Using cliques to my advantage for small groups

Youth ministry cliquesI’m not really sure why many youth workers think cliques are such a bad thing. We all have friends that we’re closer to than others, we all have people we naturally gravitate toward and we all get along with certain people better than others. There’s nothing wrong with this — it’s just a natural part of relationships. If the youth group is larger than 5 people, there a good chance that some people will become closer friends than others. There’s no way we can expect an entire youth group of students to all be best friends with each other.

However, cliques do become a problem if the little groups refuse to interact with each other, become hostile toward each other or become so closed that others feel rejected by their presence. Consequences for situations like this can range from an easy little talk to dismissal from youth group altogether.

As a leader, I never try to force my way into a “friendship group.” I let the students build their relationships and work my way in by loving them, caring for them and respecting their space from time to time. In return, they respect me, feel my genuine love for them and then enjoy my presence in the group.

I see no reason to break up the friendship groups. I actually use them to my advantage by keeping them together for small group discussions. The relationships that are already built provide a safer context for discussing more personal aspects of each other’s lives.

Posted on April 1, 2007

  • Hey Tim…I totally agree that cliques can be a good thing. Not only that but it is a natural thing in life in general. There are plenty of people that I might associate with but never hang out with.

  • cliques aren’t always bad as you point out Tim. some people call them “tribes” and try to get new kids connected into a tribe that best suits them. I think it’s a genius idea.

  • I agree too. Jesus definitely had cliques in his disciples and he deliberately cultivated his own group of three. There are just some things that need to be shared by a small group of close friends. Having said that, there are some ways that they can become unhealthy and just downright mean. I don’t have anything to back this up scripturally, but I think there is a time for being alone and cultivating friendship and a time for being open and accepting of everyone.

  • Tim

    Whew! Thanks for your input, guys. Every time I hear the word “cliques” from a youth worker it’s usually with negative overtones, almost like they’re fighting against the students or something, so I was a little nervous about the flames I might receive when posting my honest opinion. Glad you’re all on the same page I am.

    I do agree that not all cliques are healthy and must be handled appropriately, as I mentioned in my post, but the majority of the ones I’ve seen aren’t this way.

    Paul, I think you’re right about sometimes “forcing” students to make new friends. I sometimes do this gently when I intentionally randomize teams for games or work groups, but not usually when it comes to small group discussions.

  • I totally agree with using the fact that friendship groups form naturally to our advantage as youth ministers. I love it when a group of students in our ministry are close and have a special connection with one another. I’m sure many youth ministers wish that friendship groups would form more naturally in their ministries!

    I’d just like to point out that the reason many (including myself) cringe at the thought of cliques is because a clique, by definition, is exclusive (not just a group of friends). For me, friendship groups become more of a hinderance than a benefit when friendship groups won’t accept new people into their groups. However, the solution to this is not simply to mix groups (although this can help if done properly), but to constantly promote an atmosphere that values making new friends and welcoming all who come. In this setting, friendship groups are the most beneficial when it comes to evangelism and incorporating new students into the ministry, because hopefully a new student to the ministry will be “invited” to join a handful of groups and feel quite welcome and loved because of it.

  • Thinking about this a little more, the only time I DO hear the word clique is from a parent whose child hasn’t found one yet or from a kid who wants to be in a group that they are in (usually because they don’t really fit). My solution? Bring a friend next week. Keep bringing friends until you have a group that you trust and can challenge and be challenged by.

  • Tim

    When groups aren’t accepting to new people, I totally agree that there’s a problem. If one of your core values is to show unconditional love to everyone, then that group of kids is not on board with what your youth group is all about and something needs to be done to correct it. However, it’s unlikely that every new visitor will find a “friendship group” immediately. That’s why it’s important that there are adult leaders and specific students whose only job is to look for these people and connect with them and maybe start a new friendship group with that person. Or, in a smaller youth group, that becomes the job of every student as modeled by the adults. For a student to come to a group and be expected to bring another friend the next week as a security blanket might be heading in the wrong direction. I’d want a kid to attend my group and feel completely secure and accepted from the very first visit. I don’t think it should be up to him/her to fix their experience for the next week, ya know?

