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Quitting Big Events is the Ultimate Program Strengthener

I’m an evangelist at heart. I like planting seeds. And while I’m not the guy who is eagerly looking for an opportunity to share the Romans Road with my barista or hang out at the skate parking looking for the chance to drop a spiritual law or two on unsuspecting hoodlums, I do have an innate desire to expose as many teenagers as possible to the good news of Jesus.

Which is why I’ve always loved big events. But I’m over it. [tweet_dis]Our youth ministry has almost completely eliminated big events from our calendar, and yours should, too.[/tweet_dis]

First, let me define “big events”: I’m talking about the “big” monthly or quarterly event that your ministry plans in addition to your regular ministry schedule. I’m not talking about activities that build community and provide a sense of fun and belonging. I’m not talking about a group trip to the local fun center or the occasional lazar tag outing. I’m talking about the “big” events…the ones that you hope will draw dozens, hundreds or thousands of students. You know the ones I’m talking about; because you have done them yourself or you feel guilty that you haven’t because you’re convinced you should. I’ve done them, and I’ve done them very, very well. Or so I thought.

A few years ago I had what turned out to be a perfect idea: THE 3.

THE 3 was an outreach event that followed this format:

  • 3 times each fall (Sept, Oct, Nov.) to build momentum for new school year.
  • 3rd Friday of the month.
  • 3 Hours (9:00pm – Midnight)
  • Cost of admission: Yep, $3.00

At THE 3, we turned our youth center into a party like no other that included everything from Black-Light Dodgeball to Lyp Sync Showdowns to Parking Lot Go-carts to Disco DJ’s to Petting Zoos. If you think a teenager might like it, we did it!

And it worked….wow, did it work. Each month was bigger than the last. The buzz around the community was huge. We were heroes at our church for dreaming big and actually pulling it off. For three years, THE 3 drew thousands upon thousands of first-time visitors like moths to it’s bright lights.

It worked…wow, did it work. Or did it?

While THE 3 was at its peak I started peeling back the curtain. I started looking past the hype. I began to ask myself, “Is this really working?” As my quiet investigation deepened, I discovered 3 (coincidentally) troubling realities:

  1. Our church attendance the weekend following THE 3 actually DECREASED! Because it took place on a Friday night, students would actually skip church on Saturday night or Sunday because they were either too tired from being out to late, or they justified substituting THE 3 for attendance at our regular youth service.
  1. What was once a “win” for our reputation in the community was becoming a “withdrawal”. Schools had to change the dates of dances because THE 3 was more popular. Older teenagers began to sneak in and change the dynamic of the event. In order to keep order we hired county sheriff to be onsite which caused some parents to deem it super safe and others to question it’s safety at the same time. Why would we need sheriffs at a church event if it were safe?
  1. I would have navigated realities 1 and 2 if it weren’t for reality #3: THE 3 was largely ineffective. As I dug deeper I realized an incredibly hard-to-swallow reality: Over the course of three years of THE 3, our team could only identify one student who had started following Jesus and plugged into our youth ministry as a result.

I know that it’s impossible to put a price-tag on one student accepting Christ. I know that THE 3 wasn’t designed as a church service…it was Attractional Youth Ministry at its best (or worst). We viewed THE 3 as the very top of a funnel and hoped it would draw teenagers into our overall youth ministry discipleship process. And while it drew students to the actual event, only ONE took any sort of next step. ONE.

So we quit doing it. We shut it down. We pivoted.

Now we do a “Big Event” once a month, but they aren’t very big. And we attach them to our weekly program instead of making it a separate activity. We host a dodgeball tournament after youth group. We have a movie marathon after youth group. We have a Lip Sync Showdown after youth group.

And here’s what we’ve discovered:

Our regular attenders invite a friend or two to the event and say something like, “Since there’s youth group right before the Dodgeball tournament, why don’t you just come with me to church, too?” And they almost always do…in droves.

Our “after service events” will have a couple hundred teenagers in attendance instead of a couple thousand. Nobody in the community is talking about them. Heck, our church probably doesn’t even know they are happening!

It’s working…wow, is it working.


8 thoughts on “Quitting Big Events is the Ultimate Program Strengthener

  1. I totally get this. It can be a lot of work and draining for the leaders and the church. At the same time it has identified your church as a place where people are welcome. You may not see immediate seeds now but who knows five years down the road when someone is in need of what the church offers (spiritual help and guidance) and winds up in your building because they remember the time when they were a kid and they came there for a fun night. It is so hard to measure trade offs like this in ministry. Out of curiosity did the youth at your church complain when you stopped? We used to do a “drop in” night on Friday nights, similar results, and we have since cancelled it because it is hardest on the volunteers who run it. I think it only works if the church has someone to lead it with the time to devote to it and the passion just to be open for the sake of serving the community.

    • Linda,
      The biggest struggle with ending it was the reality that even though we didn’t have instant measurable success, we knew we were planting seeds that somebody else might water etc…we believed in the long term investment, and that made the decision really hard.

      Were kids disappointed? For sure. But the most vocal were church kids,so we took the time to explain our new “after church” strategy and why we thought it might be more effective,and eventually they got on board.

      Decisions like this are fairly easy for me because I like change and I believe strongly in a “quit while you’re ahead” strategy.

  2. That makes alot of sense. I have sometimes made myself this side of nutty trying to do something “big”. Yes, I felt that big things had to be planned, but after consifering this article, I will re-think what I have on the calendar. Thanks.

  3. Great article!
    It is hard to keep the “Bigger and Better” game going. Early on in ministry someone said to me, “What you win them with is what you win them too”. Do we strive to see youth become authentic followers of Jesus or do we want them just drawn to a bunch of hype. And you know what? Following God’s plan is exciting!

  4. Just to clarify: we still do the occasional big event….but it’s one or two per year instead of 10-12. Quality vs. Quantity.

  5. Shane Wilbanks

    Hey Kurt great topic. Thx for sharing. What was your follow up plan with those 1,000’s if attenders or nor with the 100’s? And has the monthly thing got old and to norm to the teens? Were these past Big Events fir HS or only MS?
    Thanks again for insight bro! I’m year 22 in Uth Min & still learning.

  6. Jamie Young

    Thanks for this great insight! Been struggling with the comparison game! We are a small church and it is hard sometimes to see the BIG churches doing BIG things. But my heart says strip down the program and offer the relationship. Now I don’t think Jesus would have turned down Go Karts in the parking lot as a way to show presence in the community. But I know he saw the value in a shared meal and conversation. Good stuff!

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