Ok, so you just haven’t found ‘your people’ yet. You walk to school alone. During PE class you’re always the last to be picked for the team. Your Instagram profile has 23 friend requests pending, but the number of actual followers barely hits double figs. You can pretend you’re ok with being a loner—eating lunch at school by yourself with a devil-may-care attitude that fake-screams ‘this is how I choose to be!’ Or, you can face it. Name it. You just don’t seem to be fitting in.
To make matters worse, there are well-meaning voices in your world saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. Be your own unique person. Why blend in when you can stand out?’ Then there are those who think they’re helping by adding, ‘It’s ok, God loves you. Don’t worry about what other people think’. And while this sounds gutsy, it’s not what you want. You want some friends. A place to belong. Maybe you’ve even prayed, ‘Lord, I know you love me, but please, where are my friends? Why don’t I seem to fit in?’
Designed for relationship
Life is complicated. It’s not fair. But there is hope. Even though God designed us to be in relationship with him and each other, we live in a fallen world, which means someone (cough cough—the ole devil) put a spanner in the works. Things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. People can be mean. Psychologists reveal that ‘hurt people hurt other people’. Sometimes we’re excluded or bullied just because someone else is trying to make themselves feel better. Sometimes we’re even that person.
While there’s no such thing as the perfect church or youth group (we’re all marred by sin, remember), that doesn’t mean you won’t find your people there. In fact, studies show that youth groups can often be those ‘alternate spaces’ where those who struggle to fit in elsewhere, find a place of belonging and their ‘people’.
Strengths-based youth work
To help you in your search for a youth group that prioritises helping you find ‘your people’, War Cry asked Territorial Youth Secretary Captain Mat Badger what he would do if he encountered a young person who felt they didn’t seem to fit in. He immediately replied:
‘This is why strengths-based youth work is so important. Strengths-based youth work starts with the young person—their interests and wellbeing, not some other agenda, regardless of how well-meaning that agenda might be. Strengths-based youth work is about relationship, inclusion and the holistic development of a young person’s potential.’
The industry standard definition of the purpose of youth work is to help young people transition well into adulthood. ‘It is designed to complement what’s happening at home, school, church and the community. If you don’t belong to a youth group or you are with a group who just don’t get you, then you can vote with your feet. But first, try to build a relationship with trusted adults who can provide you with extra support to figure stuff out. Faith questions can become a natural part of that broader conversation. With so many families and communities fractured, good youth workers can fill the role of that influential favourite aunty or uncle, like back in the day,’ says Mat.
Not fitting in is more common than you might think. You will experience the pain of discovering and deciding where you don’t fit, what you don’t believe and what’s not important to you. It’s a normal part of development, but it can certainly be exacerbated by bullying or isolation and problems at home. ‘Youth groups and youth programmes in schools with good strengths-based practice have the very real potential to provide “safe spaces” for young people to reflect and navigate these sorts of challenges,’ explains Mat.
‘Rather than replicating the feelings of being the last one chosen for the volleyball team at PE, make sure your youth group has a variety of activities on offer,’ suggests Mat. ‘This will greatly increase the chances of young people finding something or someone to engage with.’ If you want more than just physical activities, then a group that includes board games and chess, guitars, art supplies and food is a good step to keeping you engaged and connected. You are more likely to find a kindred spirit while engaged in an activity you feel confident participating in.
Mat also challenges youth leaders to involve young people in planning and debriefing. ‘School programmes do this so well, but I really encourage corps (church) youth groups to do this as well. A great way to invest in young people and support them to discover and develop their strengths is to value their input. It’s also about leaders being intentional about connecting with young people—not just hanging out together as leaders. Throw out a relational line. Young people can spot a fake easily. They know if you’re genuine.
‘The way we disciple young people in the twenty-first century has to be different to how it was 30 years ago. Starting with the gospel used to be how we did things and many of us had life-changing experiences—and that still happens today—but good relationships increase the likelihood. If a young person senses you don’t really care about them, the chances of them grasping that God does is reduced.’
So, if you’re feeling like you don’t fit in—look for a local youth group or youth programme where strengths-based values are practiced. You never know—what you’re looking for just might be waiting for you to show up!
The Code of Ethics for Youth Work in Aotearoa New Zealand (published by Ara Taiohi and to which all Salvation Army youth work is accountable) says that, ‘A strengths-based approach seeks to shift the collective thinking about young people from being problem-based to strengths-based’.
Working holistically with young people means that youth workers support the healthy development of young people, including their social, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, whānau and cultural skills. Youth workers support young people to identify and develop their strengths, encouraging them to reach their full potential. (Code of Conduct, arataiohi.org.nz)