“The Tribe13 Experiment”
A true story about a different kind of children & youth group
by Neil MacQueen
This article (treatise?) has several sections of varying details for those who wish to go deeper.
This is a true story about not accepting the status quo, or following entrenched assumptions about ” the right way” to do children and youth ministry. The mainline church now has 5 decades of experience creating youth groups, and yet statistically and undeniably speaking, that experience has failed to bring kids back to the church as adults. I take that problem very seriously. Children and Youth ministry is about making lifelong disciples. Anything less is unacceptable.
In 2001, I was lucky enough to be in the right church at the right time with the right group of parents and kids to try and RE-THINK our kids’ journey through our children and youth group. The name of the church has been changed in this article, but it might as well be “ANY CHURCH.”
- The Tribe13 Experiment grew out of my 25+ years experience and insights in youth ministry and family ministry and raising three kids.
- The “Experiment” sought to overcome many of the chronic problems and unmet goals of traditional children and youth ministry.
- It sought to create a family among the kids, and their own families.
- And it sought to re-invent our Confirmation experience in the process.
In many ways, Tribe13 functioned like a good children or youth group, but with several significant differences.
One of the BIG differences…
The Tribe13 concept challenges the assumption that churches must group and move kids like the public schools do, by grade, and ‘moving kids up’ to the next group when the kids move the kids to a new school. In fact, the school systems themselves don’t agree on where and when to “move up” their grades. In Hill Church’s school system, they even had 6th Grade-only schools!
Truth is, many of our kids have friends in different grades. So instead of parroting the local school system by moving our 6th grader “up” into the youth group every year, we said, “why not keep them with the kids they’ve grown up with?” Unlike the public schools, our curriculum isn’t grade dependent. Grouping similar kids is simply more natural, and keeping them together to grow up together is in keeping with our goals for them to feel a strong affinity for “church family.” The only question left to ask, then, is WHAT ARE YOUR NATURAL GROUPS?
To begin our experiment, in our church we identified 2 particular grades. In your church, it might be 3. The point is, you decide based on who your kids are. The other point is, stop thinking like the public schools and 40 years of youth ministry.
TRIBE13 BRIEFLY DESCRIBED
We took 2 grades of kids and formed them into a group when they were in the first and second grade, and we kept them together with the same leaders as a more family-oriented fellowship that grew up together in the church for Sunday School and fellowship.
The first year they were 1st and 2nd graders together, the next year they were 2nd and 3rd graders together, and so on. Didn’t matter what school they went to (they went to many different school, actually.) We completely dropped the “grade” distinction altogether. It held no meaning to us. We were Tribe13. We were a family.
We could have added a third grade group to the Tribe, but in our particular small church, we didn’t have a kid in the grade ‘above’ and the two in the grade ‘below’ were good friends with kids in the grade below them. So our group was a natural grouping for us. Yours might vary.
We did normal things you would do with them when they were young, and as they grew older together, we did more ‘youth fellowship-style’ things with them. But read on below for what we also did DIFFERENT…
To the Tribe13 kids, leaders, and parents, the group was a great success. Many goals were met, we became close, the parents were very appreciative and got to know each other through our programming, attendance grew and stayed strong, and we had an amazing Confirmation experience.
How Tribe13 got started…
After resurrecting the Wed Night program and building attendance, we recognized that 12 of our kids were coming from just two grades and really enjoyed each other’s company. One of those 12 was my youngest daughter.
Our traditional fellowship night had a dinner, games and lesson time. For lesson time, we split into age appropriate groups, and I was in charge of the 12-or so kids who happened to come from those two grades, and who would eventually become Tribe13. Working with 2 other volunteers, I began re-envisioning with them a different kind of group for those kids.
I was also looking down the road. My two older daughters had gone through the pastor’s “Confirmation” experience, and it was barely acceptable. Indeed, I was upset that my kids had such a poor experience, and I resolved that it wouldn’t happen to my third daughter. So we got permission to form those two grades into their own fellowship group with a unique long-range plan (described in this article) to not only help those kids and their families grow in faith, but arrive at Confirmation and their youth group years “New and Improved”.
The beginning started by simply asking, “what would this group’s Confirmation look like if we changed their church experience and they entered Confirmation as a family already prepared to join?”
That question opened my mind to several other “what ifs.” What if they became a group of friends? What if we did family ministry with their parents and the group? What if….
We still met most Wednesdays, and occasionally ate dinner with the other groups, but we started to make changes in what we did, and who we did it with. And we began doing things beyond Wednesday night. Friends go to friends life-events. So it wasn’t unusual for Tribe13 to show up to a recital or ballgame. Friends hang out in each other’s home, so it wasn’t unusual for us to hold our meetings in their homes and spend time with parents and siblings. Tribe13 was more than a date on the calendar and activity set.
The Problem with Traditional Programming
Conventional wisdom tears apart natural fellowship groupings of kids every few years depending on what grade they are in and what school they are going to. Splitting off the 7th graders each year from their younger friends whom they’ve been in fellowship with for years doesn’t respect or help deepen the relationships we want to encourage. It also makes it hard on the older groups to have to assimilate new younger kids each year, especially when the age difference among youth starts to get really pronounced.
