Written by Aaron Helman

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Twenty years ago, it was pretty easy to attract a crowd to your youth group.

Throw together a fun activity on a Sunday night, print some posters, order some pizza, and you were set.

But that was twenty years ago.

Things have changed, and today it’s so much more difficult to bring together a large group of teenagers.

And while there is so much that has changed in our world, in technology, and in mainstream teenage culture; perhaps no change is as profound as the one that so many of us have failed to notice.

Giving teenagers social, fun activities has turned into big business over the course of the last decade.

Think about it.

Even in 1995, there weren’t a ton of opportunities for teenagers to get together and do something fun with friends on a Sunday night.

Maybe the movie theater? If you were lucky, maybe Putt-Putt?

Youth group had a near-monopoly on Sunday night’s (or weekend) social teenage entertainment, and so a dodgeball tournament or messy games extravaganza was a good draw.

If you were 15-years-old, it’s not like there were a ton of other things to do at 6:00 p.m. on a Sunday.

Now, in 2015, hobbies like paintballing are fully realized industries.

Trampoline parks are a thing that exists.

Malls and food courts keep later Sunday hours than ever before.

The local skating rink hosts all-nighters, an activity that used to be strictly reserved for caffeinated youth ministries.

Even more, with the advent of online gaming, video games are no longer a primarily solo hobby – these too can be considered social entertainment.

You could go on and on and on, but the point remains the same.

Teenagers today have more social options and more entertainment options than ever before. If we’re competing for their time in the space of BIG FUN, we’ve found ourselves in a suddenly clustered field.

Teenagers who are just looking for a fun time with their friends on Sunday night have a lot more choices than they used to.

And those other places? They have marketing budgets and niche appeal and a dozen other things that we don’t necessarily have ourselves.

The bottom line is that for most of us, if we’re trying to sell youth ministry as the fun place to be, it’s probably going to be harder than ever before.

So, what’s the solution?

The good news for all of us is that youth ministry was never supposed to compete on fun.

A youth group offers Meaning and Truth and Real Relationships and plenty of other Capitalized Things that you won’t find at the ice rink or climbing wall.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t play games or have fun in our ministries.

Our programs should be fun.

Fun is important.

Our students should have fun when they’re with us.

But BIG FUN shouldn’t be our primary draw, it shouldn’t be the primary focus of our marketing or communication.

If you’re trying to persuade students to attend because it will be fun, they’ll compare your program against a dozen other fun options and too often, you’ll lose out.

But if you’re trying to persuade students to attend because they’ll get to be a part of something that Matters, because they’ll be a part of something Real, and because they’ll belong to something Eternal…

…they won’t have anything else to compare it to.

Your ministry is the only thing that can do that.

 

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If you want to find out in detail how to actually do this, I’ve written a part 2 to this blog post:

Do this Instead of Emphasizing Big Fun in Your Youth Group

 

Aaron-Helman-150Aaron Helman is on a mission to end youth worker burnout by providing the training and resources that you haven’t been taught… until now. Smarter Youth Ministry exists to help you learn how to manage their time and resources better so that you can do more ministry with less frustration. All of that having been said, you most likely know him as the creator of “Lamentation or Taylor Swift Lyric.”

 

9 thoughts on “Why BIG FUN Doesn’t Work Anymore & How to Fix It

  • February 23, 2016 at 10:33 am
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    Excellently stated. I once read an article titled, “Red Bull Youth Ministry” (can’t remember where) that hit in this same topic. You are so very correct. Above and beyond all the games (and we do a lot of games and fun stuff) students need to feel like they matter to God and that they matter in this world!!

    Reply
    • February 23, 2016 at 2:18 pm
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      Thanks for the comment! Ha…Red Bull Youth Ministry…crazy stuff!

      Reply
  • February 23, 2016 at 11:34 am
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    How about a youth group with discipleship as it’s goal…not entertainment. Come together to worship God and study His Word. Most people think teenagers would never buy in on this…but they do. Simply teach God’s Word, not a curriculum or bunch of topics of the day. Dig in and study God’s Word.

    Give it a try and watch what happens.

    Reply
    • February 23, 2016 at 2:17 pm
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      That’s it!

      Reply
  • February 23, 2016 at 1:13 pm
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    I’ve been having this conversation with my lead pastor as we’ve been talking about the direction of our youth ministry. He would really like to see more large outreach events that pull in a big group of teenagers. In a culture that has so many entertainment options catered specifically to teenagers, what do we do to offer meaning and truth and real relationships? That is definitely our why, our purpose. A skating rink offers caffeine and all-nighters to make money. We are not trying to make money, but what is the HOW? The church offers _____ for students to find meaning, truth, real relationships?

    Reply
    • February 23, 2016 at 2:16 pm
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      Kathy, I think many lead pastors have seen that model work in the past – big events, big attendance, etc. But as mentioned in the blog post, things have changed. I would say that how to go about making those things priorities is different for everyone. So, it is hard to answer that question. Could be a focus on discipleship or small groups. I thick the answer is closer to you than you think. Simply making meaning, relationships, etc a priority is the starting point. Make that your burning question to answer. Talk to your team and volunteers about possible ways to do that. Start small. Take baby steps. Hope that helps.

      Reply
  • February 23, 2016 at 6:04 pm
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    Excellent article! It was certainly something I needed to hear for my ministry and I found it encouraging and enlightening.
    I loved this thought at the end, “if you’re trying to persuade students to attend because they’ll get to be a part of something that Matters, because they’ll be a part of something Real, and because they’ll belong to something Eternal…they won’t have anything else to compare it to.”

    I was enjoying the article so much that I needed more info after that! Yes, I get what’s implied, but would you please consider writing a Part 2 article on how we can continue to make our ministries something real, something that matters, and something that’s eternal? What are better ways we could strive toward that? How can we SHOW that’s what we’re doing? How can we communicate that?

    I would love to read more! Thanks so much and God bless you!

    Reply
    • February 24, 2016 at 8:05 pm
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      Alandra, great point. We’re considering doing a follow-up blog post about that. We’ll let you know if we do, and if not Aaron will post his thoughts on your question here…

      Reply
  • March 4, 2016 at 10:25 am
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    I would like to push back a little.
    First I totally agree, there has to be meaning/purpose in what we are doing in our youth ministries. Meaning that ties to Christ. I totally agree there.

    But something I am also noticing in the culture today is a greater sense of community as some of these other places. For example, my first few years of college I got involved at a Recreation Center with a skate park and a rock wall and I was out there several nights every week. And it wasn’t for the rock wall or those activities (even though they were fun too). I was out there because that community was amazing. I made lasting friendships, learned more of who I was, and even experienced God there multiple times. And I know it is a little different because we were all mostly faithful disciples already (and one Muslim!) but this community is becoming more common because people are seeking this.
    Businesses are recognizing this and I believe many are jumping on it.

    So while this is not the biggest competition our youth ministries have, It is something I think we need to be aware of because people will pick their loving community over a youth group, especially if it is not an intentionally welcoming youth “family.” (That is the term I like to use)

    Anyway, just a few thoughts for yall

    Reply

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