Your Youth Group Says It All:
For as solid as your ministry model and philosophy are, and for all the amazing events you have put on your calendar to wow kids and impress parents, what actually happens at youth group matters most. What happens during the hour and a half of youth group says everything about you and your ministry plan. It communicates to your staff, your parents, and your students what your ministry is all about. The liturgy of the evening, the way it is led, who's up front or if there even is an up front, where people sit if they sit at all, what you sing, and what you teach, no matter how you teach it--all communicate your ministry plan. If that's the case, then pause for a minute and think about what your youth group time says about your ministry model or philosophy.
In my 15 years of running youth groups I've tried just about everything. There have been seasons where I have:
- Met in my living room with my entire youth group of 5 for dinner and Bible Study.
- Played guitar and led worship, have had students lead worship, and have had no singing worship at all.
- Bribed kids to come and bring friends by offering big prizes. (I still do this one)
- Set up and played huge all campus games and relays.
- Duct-taped kids to walls.
- Lit hundreds of candles for a quiet and reflective prayer experience (and fire hazard).
- Scrapped all my plans and packed kids up in cars for ice cream and for impromptu service opportunities.
- Used bull horns to command attention on big game nights.
- Sent kids home for being rude and obnoxious.
- Wondered what I was going to teach on 20 min before kids have shown up.
Why Do We Do What We Do?
For most of my ministry career, I've found myself going from the latest idea or fad to the next for a variety of reasons. Sometimes I stole ideas online because I was tired of having a youth group of 5 people and was willing to try anything get more kids to come. Other times I stole ideas online because I was at the end of my rope with how selfish and self-absorbed my kids were and wanted to give them an experience to shake them up a bit. And there have been seasons where I have stolen ideas online because I was simply bored with youth group and wanted to mix things up.
It is an interesting exercise to reflect on why we do what we do on a particular youth group night. For me, most of what I've done was predetermined for me. The people before me did it a certain way and everyone seemed to like that model just fine, so why rock the boat? For what wasn’t already laid out by my predecessor, I simply reflected back to what worked for me when I was in youth group. Somehow between those two poles, I found a rhythm to my youth group nights that worked for me.
A Disciplined Approach To Youth Group:
But what if what you and I do on a youth group night was not decided by our predecessor, or by our past histories, or by the latest fad, or by the hot thing online? What would happen if what we choose to do during our youth group nights is born out of an intentional ministry plan based on a solid model or philosophy?
This is the hard work I did several years ago, and I was surprised by where I landed. Before I share with you where I ended up, there are a couple of disclaimers. First, each one of us is unique and made with different ideas, personalities, and passions. Second, on top of this reality, we are all called to totally different and unique contexts. Because of this, what works for me may not work for you. Nevertheless, I thought I would simply share my journey with the hopes of A) making you feel better about your ministry and more importantly, B) encouraging you to wrestle through this process yourself.
As I've shared with you in the other two sections, I have landed on a model of ministry that is built upon The Celtic Way Of Evangelism. The basic gist of this book is that when doing ministry in a post-Christian context, it is impossible and counter-productive to build a movement by having people first conform to a belief, then live lives that are integretous with that belief, allowing them to fully belong to a community. Rather, from the very beginning, we allow people to belong to our community no matter who they are or what they believe or how they live. As members of our community, we explore together what it means to believe and to work out this belief as they become all that Christ has for them to be.
This paradigm of Belong, Belief, and Become now shapes the how, what and whys of youth group. The funny thing is that most of what we do looks exactly like most other youth groups. (Solomon was right in that there is nothing new under the sun.) But even though the parts may be similar, they all play into and build momentum toward our overall goal of helping students in our post-Christian context become all that Christ intends for them to be.
Is that the Celtic Way of Youth Group or A Flashback to 1990?
With all the high minded, philosophical discussion surrounding what we do at youth group, when it comes to actually putting together our midweek youth group, it is easy to mistake our deep and relevant ministry for one that has gone back as we rock out to Audio A!
Because our first order of business at youth group is to create community and a sense of belonging, everything we do is done to collect students, get them to interact, break down barriers, build memories, and share lives. I wish there were better ways to accomplish this, but what I have found to work is what has worked for over 30 years in youth ministries all over the country. We have FUN!
As cool and sophisticated as students may come off, I 've found that they are still kids. We can’t let their false persona cause us to question ourselves or our ministry. Our cool kids need to remember that they are kids, that there is fun to be had, that there are friendships to be made, and there are even things to be learned. When we give them the social power to control a room we shrink our ministries and cater to their natural self-absorption, giving them zero tools to learn to connect with people different than themselves.
