Have you ever been a part of a student ministry where there environment just feels…bleh? Whether it is because you can’t renovate due to lack of funds, or the functionality is limited because the room is multipurpose, or you feel like you have tried everything and the students still don’t enjoy coming, making student ministry welcoming and fun can be difficult.
In my time in youth ministry I have tried many different tactics, gimmicks, and cool options to get students into the doors and excited about what we are doing. And if I were being honest these can look different depending on context, church style, budget, and a host of other items. But putting all of those differences aside, I believe there are 5 quick things that any youth worker can do to help elevate their environment.
Know your students
As you are serving in your ministry, whether you are new or years into your position, it can become easy to see the program and miss the relationships. More than ever our students desire authentic relationships and honest communication. So get to know your students’ names, find out where they go to school, meet up for coffee or ice cream, host random get-togethers. If you have a group of 5 or 1,000 you can still do this. It may look different but as you get to know students they get to know you and become excited to come and be a part of what is happening.
I think it is easy for us as youth workers to try to imitate others because we see their success, or their model, or their style of teaching and think we should do it. Simply put: just because someone else has a successful ministry doesn’t mean that yours isn’t nor does it mean you should model your ministry after theirs. We aren’t called to follow men or women, but God. God has placed you in your church to be a shepherd to your students, so be that. Be the you God created you to be. Show them your family, let them know your passions, show them your walk with Jesus, show them when you hurt and struggle. As you are authentic with your students, they in turn will become authentic and real with you. In this way you will begin to cultivate a culture of disciple-making in your ministry by leading out.
Use music to your advantage
Music is a huge deal for environment in any setting, but specifically in student ministry. When you walk into a quiet room with your friends, no one wants to talk because they feel like they are breaking some sort of social protocol. By using music you can bring excitement and energy into the space, and students are drawn to that. What you choose for music is up to you but in our ministry, I like to use a mixture of Christian and secular that has been screened and doesn’t contain profanity or references to drugs, alcohol, or sex. I actually have created multiple playlists in Spotify that allow for me to use different types of music depending on the setting, which all goes back to knowing your students and the culture you are looking to curate.
Food is such a simple resource when you think about it because what student is ever full? I know my students could eat every hour of every day, and never be satisfied. When I first started at my current position we had no food on Sunday mornings because the church had donuts in the lobby. But our students believed they couldn’t have them (probably due to the fact they tried to take a half dozen instead of one) and would always be late to the program because they were waiting for the adults to go to service so they could grab the remaining donuts. So we looked for a simple fix: we added donuts, hot chocolate, and water to our program and all of sudden we have students showing up on time or early, eating, and enjoying fellowship. Our community grew through one simple act: getting donuts. Now this may look different for you. Maybe you don’t have the funds or maybe your kids are health conscious and want water and broccoli. The point is this: try it and see what happens. If you need funds ask your senior pastor if they have any to contribute, or ask parents to give, or ask the local donut shop if they would cut you a deal. Try it and see.
Sounds simple right? That’s because it is, but it is also really difficult because sometimes we get caught up in running the program and miss having fun. When was the last time you participated in the group game? When did you last sit down and play spoons with a small group? When did you last laugh with your students? When was the last time you engaged in a snowball fight or sledding activity? I am not talking about running the event but sharing life and having fun with your students. If you as the leader aren’t having fun and leading a joy-filled life, why should they? If you aren’t setting the example, they won’t follow. Be the leader you wanted, be the leader they need, and be willing to let your hair down a little. Have fun, don’t be immature or get yourself fired, but enjoy your job and your students.
I hope these tips encourage you and help you in thinking of ways to engage your students more. They aren’t foolproof, but they aren’t meant to be. They are meant to help you think through new, creative, and in many ways simple ideas on how to get your students engaged regardless of environment, church denomination, cultural area, or place you live. Love your students well, be willing to adapt, and always trust in Christ to lead and guide you as you lead and guide your students.