Once upon a time, in a land far away, I was a teeny weenie college student learning the ropes of youth ministry as I led a wild bunch of junior high kids weekly at Sunday school.
They threw pencils and paper airplanes. They sat on their desks. They gossiped and giggled through my lessons.
It took time and practice, but I eventually figured out how to properly manage a group of middle school students and help them properly enjoy their time with me at church, whether they be attending a Bible study, service project, mission trip or youth event.
Of course, the flip side is that I’ve learned a little something about what not to do when it comes to dealing with youth.
Here are a few of the most effective ways I’ve learned to completely and totally sabotage any youth event:
Don’t Break the Ice
Do you regularly bite into frozen pizza? Nope…unless, perhaps, you’re my perpetually hungry Aussie puppy. In the same manner, you can’t expect to dive into heavy discussion or soul-searching conversation without properly thawing out your kids.
Start with easy icebreakers, discussion questions that your students can gradually roll around in their minds and non-threatening games and activities. Starting with questions like, “What’s the most powerful temptation in your life right now?” will be met with blank stares and uncomfortable silence if you toss them out as soon as kids walk in the door.
Don’t Prepare Your Supplies or Your Leaders
A surefire way to ensure chaos at your youth event is to do no preparation beforehand. Don’t unwrap or organize any of your supplies–in fact, wait until kids are milling around, waiting for you to get your supplies out of boxes and plastic wrap if you want them to lose interest entirely.
If you really want to put a proverbial cherry on top, don’t prepare your leaders, either. Let them wander around, unsure of what their roles are or what they should be doing. Don’t tell them about the topic, or the goals of the event or what they can expect. Leave your leaders completely in the dark, if you want to sabotage your youth event.
Oh, the picture I just painted for you scares you? Avoid the horror, and put effort into organizing your supplies–be it food and drinks, handouts, basketballs or crayons–before students start showing up. And in the same manner, prepare your leaders well. Share a schedule, give them some idea of what games or activities you’ll be doing and assign roles. Share student needs and pray together. Most importantly, remind them of why they are serving: they are a vital part of sharing God’s love with youth.
Don’t Treat the Youth Like Young Adults
You want a guaranteed way to turn kids away from your youth events? Do your best impersonation of a preschool teacher and try it out on your students…and then sit back and watch their frustration with you grow.
One of the biggest mistakes that well-meaning adults make with teenagers is treating them like little kids. Are they still children that require boundaries, education and assistance? Yes, but they’ve also already developed their own beliefs, lifestyles and personalities.
The teenage years are marked with strife, as youth are caught struggling between two distinct worlds: childhood and adulthood. Acknowledging this confusing and complex time and extending respect to these fledgling adults (while recognizing that they aren’t yet capable of full adulthood) will go a long way to making your youth feel understood and accepted.
Don’t Have Boundaries…At All
Go ahead and let your youth run wild. Allow them to roam around wherever they want, throw things at the ceiling and break into your senior pastor’s office and scribble in his Book of Concord. It’s the perfect way to destroy your youth events.
Sounds like a bad idea? You’re right. Instead, set behavioral boundaries early on and stick to them. Enforce them equally with all students, and do so fairly and without emotion. Middle school students will constantly test your boundaries, so don’t let their persistence wear you down. Stick to your guns, as the old saying goes.
Don’t Have a Plan B
One of the best ways to ruin an event is to never think of what you might do if everything goes awry. Count on everything running smoothly, exactly as planned at all times, without surprise interruptions. Kids will behave perfectly, movie clips and equipment will run faultlessly and every activity will be a hit.
Alright, wake up from your fantasy world and face reality: things rarely go according to plan in youth ministry. Leaders make mistakes, kids get bored with games, technology fails and lessons fall flat. Accept that even your best plans sometimes need to change, and always have a “Plan B” in place. And if you end up needing to use that Plan B? Go for it, without beating yourself up. Youth ministry is all about rolling with the punches, and sometimes that means taking advantage of a teachable moment or an unplanned activity.
Don’t Share About Jesus
The absolute best way you can sabotage your youth events–of which the entire purpose is to share the Truth of our incredible Savior?
Don’t talk about Jesus at all.
Instead, fill your time with your teens by talking about world issues, the frustrations of culture, what’s going on in the news or at school or how important it is to be a good person. Preach morality or hot button topics, instead of Christ. Play games and have discussions without any higher purpose of sharing our Savior’s sacrifice with students.
Of all the ways you could purposely ruin your youth events, this is the worst. Avoiding the Gospel message in favor of anything else is an abomination to our role as youth leaders. We must never, ever, forget that the entirety of our purpose is to point our students to Christ at all times and in all ways possible. It’s of primary importance to share the reality of God’s forgiveness, love and grace with youth who live in a world that constantly distracts them from this life-saving message.
The beautiful thing about being a Christian, however? Even when we do sabotage our youth events–and even in the worst of our mistakes and muddled lives–we are forgiven anew by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
Even in our biggest failings, we can take comfort in the beautiful words of Psalm 103:8-12: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west,so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”