When you bust out the big games, messy games, competitive games, you allow students to be true to their developmental phase. They have to be adults all the rest of the time, so at youth group they get to be kids again. Games break down barriers and get kids to interact. The more kids interact, the more opportunities they have to realize there are other kids at youth group that they can connect with. Games break the awkwardness at the beginning of youth group and make a defined place and roll for kids to live into. As fun as these games are, their purpose is to foster a sense of belonging. At no time in the hour or two I have them at youth group do I want kids to feel isolated or invisible. No matter who they are, when they come to youth group, they are family, they belong!
We do more big games than any other youth worker I know, but the unique way that God made me is that I love to have fun, so fun is what we are going to do.
Choosing Curriculum That Jives With Your Plan:
Besides having fun, we also squeeze in funny videos, announcements, and a time to welcome new people. After the fun and mayhem portion of youth group is over we transition, rather awkwardly sometimes, into a time of worship. Or students lead it and do a great job. I have gone back and forth on whether or not to have singing worship be a part of our youth group rhythm. In this season I have students and leaders who are passionate about it and who do a fantastic job leading it. This helps tell our unique youth group story. We all belong, we all use our gifts as we become all that God has us to be. Worship for us is a time when we reflect on who God is and what we believe as we make space for him to shape us into who we are becoming.
After singing worship we have a lesson, talk, sermon, whatever you call someone teaching for 20 minutes, from a passage of scripture. For 20 minutes, once a week, we work through a curriculum that helps us work out our ministry plan. The curriculum that is chosen is not haphazard or dictated by what I happen to be learning this week. It has been carefully and prayerfully put together a year in advance. This work has been done because for as seriously as we take the Belong part of youth group, we take the Believe part even more seriously.
We only have limited time with our students, so what we communicate with them is of utmost importance. The lessons themselves tell the story of how we belong, what we believe, and who we are to become. It is an annual rhythm that works hand in hand with the scholastic calendar and our calendar of events. Every summer I reexamine the curriculum choice of the last year and build on it to develop a curriculum plan for the upcoming year.
You might think that planning out youth group talks a year in advance hinders the work of the Holy Spirit, but I have found the opposite to be true. The amount of spiritual work that goes into a yearly calendar is difficult and challenging. And once it is done, there is huge freedom in it. Plus, have you noticed that every school and institution that has things to teach has a prescribed curriculum? Maybe there is something to learn from them J
Because we all know that listening to lecture-style sermons doesn’t do a very good job of helping information stick long enough to transform, we use these sermons as launching pads for our small groups. In our ministry we have age- and gender-specific small groups that meet every youth group to process the information, wrestle with the concepts, and attempt to put them into practice.
By the end of a youth group night, our dream is that every student feels like they belong and are part of our family, are introduced to a biblical truth or belief, and are encouraged to wrestle with it as they become all that God has for them to be.
Like I said before, this is just how we have chosen to work it out in our unique context with our unique mix of students and staff. What do you do in your context? How is your youth ministry run? What do you do for curriculum?
Appendix: Our Curriculum For the Year
It probably isn’t helpful for you at all, but it is a discipline of mine to get it out there. These lessons work with our ministry plan and are designed to communicate why we belong, what we believe, and who we are to become. Here is what we are teaching for the next year during our midweek youth group. These are just the lesson titles. If you would like more detail, just let me know. If you have better ideas, please help me out and hook me up!
Sept 7: Open House
Sept 14 : I have huge value
Sept 21 : I have huge brokenness
Sept 28 : There is a huge solution
Oct 5 : A huge invitation
Oct 12 : A new world view
Oct 19 : Eat the Word
Oct 26 : Phil 1
Nov 2 : Phil 2
Nov 9: Phil 3
Nov 16 : Phil 4
Nov 30 : Operation Andrew (invite a friend night) Best Gift Ever!
Dec 7: Christmas Party
Jan 4 : Having integrity
Jan 11 : Peer pressure
Jan 18 : Following through
Jan 25 : Lying / Cheating
Feb 1 : Drugs (Pot)
Feb 8 : Dating
Feb 15 : Sex
Feb 29 : How to engage culture
Mar 7 : Music
Mar 14 : Internet
Mar 21 : Movies
Mar 28 : Hot Topic Night
April 4 : Worship Night
April 20 : What is the Good News
April 25 : Good news for you
May 2 : Good news for the world
May 9 : How to share Good News
May 16 : Outreach Night
May 23 : Softball Party
May 30 : Small Group Dinner