Example: Every year you “send up” a grade” to the Jr. High Group, regardless of who your kids are, regardless of who their friends are in other grades, and regardless of the nature of the group they are leaving, or the group they are going up to. This rips kids from their friends precisely when they need consistency the most. Fo some kids, this creates the scary prospect of having to fit in with teens much older than them, precisely at that time in their life when “fitting in” is a major personal issue. For many older teens, it can hasten the sense that they have outgrown the group, because every year they get older, new younger kids join.
In some churches, the kids don’t have those close relationships being built, but that’s another problem. Tribe13 is a concept to build those friendships, and not merely group kids.
All the research and stats say that we’re moving kids into new groups PRECISELY at the most important time in their life when they are making their decision about church affiliation and faith. Is it any coincidence that groups tend to lose kids at these transition points? Tribe13 was CONTINUITY during these key life transition points.
(Some parents don’t get this. They figure “I was in youth group and I’m still in the church.” They fail to look around and acknowledge all their peers who dropped out. Then a few years later they lament that their own kids don’t go to church.)
At “Hill Church,” this ripping-apart was made worse because the school system there operated several separate “6th grade schools,” -in addition to several 7th & 8th grade Middle Schools. We wanted to BUILD on the deepening friendships we were working to create at church, but the school system was moving kids away from their familiar surrounding and recombining them into new groups and building TWICE during a three year period, –at the 6th and 9th grade years.
More Radical Tribe13-ism:
Tribe13’s “family” approach would soon extend beyond just keeping the two grades of kids together. We started bringing the kids’ PARENTS into the program more often as the kids got older. This was in direct contrast to how the schools and most youth groups work. In the schools and traditional youth ministry, parents were increasingly CUT OUT of the program.
From the outside, Tribe13 could appear, at times, like any other youth group. But from the inside, from the perspective of the kids, the leaders and the parents, the development of long-term relationships changed how we related to each other. These relationships and attitudes, forged when the kids were young, allowed us to infuse and continue a healthy dose of parent participation and family ministry. For example, we often met in group member homes with their family present for the meeting. And rather than ignore what the kids were doing beyond the Tribe, the Tribe would go to support Tribe member’s participation in their soccer and football games and school plays. (The kids loved this particular idea.)
Doesn’t seem so radical does it? These ideas have been floating around youth ministry for years. The difference was -we made a long term commitment to them, and we eliminated the ‘school system’ group-breaking approach that reconfigured our groups every few years. It changed the way we began to relate to each other and treat each other. It changed the way we planned, and when we met. It changed our approach to teaching and how we led. It made some things possible that in past youth groups I had only hoped for.
The Problem with Change
Change is not easy, especially when it challenges long-cherished assumptions.
- Not every member or staff person at my church understood what we were trying to do.
- Some didn’t know the kids.
- Some didn’t understand what we were trying to achieve, and a few didn’t appreciate how our approach “critiqued” traditional approaches (which some of them had led over the years).
- Some also felt it would negatively affect the existing youth group as we would not be “feeding them” a new grade each year.
- Some just wanted to stick with what they knew.
- Some felt threatened by the possibility of failure (or the success of an idea they opposed).
- Some just gave mixed messages and qualified support.
YOU KNOW THE DRILL. People who in their own lives and vocations who can be very progressive and inventive, suddenly get a case of the “but we’ve always done it that way” when it comes to church. My question to them is, “given all the stats & research, and failing numbers, WHY would we want to continue past practices?”
There was no denying that our approach was great for the kids and their families.
The funny thing is that our Tribe13 parents were the MOST supportive of the change. I suspect that was, in part, due to the fact we did the change when their kids were young. By the time we got to the grade-years when the schools would have split our two grades into different schools, the parents and kids couldn’t imagine splitting apart. They wanted their kids to have good church friends.
Believe it or not, “change” is often easier in a SMALL church than large. Small churches have program and grade group challenges that larger churches do not. The “Hill” Church was a small 225 member mainline Protestant congregation in a middle class suburb of Columbus Ohio. Over the years, its membership had shrunk significantly, –even while the town around it had grown by leaps and bound… a fact they didn’t want to examine and did little to address beyond allowing some of us to do some inventive children’s ministry. Like many churches, for a variety of reasons the church did a lousy job of attracting more members than it was losing. The only growth spot was our children’s ministry.
When I got there as a volunteer in 1998, the Wednesday Night fellowship program was almost non-existent. Two years later, several leaders and I had grown attendance from 8 to 30 kids, grades 1st through 12th, and eventually upwards of 45 kids. –It was a mighty feat for a 225 member church! That success bred some permission, and that’s when Tribe13 began its run.
Tribe13 was also a long-term attempt to change the future Confirmation experience of these kids.
Our Tribe13 “experiment” ended in 2007 after a very successful seven year run when several key families, including my own, needed to worship elsewhere.
