Finding a Way Forward: 4 Ways Leaders Can Shift Toxic Culture

I remember sitting across from Jamie and Matt at a nearby restaurant to enjoy pizza and wings. Our multi-ethnic and multi-cultural youth group had grown to reflect our culturally diverse neighborhood. Our students represented five continents, with over seven languages accounted for. The growth was exciting, and mostly everyone was embracing a variety of opinions and cultural experiences. Fairly quickly, we realized that our diversity meant there were different expectations for youth group and church. Our leadership team also realized that students enjoyed their time together but lacked communal connection.

The diversity of cultural experiences exposed some toxic attitudes and behaviors in our youth group. 

I hoped Jamie and Matt, who were often part of the toxicity, could help me find a way forward. As we ate together, I asked them to identify some characteristics that would make our youth group a great place to engage God for various youths—refugees, immigrants, athletes, students, etc. We agreed that we wanted a youth group that was fun, inclusive, merciful, Jesus-centered, and a place to learn and care for each other. We put together a plan to create a culture that would lead us to those values. Each expectation is a forward-focused commitment that develops attitudes and behaviors that build up our values. 

We agreed that we wanted a youth group that was fun, inclusive, merciful, Jesus-centered, and a place to learn and care for each other.

Our expectations included being a team, participating, listening, staying within the set boundaries, and creating a safe and respectful atmosphere.

Soon after our meeting, I introduced these expectations to our leaders and youth group, and we moved a diverse youth group of 50+ teens toward cultural health. 

As I have reflected, four approaches enabled us to lead toward cultural health. 

1. Utilize people’s personal stories to cast a vision for cultural values.

I began this process by sharing about positive experiences I had observed among youth group members. I asked them to share their opinions and thoughts about making a youth group like this for all their friends. I continue this practice as a lead pastor by asking my staff to write a “letter from the future” they hope to receive about their ministry. We become responsible participants in creating culture when culture becomes personal through stories. 

2. Be intentional with language. 

Regular, positive language is a powerful tool for creating culture, inviting better participation in an activity. When my youth group has instincts to boycott certain activities, I remind them of the WE ARE A TEAM approach, which reinforces inclusiveness and the need for everyone to belong. When used appropriately and constructively, language serves as a tool to connect cultures.

3. Choose a healthy community over personal comfort. 

I used to have this written above my door. It helped and still helps me get through many difficult decisions and conversations. Your youth group culture will either move toward a fertile place for God’s Spirit or unintentionally cultivate toxicity. As a leader, you are responsible for leading the way to a healthy community. Have the difficult conversation with a student, volunteer, or parent but with love . . . assuming positive intent. Discipline the youth toward your culture with love. (I had a strict rule about violating the expectations. You had to leave. However, every student I drove home during youth group I visited twice as much as my regular teens. They received more attention from me, not less.) If you are consistent, the difficult conversations become less frequent. I was intentional with seating assignments, van assignments, room assignments, teams, groups, etc. I planned as many details as possible with the culture in mind.

Your youth group culture will either move toward a fertile place for God’s Spirit or unintentionally cultivate toxicity. As a leader, you are responsible for leading the way to a healthy community.

4. Recruit toward your culture. 

Recruitment is a big one. On your first day as a new youth group leader, you have volunteers and teens that preceded you. On day two, it is your choice. Build relationships with people who love God and like teens. Don’t count anyone out. My two best volunteers were over 60. They called on their teens, went to games, and introduced their teens to anyone and everyone in the church. They embodied the culture. Choose volunteers who come with healthy cultural approaches. Having the right people on board will expedite your pursuit of a healthy youth group. 

There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t reflect on how deeply I love youth ministry. When I was in it, the struggle was real, the heartbreak was real. But they are so worth it. Nothing compares to seeing a diverse group of youth finding community and hearing the voice of God. So don’t give up. You are in the best ministry that exists in the local church.

Phil Starr
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