  • Paul: I’m not sure I agree with you here. If students in our ministries need to bring in their own friends from outside the ministry in order to feel like they have friends there, perhaps we should reexamine the values we are promoting and communicating. You note that Jesus has James, John, and Peter and three he seemed to spend more time with. This is true, but were not all who desired to be a part of Jesus’ ministry welcomed?

    If a student wants to be a part of one of our ministries, they should be able to feel like they’re welcomed and loved without having to supply their own friends. What if you have a student who really doesn’t seem to fit in at a youth ministry, but doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere else (and doesn’t feel like he has any real friends to invite to youth group)? It is a great testament to the gospel when students go against their culture and develop a close friendship with a student whom their peers do not accept.

    Perhaps we could glean some principles from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
    “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (2:15)

    Granted, cliques are not always as divisive as the first-century divide between Gentiles and Jews, but it is important to note that Jesus has broken down artificial dividing walls. Friendship groups can be good, but not when there is some sort artifical wall keeping students out of them.

  • Wow! Hot topic!

    OK, I give Benjer his due. It isn’t always healthy to suggest what I did with bring a friend. That has worked with a couple of situations in the past where I had one teen who wanted to be a part of a group that she was separated by age, school, and affinity. That was an interesting situation at church. Let me explain some details.

    The second church I served, I realized some real unhealth in the group. Examples: the pastor’s daughter and another girl in the group got into a slap fight at a missions trip three years before and had split the group into two distinct factions. Add to that a very charismatic, intelligent 9th grade boy who made his Sunday school teacher cry every week. I kid you not, the second dribble of wisdom from this guy was his three secrets to life that all start with S: stereotypes, snap-judgments and sarcasm. He used them like a machete. Saying there were cliques was a huge understatement.

    The first retreat we did, I decided to address it. There just happened to be a policeman in the congregation who was somewhat dramatic. So we arrested every teen signed up for the retreat for “gang activity”. I then presided as judge and sentenced them accordingly. They were to spend a weekend at a correctional facility (our camp, not a real one). We loaded them up and took them to camp. When they arrived they were given a colored bandana that split them into groups. Yup, nobody was in a group with their closest friends and nope, you could not hang out with anyone but the people in your own group. Four people burst into tears immediately. The competition began for each group (basic group bonding stuff) and the winners got big treats while the loser got the fix meals and clean up after everyone. Sounds like a nightmare? Right?

    We were very blessed. The whole weekend’s messages were based on relationships and by the end of it, the winners were volunteering to help the losers. The last night I invited everyone to take off their colors and mingle freely, but first I brought out a huge cross and read the scripture about reconciling with our brothers before going to the altar. So if they wanted to mingle freely, all they had to do was put their colors on the cross. But before they did that, they needed to reconcile with each other. God did a lot of work that night and I still hear about it from people. So there is my best solution to cliques. BTW, we some some very new cliques after a couple of months. They were still cliques, but much healthier than before. I could still threaten with a trip back to “true colors” camp if they got too out of line.

  • Paul:
    That sounds like an amazing way to deal with the issue. Thanks for clarifying your view, and for the great anecdote.

  • Tim

    Woah Paul, that’s awesome! lol Nice creativity for addressing the situation.

  • Paul – wow.

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  • amy marie

    my youth group is having a down fall right now because are youth minister has had to leave us at a time were we do not have a replacement. How ever our future church is holding there selves together quite well, and we are in a search a new youth minister.
    i thought your artical was very intresting just a few questions.
    see our group does have trouble with this but no sence of guidence towards it. what could we plan to help my youth group, something that would help us bond, because i am a leader who is in charge of activities.

  • Hey Amy Marie! Maybe one the easiest and best things you can do to bond is just hang out together. It doesn’t have to be anything big or fancy. Just get together at someone’s house and watch a couple movies together, play video games, eat together, stuff like that. Then maybe pray for each other if you want.

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