The Hill church began struggling with some dysfunctional leadership and a troubled pastor, -and it came to a head in 2007, –sending my family and several other families and eventually two key staff people towards the exit doors. None of it had anything to do with Tribe13. That’s part of the story here too: that innovative ministry is challenging enough without the church’s “other” issues making it harder!
Losing faith in a church’s leadership, pastor, and direction is not only demoralizing, it is spiritually unhealthy. The one enduring bright spot during our nine years there was Tribe13.
More About the Goals & Activities of Tribe13
For those thinking of doing something like it…
In some ways, Tribe13 functioned like a typical youth group (even when the kids were only children). We met mostly on Wednesday nights, ate together, learned, worshiped, and played together. We did service projects, and went on retreats. Not everything about traditional youth ministry was wrong!
But there were several things that made the Tribe13 experiment DIFFERENT. And each of the following things made those traditional elements much more rewarding.
=We changed the schedule to meet the changing needs of individuals within the group. Example: When a couple of our kids had Wednesday night sport practice, we met on Sunday after church instead. This caused a bit of a stir among the other Wednesday night groups.
In our last year together, the parents and kids all agreed we should move to Sunday nights, because as the kids got older, Wednesday Night was increasingly taken up by sports and homework in our community. Often such decisions are made by a distant committee, and then rarely revisited. Programs get created and it’s “take it or leave it.” But the Tribe’s schedule was entirely flexible, and we always consulted kids and parents about the scheduling of special events so that no one would be left out if we could avoid it.
=We spent time with each other outside of church.
Members of the group attended each other’s school plays and sporting events. The kids would go to movies together. Go for pizza. And when we met together, each talked about what they had been doing. We emphasized relationships, -being part of each other’s lives outside the church.We sought to know each other more than superficially.
Doing youth groups over the years, it always kind of bothered me that the kids didn’t really know each other that well, even after a year or more of evening meetings. So in Tribe13 we really focused on that through a variety of means.
=One of things we most looked forward to were our monthly “HOME” events. Each month one of the members’ families would invite the group into their home for meal and meeting. Parents and siblings were encouraged to take part. Home movies were encouraged to be shown much to the delight of everyone. Each parent worked with their tribe member to construct “a shrine” of their most prized possessions for the group to peruse. We visited their bedrooms and saw their posters and toys. I have often said that if I were forced to choose between meeting in church or meeting in a member home, I would choose home, no questions asked.We sought to keep the same leaders.
=There were three of us who made the commitment to stick with these kids for more than just a year or two like the typical volunteer. This was a family. This is how you get to know kids and build trust.
Unlike past youth groups, the three Tribe13 leaders were related to kids in the group. “Tim” and I had our own kids in the group, and “Dorothy” had a grandson in the group. Dorothy had spent decades working with children in the church. They loved her. Dorothy also intuitively understood how Tribe13 was trying to be different than all the youth groups she had been involved with. She had seen her own children grow up in youth groups and leave the church. She didn’t want it to be like that for her grandson.When it was possible, we also brought in some college students whom the kids knew. And like every young adult I’ve ever worked with in youth ministry, you know that it probably meant more to them than it did to the kids, though it was certainly cool for the kids to see a college student taking their faith seriously …and taking an interest in them.Pulling parents into the group is a great idea.
= When the kids were young we regularly brought parents into the group. –which made it easier to keep parents part of things as the kids get older. This created a lot of support and “buy in” from the parents, which helped as the kids got older and schedules changed. It also made things feel more like a family.
=When the youth group met in homes, parents and siblings were encouraged to be front and center, and they loved that. And as our Tribe kids got older it made it easier to incorporate families into certain events.Having parents help with the group also gave the kids an opportunity to relate to a parent-figures like their own parents, without it always being “their” parent. This is slightly better than having the typical “buddy couple” lead the group, –the enthusiastic young adult couple with a baby on the way who think they understand kids. Truth is, they actually have VERY LITTLE experience with pre-teens and teenagers. In my opinion, it’s better for a Jr. High to have an adult to relate to who is similar to their own parent than quite different. It’s sort of like the difference between having an Uncle to relate to.
=Earnest Attempt at Avoiding Burning-Out the Leaders and the Kids
As my own kids became teenagers, I began to realize just how BUSY their lives were. We needed a group that worked for them and within their lives, ..and not just for those who had the evening free. And we needed a group that worked for the leader’s lives as well.
=Tribe13 stepped away from the whirling dervish model for youth ministry. For example, rather than running concurrent with the school year, September to May, like a traditional group, we adjusted our “program pace,” type and timing of events throughout the year to accommodate seasonal schedules.One of the benefits of the Tribe13 approach was in the way we defined our group. Kids tend to think they’re “in” -if they attend, and “out” if they miss a couple of meetings. In Tribe13, because we tried to scheduled around the kids events as much as possible, we sent a new message. Think about it…. most churches and leaders see themselves as “in competition” for the kids attention. But in Tribe13, rather than complain about Spring Soccer, band practice, and school plays, we scheduled around them as much as possible. And we would GO TO the kids’ events…. taking other group members with us.I wish that I could have gone and supported “Amy” at her track meet, and brought youth group members with me. I should have celebrated Amy’s passion for running, rather than giving off the subtle message that her running was competing with God. So…..in Tribe13, we all went to Craig’s football game rather than hold a meeting at the same time that he couldn’t attend. (Man, we HE a happy camper; and so was the group.)
