I figured that I’d show that video as a closing to the program, segue into a worship time where we could pray for strength (or maybe pray for forgiveness about our hypocrisy) and we’re good. As I’m sure you can imagine, things did not go according to plan. I got more complaints within the next week from regular attendees about not feeling welcome than I had about cliques to start with! Maybe I had chosen the wrong time or tactic to address this part of the student culture at my church.

Student culture is one of those things that youth ministers can shape, yes. But it is also something that we inherit from our predecessors. It is something that we do not have absolute control over. It is something that youth themselves can have a hard time describing, because like fish in the ocean, they swim in it all the time. It can cost a youth minister their job. Culture is something created by people. It is something that changes over time. It is something that can help or hinder a ministry’s efforts.

I started out writing trying to address the question of “knowing when to engage in student culture.” However, in my mind, that’s a really short answer. “Always” As a leader in youth ministry in your setting, you should always be engaged with the culture your students are swimming in. You should be one of the people keeping the pulse of youth and your church. Knowing and constantly engaging the culture will help you as a leader set the course for discipleship and navigate difficult times. So, instead of “when to engage” the question really is about “how to engage.”

That said, here’s ten quick observations on how to engage effectively:

  1. Address culture when things are going great, and when things need to be corrected. Often, we focus on the negative symptoms of unhealthy culture and forget to celebrate and lift up good parts of the culture we create.
  2. Engage the culture, do not become a participant in it. You are not a youth; you are an adult. (repeat this as many times as you need to. You know, to help you with your adulting)
  3. Raise questions, not answers. Often a culture needs a mirror held up to it, and youth/parents/volunteers will rise to discern and provide answers to the questions you raise.
  4. Develop relational capital with formal and informal leaders in the youth group and the church. Those relationships can help you get some ‘first followers’ when you want to instigate a culture change.
  5. Develop and share culture statements. Make it easy for youth and parents to understand the culture that you and the youth of your church are trying to create.
  6. When you have something to say, make sure that it will do good and do no harm.
  7. Use the concept of samma vaca, right speech. Use words that are true, gentle, kind, and profitable. And use them at the right time.
  8. Consider not just what you’ll say, but when and how you will say it. Then be prepared to lead by example when asking for change.
  9. Use grace-based encouragement instead of shame-based guilt when seeking change.
  10. Engage in small, safe conversations. Start addressing cultural issues in small groups, don’t start with a church-wide referendum or policy.

Finally, youth are constantly engaged in cultural exegesis – that is, they are always trying to figure out the meaning of what is happening around them. Make yourself available as a sounding board for them to help them make sense of the world and the culture they are experiencing. This is true for student culture within the church and for students engaging in popular culture.

Check out Chris’ book on Covenant Discipleship with Youth “Everyday Disciples” available July 22, 2016. Part of a three book set on Covenant Discipleship for all ages, “Everyday Disciples” explores the background and reasoning for committed small groups as a part of discipleship. Youth dedicated to becoming more mature disciples of Jesus Christ set the tone for the culture of youth ministry.

Available from Upper Room Books: and on Amazon:

Chris serves as Director of Young People’s Ministries for Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Chris has a BA in English Education, and an MS in Project Management, and over 15 years of local-church youth ministry experience. He is passionate about leadership and faith development in young people and helping ministry leaders understand their value in the lives of young people. A Stephen Minister, Chris is a native of Colorado living in Franklin, TN with his wife Emily, 2 children, and sausage-shaped beagle.