When I started my current youth ministry position nearly five years ago, my office was overflowing with old youth group t-shirts. I inherited hundreds of old shirts from a decade's worth of special events.
I felt as though I couldn't get rid of them. They were, after all, new clothes that could surely be worn by someone. The question was who?
I thought briefly about donating them to Goodwill.
Then I considered the many hours I've spent sorting through thrift store donations during mission trips and other service projects and realized the likelihood that someone would actually buy our ministry's old t-shirts was pretty slim.
So the t-shirts sat... Cluttering up my office as I contemplated what to do with them.
A couple of years later, my ministry began doing a special orientation to our high school ministry for our 8th graders, in much the same way that many high schools hold an orientation for 8th graders in the spring before they begin as freshmen. Such an event welcomes incoming freshmen and wets their appetite for high school.
On a whim, I grabbed the box of pesky leftover youth group tee's at that first 8th grade orientation and used them as prizes. Before the night was over, every 8th grader had one. These old shirts became our ministry's welcome gift to them.
That summer, I noticed how, as soon these soon-to-be freshmen started showing up for our high school ministry's events, they did so wearing those shirts. Doing so meant they had our ministry's “uniform”, even before officially becoming part of our ministry. Doing so powerfully communicated they belonged to this group.
In the years since, I've started carrying on this tradition intentionally. Now, whenever I purchase ministry t-shirts or sweatshirts, I always buy a few extras. That way, by the time our spring orientation rolls around, I have enough to give one to every 8th grader who will soon be part of our high school ministry.
At this year's 8th grade orientation, I was surprised when one of our freshmen pulled aside an adult leader, reminded him abut the sweatshirt he'd received the year before, and asked if we'd be giving away shirts again this year. We assured him we would be.
At the end of the night, we hauled out our box of leftover t-shirts and sweatshirts and let each 8th grader choose one. As they left, I heard one group discussing plans to wear their new matching shirts to school today.
No doubt, I'll see this group wearing these shirts a lot in the next year.
After all, without even being told, these students inherently understood that last night, we didn't just give them a shirt; We gave them an identity.
They're now one of us.