That’s one of the other things we began to realize over the years with Tribe13, –that there was value in just hanging out with each other. In the old days I would have felt like we didn’t accomplish much if we didn’t have some sort of “content” in our get-togethers. That’s because I was short-term program oriented.We also “eased-up” on our schedule.
=We didn’t have to meet every week, and we didn’t have to meet all year round. Instead, we were in tune with the “seasons” of their schedules. In a traditional youth group, for example, a lot of your ‘prime programming’ falls in October and November, which is exactly the same time the kids are most involved in school plays and sports, -and have a lot of homework. Part of the key for us was communicating with the parents and kids, and being willing to adjust our schedule as things came up.The other Wednesday Night powers-that-be at Hill church didn’t like it when we didn’t meet the same time they did.
The tradition model got it’s energy and sense of success seeing a lot of kids in one place. But large groups are a lousy way to build relationships and aren’t that attractive to kids who spend all day at school with lots of people. We did often meet with the other groups for dinner, but we sat at our own table. In fact, they couldn’t wait to sit down with each other. They didn’t all go to the same schools, and they missed each other during the week.
From time to time we did invite the other younger or older groups to play with us. I know this comes across as “exclusive” …but our primary goal was to build the bonds between peers that would improve the sharing and learning, and their desire to come be together as a group, in worship, and at church events. …And the bonds grew strong.
No Artificial Sweeteners
I’ve had some big youth groups over the years filled with friends. But I believe our first priority is to do quality youth ministry, not quantity.I’d like to confess that I have limited time and resources and help. It was true when I was on staff, and it was certainly true as a volunteer leader. Where then should we invest our limited resources? I believe we should first nurture the regular attending kids of members. That is where the soil is most richly prepared. These are the families who came to us first, –who gave us the resources, their trust, and their children.
These are the ones who have the MUCH higher likelihood of becoming adult believers in our congregation. (I know how this sounds, but I’m not Superman.) Feel free to nuance this any way you want, but you get my drift.We had a “Friends Policy” that made perfect sense to us, the parents, and the kids, but it was frequently misunderstood by some people in our church looking for a reason to criticize our new fangled ideas.
We said, “Bring any friend once or twice a year, after that, they can come only if they want to join the group and attend regularly. And certain events are for regular group members only.” Our retreats for example were REALLY good because we only opened them to regular attenders, whether they be kids from the church or friends who had become regular. And our really FUN events, like the night we took over the ‘bouncey room’ fun center, were “members only.” We didn’t want Tribe13 to be just another recreation option. It’s amazing how kids respond to having a standard set high. This friends “containment” policy also allowed us to minister to some of the more quiet regular kids, who often feel less comfortable in large groups with peers they don’t know. A Family that Prays together Stays Together.
(Lo and Behold, the Tribe also started feeling more comfortable in worship!)
Starting in the 5th/6th grade year, we started talking with them about “joining the church together” …which meant “learning together.” This made them feel special. It also gave the parents an important feeling about our group. While we emphasized joining as a personal faith decision, we also used this “group join” approach as a lesson in how we come to faith and act in faith as a church, as a family. It worked because the Tribe WAS a family, and not just a typical “class” put together for the year.
“The Long Range Effect”
This article only amounts to a trail of breadcrumbs and cautions. The final destination will be yours.
In the middle of our experiment, I came across Mike Yaconelli’s broadside on traditional youth groups. Mike was the founder of Youth Specialties and YouthWorker Journal, and was one of the guys responsible for the resurgence of youth ministry in the 70’s and 80’s.
I’ve posted his article http://www.sundaysoftware.com/yaconelli.htm
Some Answers to Questions…
Why two grades?
That’s what worked for us. I suppose you could do three grades depending on your circumstances, but with three grades, the developmental and emotional age difference between youngest and oldest can be large, -especially at certain ages, such as at the 5th grade boundary. We wanted to build a long term “natural” peer group, …a group of friends who’s bonds would make the group something special, and help them go deeper into faith & living issues. To decide between two or three grades, you really need to look at the kids themselves. Two works great if you can pull it off. We had about 14 kids in that age bracket at our church. And 10-12 of them were regular participants in the Tribe.
Four grades MAY be too much of a developmental spread to build a group in which each person views the other as a peer. And the life experiences of a 2nd grader compared to a 5th or 6th grader, or 7th grader and High School junior are too divergent. You usually end up with two groups within the one you were hoping for, and the older kids often frustrated with the immaturity of “the new kids.” It’s a programming hurdle youth leaders are all too familiar with, and just by the time you begin to work it out, the program year ends and you have to go through it again the next year. To be sure, we did make sure our two grades stayed in touch with older and younger children at the church. But for quality bonding and fellowship programming, the closer in age, the better.
