Generally when I give announcements at the end of each church service, I look out into the congregation and see people nodding their heads, smiling and maybe making a few sidebar comments to their neighbor. Hopefully you get that as well, because that’s a good sign. However, for a period of a couple of weeks, the nonverbal communication I was seeing was sending a different message. Why the change? My delivery was normal, volume was fine and I think the congregation has gotten used to the fact by now that I talk with my hands excessively. The reason for the change in looks was found in small two words (hyphenated together): lock-in.

When those two words were announced, the looks subtly shifted away from communicating, “You’re doing a great job with the youth and I’m glad you’re here.” I began to see looks and smiles that I interpreted as communicating something along the lines of, “You’re doing what? When? For how long? Good luck!” As I worked tirelessly the week before the event, trying to get everything ready for the lock-in, as well as taking care of the large list of other responsibilities that any church worker has around Christmastime, I realized more and more that I’d better have a good reason for doing this. If I was going to plan this big event for the first time while I already had a mound of other things that need to get done, I needed to have a clear purpose behind why I was putting so much time and effort into this.

It’s the same way with anything in youth ministry. We need to know why we’re doing what we are doing, and we also need to be able to articulate that to others. Why am I spending all day working on writing a Christmas letter for the youth and putting a handwritten note in each of them? Because the letter I wrote is a clear statement of the Gospel and who they are in Christ in a form that they can keep with them, and the handwritten note is a very important personal touch that strongly communicates the care that I have for each of the youth individually. Sure, that was a lot of time spent, but it was a good investment based on the reasons that I had to do it.

Unfortunately, in many circles, youth ministry has developed a reputation of being a “fly by the seat of your pants” ministry where you throw events together at the last minute, give “I’m letting the Spirit speak” (translation: totally unprepared) messages, and gauge success based on how many kids are there and if they’re having fun. There’s no room for strategic planning in that model. I know that many youth workers are not naturally gifted in the area of planning and administration. However, that is not an excuse not to do it. The job requires it. If that’s not an area of strength for you, surround yourself with people who can help you in that and will keep you organized and accountable. If it is an area of strength for you, still surround yourself with people who will support you, give you more ideas and keep you accountable. In order to do youth ministry well, you must have a reason for why you’re doing the things that you’re doing. That’s just the first step, because then you see how that reason fits into the overall purpose of the youth program as well as in the ministry of the congregation. But this is a just a blog post, not a book on strategic planning in youth ministry, so we won’t delve into those in detail here.

My initial reasons for doing the lock-in were that I really enjoyed attending them when I was in youth group and they haven’t done one here in a really long time, so it would be a fun event for the kids. But as I was planning and working on the details of the event, I saw that those reasons were woefully inadequate. Why have a lock-in? It gives an opportunity for our youth to invite their friends to an event where they will get a positive experience with church, clearly hear the Gospel message and form relationships with church members. It also gives a chance for our regular members and adults to get involved in leading parts of the event as well as building relationships with one another in a non-traditional setting. It was those reasons then that directed the schedule and planning for the event. This also gave me standards to look back at when evaluating the event afterwards to see if I helped meet the purposes that I initially set for the lock-in. It’s amazing how that small bit of planning really impacted the overall event in a very positive way. My encouragement to you is just to start with a purpose for each thing that you plan and let that purpose shape and model the event itself, as well as impact your evaluation afterwards. This is a step that all of us can take, even those who aren’t naturally strategic planners.

When I gave my announcements the Sunday after the lock-in and recapped the event, the looks were totally different than before. When I explained the benefits of doing the lock-in and the new kids who heard the Gospel message, the reaction was that of “Praise the Lord!” Perhaps if I had led with those reasons in the initial announcements, that would have been the reaction earlier. It’s hard for people to get behind the idea of staying up super early in order to play games and have fun. It’s a lot easier to support doing an outside of the norm event that will draw in people who don’t normally come to church so that we can share the Gospel with them and draw our group closer together. Praise be to the Lord who gives us a great purpose in all that we do and whose plans always succeed, even in those times where our plans fail or we don’t plan at all.