Youth Ministry and 'The Harlem Shake'

Watching the 1970's phenomenon of 'The Harlem Shake' become commonplace in American culture today is a lesson on viral movements and collaboration. How could one dance from 40 years ago sweep a nation so quickly? Is there something that youth ministries can learn from this? 

I'll tell you what interests me about this (and I have been in a Harlem Shake video by the way). It is seeing a single person dance for 10 seconds, and then be joined in that choreography with dozens more for the next 20 seconds. Genius. A lesson in leadership. 


Collaboration has become one of the modern strategic tools in organizational leadership and in organizations. In the Collaboration Summary of Mel Ming on the Morton Hansen text, Collaboration: How avoid the traps, create unity, and reap big results, there are 4 specific barriers to blocking good collaboration. They include:

1) The 'not-invented-here' barrier (people are unwilling to reach out to others)

2) The 'hoarding' barrier (people are unwilling to provide help)

3) The 'search' barrier (people are not able to find what they are looking for)

4) The 'transfer' barrier (people are not able to work with people they don’t know well)

Let me challenge youth leaders to be 'COLLABORATORS'. Leaders who understand the power of the fellowship of minds. The idea that one person may have a thought that could challenge my own theories, or, that one model in Texas may help me break through in Minnesota.

The church can easily become narrow in its thinking and prideful in its ownership of resources. What if we opened up our ministry ideas to people who were different from us? Or outside of our sphere. Outside of my diagram or model or philosophy. Just to hear new language and ways of doing things. Leaders who do not collaborate can become short-sighted in their vision, comfortable in their language, and they can become familiar in their thinking. To a fault. If I am solely using my sight, my words, and my thoughts in ministry, I could become stunted and narrow and lose the value of shared communitas. What is shared communitas?

Shared communitas is the value of the individual in the whole. What can one person teach me that could help shape my leadership? A simple illustration of this is the sermon. How many youth pastors write their own sermons? All alone and with no other angles. No youth leaders, no students, and certainly no other youth pastors. One of my favorite questions for youth pastors is to ask them what they are preaching about. I love to hear these answers. Without some kind of collaborative team, your vision, language, and thoughts are all that your students are going to hear. And that can become ideology and not truth. That can lead to short fences and low ceilings. A place no teenager wants to run in.

Why are leaders unwilling to reach out to others? It's easy:
  1. They cannot take risks. Their ideas and systems have been the only ideas and systems they have known. There is a loss of the contribution that outside fellowship can bring to an organization.
  2. They are not able to work with people outside their own mission. Because these leaders have a fear of and do not share many external relationships, collaboration isn't high on the way of doing things. Especially with leaders outside of your own denomination.
  3. They do not delegate ownership. Some leaders can rarely engage others to share in the work. A leader who has no ancouragers or sons/daughters, or proteges can easily lose buy-in to the mission. External insights and opinions create greater vision and clear up blind-spots in the organization. 
  4. They are internal and not external in scope. No missional thinking. Everything is about the program and not the people. And because of this their vision, their language, and their thoughts have ceilings and fences placed around them. Stop standing at the door of the church and inviting the youth culture to come inside and listen to you. Get in the community and listen to them.
  5. They are too proud. And this will destroy any ministry movement.

In the churches and organizations that I have witnessed from a personal perspective, I have noticed open communication and trust with information and ideas. Let me explain. If you grew up in Harlem, NY in the 1970's, you would have heard of The Harlem Shake. Now, thanks to collaboration and the sharing of ideas, there is almost no such thing as patented ideas. Everything has an intellectual copyright, but, nothing is owned by its originator. Now, there are thousands of The Harlem Shake videos being made every week. How could you youth ministry learn from this?

YOUTH LEADERS, PLEASE ALLOW OTHERS TO JOIN IN THE DANCE WITH YOU. In a culture that is obsessed with social media and where our world has shrunk to an inter-continental global conversation, collaboration can fuel the influence of your youth ministry if youth leaders will take a risk outside their own box, build external relationships, empower leaders around them, not fear others and their input, remove ceilings and fences, and drop the pride

Next time you watch another Harlem Shake video, see yourself in this 30 second clip, and, the dozens who should be starring right along side of you in ministry. This could result in a viral movement of unity in the youth ministry in America and the ultimate result of young people coming to a saving knowledge of Christ because of this unity.