How does this affect the grades above and below the Tribe grades?
First…Creating FIXED NATURAL GROUPS that “age” together is NOTHING NEW. Bible classes and ‘young adult’ groups have done it for years. But it does create some implementation challenges with children and youth….
For example, what if a certain grade or two doesn’t have enough kids to form a group? It happens in small churches. The solution is to either, a) start small and grow the group, or b) expense to three grade groups. Having served and worshiped in churches of many sizes and situations, I know that the answer dependent on many local variables. At the Hill church, the two grade groups we started with were an obvious choice. We only had 2 kids above in the next grade, and 1 below, and none of the 3 was a natural peer to the kids in the two grades we formed into our first Tribe.
And what do you do with the upcoming first graders if they can’t be combined into the 2nd and 3rd grade “Tribe”?
We had plans and ideas to deal with this. One plan for example, was to start a new group every two years. This would mean that new first graders might have to wait until they were second graders to form a new group with the upcoming first graders. It’s variable for sure, –particularly in smaller churches, but the results are worth the change in thinking. It creates organic groups, instead of artificial ones. To put it in another way, it unhooks us from the public school system of “grades” and school divisions. It allows the church to look at its individual kids and ask “what’s possible” and “what’s best.”
I know that sounds radical… to open up fellowship programming only every two years to the younger grades, instead of each year to new upcoming children. But where is it written that we HAVE to add a grade each year? And who’s to say you don’t do some special family ministry with those 1st graders during their “waiting year”? Or…why not work with them when they are 4 & 5 year olds together? One point of the Tribe13 Experiment was to UNSHACKLE ourselves from our conventional thinking about ‘grade groups’. You can’t start young enough to form lasting peer-bonds. And again… it’s those peer bonds that are the foundation to all our programming goals.
What about the 4th-7th grade early adolescent developmental jump?
Truth is, that does NOT break down by grade anyway. In any sizeable group, you will have 5th grade girls ahead of 6th grade boys, and a 5th grade boy who matured earlier than his peers. To kids, this is quite natural. At school and in their neighborhoods, they spend time with kids who are all over the developmental spectrum. It’s natural for a family to have different people in it, and learn to value differences. Those grade boundaries are MUCH more important to the public schools and their graded-progressive curriculum, i.e., 6th graders have different subjects than 4th graders. But that’s not necessarily true in church. And it isn’t true of traditional youth ministry either! The difference between a 7th and 12th grader is profound, but we have traditionally put them in the same class/youth group in many small churches. Thus, putting 3rd graders with 5th, or 4th with 6th is no big deal.
What about breaking up natural friendships when you start?
At the start when you put your 2nd-4th graders together in a “Tribe” (for example), in a small church you might be excluding your sole 5th grader who’s friends with the 4th graders. The answer is DON’T. When you start grouping your kids, and at any other year in your Tribe’s life, it is OK to add a kid or grade IF it serves the needs of the kid(s), parents, and group. In other words, don’t be tyrannical about grade groupings.Be sensitive to relationships, because RELATIONSHIPS are the cornerstone of your program.
How does the Tribe concept affect Youth Groups?
Fact: the Tribe concept was created SPECIFICALLY to create a future Youth Group! We realized that to build a different kind of youth ministry and group experience, we needed to start with the kids were much younger. So much of youth group programming is “community building” –what would happen if they already WERE a community when they became youth? It’s every youth minister’s dream not to have to start from scratch, and to be able to go further with kids because they were ready.
Creating fixed groups of children that “age together” also eventually create a challenge for the existing High School group -if it doesn’t move to the “fixed group” model. High School groups are used to getting a new grade of kids each year to replace those they’ve lost to to graduation. But it’s a problem you have for only a few years, and there are several creative solutions to it.
For example, if you switch to a Tribe concept, the High School group no longer gets a ‘new grade’ added to it each year. So… that group will eventually need to change how it functions and relates to each other as it loses kids to graduation. It can become its own tribe, and as its kids move towards graduation, they can work to stay in touch with Tribe members who have graduated, or invite friends to maintain a functional number (in a small church this is important).
It’s a scary idea for leaders who didn’t sign-on to lead a shrinking group. But smaller is not bad, if you adjust to it and don’t keep programming like you still have 15 kids, rather than 8. The problem is when leaders don’t know what else to do, …when they only know one way of running a youth group. (Frankly, many youth groups need to adjust ANYWAY as their kids “age.” In most churches, attendance drops as the High Schoolers start to drive and get closer to graduation, and yet, every year the group’s program stays the same, and yet we blame the kids for not coming as much? Better to group kids in natural age groups so that you can minister to their changing needs/age. One size does not fit all.
And let’s be honest: traditional youth group thinking has produced poor long-term results for the Church. Most kids coming up through traditional youth programming do not return to the Church as adults. It’s a hard truth many youth leaders don’t want to hear. Tribe13 is an overhaul to conventional thinking.
