Play a game with me… Imagine you weren’t allowed to have small groups of any kind in your youth ministry.
We all know that creating relationship-rich spaces to grow community is important, but what if our go-to greenhouse for friendship-building wasn’t an option?
And before you answer “Sunday School,” let’s take that one off the table, too.
Seriously, how would we nurture relationships in youth ministry if we were forced to abandon our current templates?
I’m asking because every model has its nasty blind spots—its hidden deficits. For example, what if your “time-tested” strategy for deepening intimacy in your marriage involved only a quick peck on the cheek, once a day? Of course, “friendly” affection is not-nothing, but you’d be missing out on a world of possibilities if you… settled.
We have a love-hate relationship with traditional models of ministry. We love their predictability, and we hate their predictability. We love their history of impact, and we hate that we’re forever-tied to that history. As an exercise in risk and creativity, let’s make believe relationship-building can infiltrate a wider swath of our ministry, including…
- Box of Fun: Once a month, we celebrate birthdays by bringing teenagers up front to receive a random, quirky giveaway from a box they can’t look into. Only the leader gets to put his hands into the box—teenagers must choose “right” or “left,” then they get whatever item the leader is touching. It could be a T-shirt, water bottle, candy, Axe Body Spray, a cheap drone… or a can of dog food. You get the idea. We once warmed up a full steak dinner and had it ready to go in the box. The spontaneity and regularity of this new twist on community-building means our kids (and adult leaders!) never miss the first Wednesday of the month—our Box of Fun day.
- Owning Our Social Media: We all know that teenagers don’t always exercise the best judgment on social media. So we’ve decided to pull a Jesus-juke and “put Judas in charge of the money.” We give a few of our kids access to our Instagram account, and encourage them to post content they think reflects our values as a ministry. It’s a back-door way to help them grow in their discernment of what’s appropriate while simultaneously transferring “ownership” of the group from the adult leaders to them.
- Bridge-Building Onramps: Once a month, we have a special event or surprise as a prompt for teenagers to invite their friends into our community. It might be seasonal (a Christmas Bash, for example) or an acronym-based fun night (for example, SPAM Nights: Some Pizza And Movie, Some Pancakes And Movie, Some Popcorn And Movie, and so on). We plan these fun onramps at the beginning of a teaching series in our ministry, giving us an easy way to invite them into the “meat” of our ministry.
- Youth-Led Challenge: We often give our teenagers the “last word” in our teaching time by offering an “open mic” opportunity—we might ask a specific kid to offer their take-away from the teaching, or their own spin on it, or even something they’d like to push back on. Or we might simply open the mic to anyone who’d like to respond. We want to invite dialogue, not quash it.
- Team Time: We maximize and broaden relationships in our small group ministry by pairing two teenagers together for 15 minutes before we break into groups. During this time they eat, chat, and play an ice-breaker or discuss a question we’ve given them.
- Leader Prayer Time: Every week, we gather our leaders 30 minutes before our program kicks off to share personal praises and pray for the night. Early on, it was like pulling teeth to get them on board, but now everyone comes and looks forward it.
Community building that ventures outside the expected may not show up in your stats, but we know these ideas build trust and openness in the group. I’d love to learn from what you’re doing, too—offer up your own innovations in the comments below…