“Social capital” is a concept that lots of industries now use to organise themselves, and recognise that the relationships between people are just as important as whatever product they are making: whether that product is “education” or “widgets”. It’s a different metric that fills out what success means in a company or organisation; more than narrow versions of “profit”. Social capital has some lessons for youth ministry as well.1

For this post, I am assuming a fairly conventional youth ministry setting in which youth leaders are running a church-based program, and attempting to invite/recruit young people into it. I also won’t be looking at
“brave” social capital – where people connect with “enemies”.

One lesson that I want to pick up on relates to how church youth ministries recruit young people into their program or community. Usually, this happens through the organic connections that exist between young people. For example, the existing young people in a youth group will invite their friends to an event. Then those people might invite their friends, and so on. The process is organic because the numeric growth of the youth group relies on existing connections. Perhaps an apt metaphor is that of a tree’s growth: the main branches grow from an existing trunk, and then smaller branches emerge from those main branches. You get the picture.

Organic Connections

Social capital calls this “bonding”: the strength of connection between people of an existing group. Sure, the young people who come to the youth group through organic means might be gathering in a different place (a church rather than sporting club) and in different ways (a reflective discussion for example, rather than a cricket training session), but it’s essentially a relationship that already exists.

This method of connecting with young people has real advantages for youth ministries, the main being that social capital already exists: the young people already have a relationship with each other (through school or sport etc) and therein lies a strength which the youth group can use as leverage for whatever activities it wants to do. The youth worker or youth leader has to foster ever-deepening relationship, certainly, but the hard work of getting the relationships going in the first place is already done. The second strength is that young people feel that this group is theirs: it is populated with people with whom they feel commonality and comfort.

However, there are weaknesses: chiefly, that the organic process of connection risks only connecting with demographically similar young people. Your youth group is likely to look culturally and economically similar to the existing group of young people. This is no surprise, as young people tend to seek out people with whom they feel commonality – a tribe. Sure, they might rub shoulders at school with many different kinds of people, but will they invite them along to a youth group? Probably not. This might not be a problem for, but if you’re a youth leader who reads the Bible, then it will be: Jesus is pretty clear on having a priority for those who are marginalised, and on bringing disparate people (even enemies) together. Our youth ministries should aspire to do the same.

Bridging Connections

Social capital recognises a form of connection that goes beyond existing relationships, where people connect across difference and separate groups to form new relationships. This is called “bridging”. There are a couple of ways you can connect with young people who are outside your group’s “box”. First, the youth leaders can do the bridging through outreach activities, or getting to know families in the community. Second, youth leaders can work to inspire and equip their young people to connect with peers who are not in their group. You probably need both, and most church-raised young people will need a load of discipling, modelling, and kicks-in-the-backside to connect with peers who are different from them.

The main strengths of this approach are twofold. First, it gets the youth leader working harder – the youth leader has to move out of their comfort zone, and connecting with different young people. And if these young people come along to whatever thing you run, the youth leaders will have to work hard to foster community amongst people who are different – not an easy task and one that requires lots of trying and failing. Nothing like a hard task to get youth leaders thinking and caring about the youth ministry task. The second strength is that it stops the church-raised young people from treating their youth group like their own personal playpen. Youth ministry can be fun, but its purpose is not their entertainment and the entertainment of their friends. The “organic” approach can collude with the playpen dynamic.

For youth ministries to not only connect with culturally, socially and economically similar young people, youth leaders need to heed the lessons of social capital.

  1. Let’s put aside the argument for now about whether “capitalising” such things as relationships is even a valid idea.