“What happens when the Tribe gets to the end of High School and one grade graduates?”
We had plans for that too. We were going to redefine how we met as a group that year and how we stayed in touch. Having worked with High School Seniors and College students for many years, it’s not as hard as it sounds. And indeed, most youth group already struggle with how to keep Seniors and grads connected. The Tribe13 Experiment would make it EASIER because the kids themselves would be so bonded by their years together that they would WANT to stay in touch.
The Tribe13 Name
“Tribe13” has several meanings. First, “tribe” sounded fun. Early in my ministry I used to dismiss the importance of fun youth group names, …and I was a dope. Names give you identity and tell people who you are.
We also chose “tribe” because that was what we had become and wanted to become, –a natural affinity group, –an extended family.
The name also hearkened back to the twelve tribes of Israel, which gave it a little Bible cachet. We also thought it was kind of cool to be “the 13th Tribe of Israel.” And at the time, putting “numbers” in your youth group name was popular. Though ’13’ was considered “unlucky” by some, our group turned it into something of a positive joke. When something odd would happen, or didn’t work right, or somebody tripped, or knocked something over, somebody would quip, “well, we are the 13th tribe of Israel, afterall.” We would also sometimes joke that we were the “Lost Tribe”.
Tribe13 was a promise to my daughter
I had a very personal motive in starting Tribe13.
When my family and I started attending the Hill Church, my two oldest daughters didn’t like their fellowship groups. As a former youth pastor, it was hard listening to my daughters complain about their fellowship group. My oldest daughter stopped going on Wednesday nights, and I didn’t blame her. (When we started Tribe13, I invited her to be a “big sister” to the kids, and she gladly accepted. This was going to be another feature of the Tribe, bringing in brothers and sisters of college age to help). My middle daughter stuck with having a love-hate relationship with her youth group until she graduated. Over the years it broke my heart to hear her complain about the activities and lack of attendance. Both my girls also had a terrible Confirmation experience at Hill Church. It’s one thing for me to realize it wasn’t good, but my daughters also knew at the time that it wasn’t good, and I found myself apologizing for the church.
Where was “dad, the former youth pastor” while his older daughters struggled in youth fellowship? I was working with my youngest daughter’s fellowship group on Wednesday night. I would have given anything to also help with my older daughters’ youth groups, but they were held the same night as the younger group.
I couldn’t do anything about the youth group, but I WAS working with my youngest daughter’s grade school group, and made a promise to myself that I would STICK with her group as long as she would let me TO MAKE SURE IT DIDN’T HAPPEN TO THESE KIDS TOO. Part of my goal in creating Tribe13 was DEMONSTRATE a new standard for youth group and Confirmation programming.
It wasn’t all roses…
When I first proposed the idea of Tribe13, some in the congregation weren’t as enthusiastic as the kids and the parents were. They worried about Tribe13 becoming “too exclusive” or “hurt the youth group.” The proposal had us breaking out of the Wednesday night model on occasion, and they were worried it might be viewed as the Tribe getting “special treatment.” They also worried what it would mean for the kids in grades below and above our two Tribe13 grades. But fortunately, Hill was a small church, and there weren’t any kids in the grade just below, and only two in the grade above (and they weren’t part of the Tribe’s natural peer group).
Our Tribe actually helped our youth group’s leaders.
They heard us talk about what we were trying to accomplish and employed many of the same ideas and approaches.
By forming this ‘break-out’ group, with it’s own goals and sense of autonomy, we were also going up against the traditional lines of authority in the church. Fortunately for us, this wasn’t much of a problem, but occasionally we’d hear a complaint from someone in charge. Chairpersons, committees, pastors, DCEs… the system is set up to provide support, accountability, and control. But it can also be about “turf” in some churches. Fortunately, we didn’t have to deal with that too much at the Hill Church.
We also had a parent or two outside the Tribe who were upset that their kid wasn’t getting the Tribe experience. It was an experiment, not a total program makeover at that point in the Hill Church, but they wanted in.
I’m sure that one of the reasons Tribe13 was approved was because of me. It’s pretty hard to say “no” to a leader who is willing to lead, -who has the training, -has a track record of success in other churches, -has the support of the parents and kids, -and has a kid in the group. It’s hard to say no to somebody basically volunteering to lead these kids for the next umpteen years AND help design a more fulfilling Confirmation experience along the way. But what they probably didn’t know was that my family might have left the church had they not approved the idea. They had already delivered a sub-par youth ministry to my two older daughters, and I wasn’t going to let it happen to my youngest. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go there. Tribe13 was approved with relatively little discussion.
I do believe, however, that getting permission in another church might be harder. People are afraid of change and the unknown.
How Tribe13 would eventually affect the Youth Group ‘above it’ as the Tribe kids got older…
After we formed the group, it seems like every year afterwards someone would complain about “what was going to happen when the Tribe13 grades were in High School… how was that going to affect the existing High School youth group!” Frankly, the way the Senior youth group was shrinking it wasn’t going to be that big a deal. But we had a couple of years to worry about it, and I told them “we’ll figure it out.” Some people are comfortable exploring and experimenting. Others let their fears keep them where they are, even if they don’t want to really be there.
