Wow! We just finished up summer camps and mission trips and it's already time for school and a new youth ministry year to begin. If you are like many folks who work with youth, you are planning or have already held some huge opening event to kick-off your youth year. Something full of activity and fun and music with the hopes of pulling the youth in and making them want to return again for another week. That is certainly one way to start your new year together....but let me suggest a different way.
The challenge of the big opening event, particularly for moderate or small-sized youth groups, is that you have no where to go but down. You establish an expectation at that first gathering, particularly for the new members, that youth group is all about wild fun and entertainment and then you are faced with the challenge of either living up to that expectation in subsequent weeks, or admitting it was all somewhat of a "bait and switch" when the next gatherings move on to Bible study and topical discussions.
So, rather than focusing on big and noisy, try small and quiet. Rather than focusing on "look what a big group we have," focus on "meet the individuals in our group." It all boils down to one word for me: relationship. Jesus was thoroughly relational, eschewing the big crowds for a quiet one-on-one lunch with Zachaeus, an intimate dinner with his closest friends, a conversation at the well with the Samaritan woman, a heart-to-heart with Peter. I personally beleive that Jesus understood that one of the most important ways we encounter God is in our relationship with others. We could certainly do worse than to model our ministry on his approach. So for your opening gathering, here are a few suggestions:
Be Transparent - Let the youth see what you hope will be the model for your gatherings over the rest of the year. If you plan on having Bible study, prayer, worship, and a sharing of joys of concerns as part of your weekly gatherings, then do all of these things at your opening event. If your mission is to help youth grow in their relationship with Christ, make that clear from the start, rather than sneaking it in on week two.
Be Relational - It's hard for youth to get to know one another if they are all mingling in a giant group listening to a band or playing with giant inflatable games. Instead, create opportunities for youth to talk together, to learn each other's names, to introduce themselves to others, to share their summer stories, to pray together.
Be Interactive - Rather than providing entertainment that is primarily passive (everyone watching others doing something) create opportunities for the youth to interact meaningfully. Have a sit-down meal together to encourage conversation, involve the teens in an group art project, play team-building games where small groups have to work together to solve a challenge, and provide activities that invite youth to learn about one another personally.
Be Different - Our young people live in a world of noise and activity and entertainment. Be bold enough at your first gathering to offer a different way. You might just find that youth are craving peace and quiet and real relationship. They might be craving a place to listen for the still, small voice of God. They might really need an chance to sit one-on-one and share what's going on in their lives. If you want to encourage youth to see the Kingdom of God as different from the world, what better way than to show them youth group will be different from the cultural noise they swim in everyday?
OK. Those are the general principles. Now, how about some details. Watch this blog in the coming days as we offer up some very specific ideas and activities for being transparent, relational, interactive and different as you begin a new year with your youth.