A year into the experiment I knew we were on the right track. Tribe13 turned into something special. They were kids like every other church I have ever been in, but they were different because they were buying in to our new group concept, and we were treating them different. The group averaged between 10 and 14 kids every time we got together, and they became fast friends and active members in the congregation.
Note: I don’t think the Hill Church is exceptional in some of its reservations and problems that I encountered there. I am grateful that they allowed us to experiment, and hopeful that they learned a few things from our time together. One person who read this article said it sounded like I still had some issues with that congregation, and I’m not gonna lie, I do. If you’ve ever poured your soul into a group, only to have to later walk away due to circumstances beyond your control, you know how I feel. It’s hard enough for healthy congregations these days, and doubly hard for those with problems. Word to the wise.
Even some of the pillars of the youth ministry community have questioned the way we’ve been doing things. Here come’s Mike Yaconelli’s Bombshell….
I remember my jaw hitting the floor the day I read Mike Yaconelli’s bombshell article in YouthWorker Journal about ten years ago, in which he laid waste to the past 30 years of youth ministry as we knew it.
His conclusion: “It was fun, we filled the room, …but it didn’t work.”
For those of you who don’t know who I’m talking about, Mike Yaconelli was the GODFATHER of modern youth ministry. He and Wayne Rice (another of the YS Godfathers) published the IDEAS books, among many others, a staple of every church’s youth ministry in the 70’s and 80’s. His hippy-dippy traveling “Youth Specialties” seminars were attended by everybody involved in youth ministry back then. Then he blew it all up. After decades of doing really creative youth ministry, and becoming the guru, he announced “the Emperor has no clothes.”
Mike wanted to know “where were all those kids now?” Mike had led successful groups, but most of his enthusiastic teens went off to college and didn’t come back to the church. He realized too late that they had created a church within the church for these kids, and that once they were too old for youth group, they didn’t feel comfortable in the traditional boring congregation, and so they didn’t come back to it.
He also questioned the entire hippy-dippy, recreational style “church-lite” youth group ministry that he had helped create and resource.
Sadly, Yaconelli died in a car accident the year after he delivered his bombshell. Had he lived, I suspect youth ministry would have been transformed. He was that much of a respected leader. But there are voices out here. Mine, maybe yours, and people like Mark DeVries….
A few years ago, Mark DeVries published “Family Based Youth Ministry” (InterVarsity Press) …which was another shot across the bow of traditional youth ministry -this time coming from a Presbyterian minister. I remember reading his book and thinking, “this guy is reading my mind.” And many of his inclinations and suggestions for change sounded familiar. It’s a book everyone in youth ministry should read. Tribe13 took his book to heart, and added a strong does of “family” to our programming.
“FAMILY-BASED” –Tribe or something else, that’s the core value and vision.
We weren’t able to see the experiment past 2007. It went really well for six years, but then it ended due to circumstances in that church that had nothing to do with Tribe13 itself. The Hill Church had some serious problems which we could no longer overlook. There’s only so much you can take before the frustration starts to undermine your desire to keep going there. There’s only so much dysfunction before you can’t hear God’s Spirit in worship. We reached that point in mid-2007 even as we were planning a truly spectacular post-Confirmation year with Tribe13.
Indeed, as Tribe13 flourished, the other groups started to shrink for reasons unrelated to the Tribe, -but it made some grumble. And as their groups shrunk, there was a subtle pressure to “combine into the Tribe at some point in the future” the few kids from the grades surrounding the Tribe’s two grades. In some circumstances, that would be fine. But what bothered me about that was that they weren’t willing to address the REASONS for the shrinkage or try new things to grow. Some of the reasons had to do with the church leadership. People were pulling back or starting to feel anxious. A building campaign that many didn’t want was creating strain. Finally, the pastor just started to act out, and it was over.
Not every good story has a perfect ending. But this story isn’t about me, or that church…. it’s about YOUR church.
It’s about being HONEST about what doesn’t work, and BOLD to make changes.
I hope some of my ideas and experiences help your own, and get you and your kids to where you need to go.
Of all the things the Tribe did, –and of all the youth ministry I’ve ever done, I’m most proud of this.
As a pastor, I had led 11 traditional classes to their Confirmation Day. And every year, I would lament the fact that HALF my class was composed of kids who rarely darkened the church door. I actually had one youth tell me that his father said, “Get confirmed and I’ll never ask you to go to another thing at church.” And you know what? He never did come to another thing.
Now remember, our youth group numbers were no lie. I related well to kids and was a pretty creative teacher too. And I know our creative-traditional classes did impact some kids lives. But after 11 years of watching many of the confirmands fall off the cliff afterwards, and after watching my OWN two daughters have a horrible Confirmation experience at the hands of the Hill Church, I swore it would never happen to my youngest daughter. So when we started Tribe13, I told the pastor, “when it comes time to confirm them, I promise to lead that effort.” And he was obviously happy to have that off his plate.
My Tribe13 “Confirmation concept” is disarmingly simple:
Turn their Confirmation into a celebration of what they had already achieved, -of what they had already become, –rather than treating it like a hoop to jump through and a “crash course in Christianity.” Instead, we taught the “content of Confirmation” to them in small doses in the years leading up to their Confirmation. That freed us up to handle the Confirmation year a little bit differently and it changed the ‘quality’ of the kids’ experience tremendously.
In fact, I used to tell the Tribe kids that when it came time for their confirmation it would be a party, not a bunch of classes to pass.
Which isn’t to say we didn’t teach them “content.” What we did was make the traditional topics of confirmation part of their Tribe13 experience in the years LEADING UP TO their confirmation year. For example, we taught a creative unit on the Apostles Creed (basic systematic theology!) when the Tribe kids were in the 5th and 6th grade. We made sure the parents understood that this unit was part of our long-range Confirmation process, and attendance was especially good for those meetings.
And because the Tribe kids and leaders knew each other so well and were great together, the content and discussion went a lot more smoothly and was more well-received than any other Confirmation group I had ever led.
We also told the kids years in advance that they would have to be “invited” by the church to be confirmed, or… make their own request. When their Confirmation Year approached, I gave each of them a personal handwritten letter of invitation, talking about what I saw in their character and faith. To most, I said, “you are already a member of this church in the eyes of God…let’s go a little deeper and make this a party.” In other Confirmation classes in previous churches, the kids approached it with a mixture of dread and disinterest.
Oh, we did cover some dry subjects. At the Fall retreat the year before they were confirmed, we did a fun romp through church history and what it meant to be a Presbyterian. It was such a better setting than sitting in a classroom, and because we enjoyed being together so much and the kids were comfortable with each other, the discussion flowed.
By the time they got to their “Confirmation Year” they had already learned most of the traditional content via the Tribe’s youth group learning environment, and not a stuffy class on Saturday morning in the pastor’s office. We told them they had to “attend a minimum of 10 worship services” in their Confirmation year, and do a service project. Thing is, all of them were already regularly attending, regularly worshipping, and regularly helping with service projects.
In traditional Confirmation classes, the kids are often asked to help lead a worship service. We didn’t have to do that with Tribe13 because they had already been doing that since they were in the 5th grade.
In traditional Confirmation classes there’s a unit about the Sacraments. But we didn’t have to teach them about Passover-Communion because they knew all about it through our bi-annual in-home seder meals which they loved.
In a traditional class, the kids read a book and discuss it. In keeping with the Tribe’s “home” and “parent-important” focus, we had them read a booklet with a parent, or with an older brother and sister. They read it aloud to each other and the chapters had questions to answer (designed to get them sharing, especially asking the parent or sibling to share their experiences and questions). When they were done, they both signed the back page and turned it in. My daughter read the booklet with her older sister. Another confirmand read it with her grandmother. Yet another confirmand asked a Sunday teacher to read it with them.
Traditionally, we invited the church elders to come talk to the confirmands, but we gave it a huge twist. Instead of the elders “examining” the kids, we had the kids “examine” the elders. They asked questions like, “what it was like when you were confirmed,” and “when did you first feel like God was real in your life.” Of course, the kids had to answer the question too, and the elders were really impressed. Our biggest problem with the interviews was having enough time. The kids said it was a neat experience.
We also severely tweaked the Confirmation Day Worship Service…
On Confirmation Day, we had the kids come forward to make their vows individually, …but we asked them to invite family members and significant others to join them up front. These significant others came forward and participated in the liturgy and vows. They laid their hands on them in a prayer –making a powerful visual statement.
Afterwards in the Fellowship Hall, the Tribe was typically standing together, and introducing each other to their grandparents and relatives who had come for the big day. I’ve stood in many a post- Confirmation fellowship halls having cake and greeting family and members. But that Sunday was extra special. The members sensed it and responded. It was a party indeed.
[What about the kids who were of similar age to the Tribe and wanted to join? That wasn’t a problem for us. We had two church kids in that age group who didn’t attend the Tribe due to outside commitments. So we programmed them their own set of classes with a teacher on Sunday morning, and had them attend the Tribe’s Confirmation events when possible. One-size does not fit all. There’s a time and place for individual teens to spend time with a teacher and make their confirmation in a different way.]
In all my years of leading confirmation classes, I’ve never had a better experience than this one. And I’ve never had more parents and members come up to me with such joy in their eyes (and a few tears) thanking me for helping guide their kids to this day. And it all began years before when we turned them into “the Tribe.”
You’ve reached the end of this article.
I hope our experiment and story will help you own.
<>< Neil MacQueen
Copyright 2009, Neil MacQueen, www.sundaysoftware.com
Permission granted to excerpt or reprint for non-commercial purposes.
You should also read: The Failure of Youth Ministry, and A Call to Youth Ministers –copies of two articles that changed my thinking about youth ministry.