Fall Kickoff Gatherings! Invite Nights! Welcome Back to Youth Group Events! It’s the time of year that is filled with both genuine excitement and, if we’re being honest, soul-crushing anxiety. Are people going to show up? Do we have a ministry that kids care about? What if we scheduled our kickoff on the same night as the school’s freshman orientation? DO I EVEN DESERVE TO HAVE THIS JOB?!?!?!
Many of us tend to overcompensate for these insecurities by hyping our kickoff events to insane levels. And yes, I hear you already: “Brad, we don’t hype our events because we are worried no one will come! We hype them so kids will come and hear the gospel and come to know Jesus!”
And yes, I get it. And no, I don’t assume anyone is being disingenuous when they say such things. But here is a sample of real life, actual hype I’ve found in just the past few days:
- A post on social media from a high school student imploring his friends to come to that evening’s youth ministry event. The caption read something along the lines of, “Tonight! Come to ________ and find out more about camp this fall. You all should come and if you say you came with me I’ll get $10 off camp for each friend that came.”
- Free t-shirts to wear at school throughout the week that promote the kickoff event.
- Promoting their fall kick off with promises of free food, iPod raffles, and other giveaways just for showing up.
- A group that was bringing out all sorts of inflatables: bouncy castles, sumo wrestling, ZORB balls, etc.
- A multitude of “Invite Nights.” taking over social media (seriously, check the hashtag) and bombarded kids with information on the coolest, hippest, most exciting night of ministry any youth group has ever created. And how we need to invite our friends to this unforgettable night.
But what happens when the kickoff night is over and they return to their normal entertainment-filled lives the next day? What happens to the kid who came to win an iPod but didn’t win? What about when Johnny finds out his friend made $10 by getting him to show up that night? What happens if the night feels successful because kids do want to come back the next week, but the bouncy castle and food aren’t there anymore? Do we hope they’ll just say, “Bummer! But hey… I got a free hot dog last week! I’ll go back and find out more about Jesus!!!”
I understand that sometimes it takes a little something extra to get a kid to show up to a church event. And that sometimes it’s that something extra that helps them connect to a place and people that love them and grow them in the name of Jesus—and in that case, hallelujah!
But doesn’t the hype and promotion of entertainment and giveaways just feel a little… icky?
What if instead we all work toward creating a community of kids that feel compelled to invite their friends and peers because Jesus is just that compelling. Because they get to participate in something that is bigger than their day-to-day lives of stress, academics, and achievements. Because Jesus is enough and we don’t need anything extra.
Lest you think I’m writing this from an ivory tower of judgment, just last year I helped plan, promote, and execute a kickoff night that included a BBQ, a luau, a 4-square tournament, and a glow in the dark dance party—all taking place within a two-hour time frame. I know what it is to try to keep up with the cooler ministry down the street or to look for my worth as a youth pastor in the level of excitement drummed up by a room of teenagers. But here’s the thing: after the luau-dance party-BBQ-tournament night was over, I felt gross. I felt like our community had tried to be something it wasn’t, like we didn’t believe that Jesus was going to be enough. It didn’t fit our group’s context of high school kids full of doubters/believers/partiers/atheists/missionaries/jocks/nerds/etc. who had coalesced around the love and hope found in following Jesus—who had not come together because we put on a better show than the youth group down the street. We now want to make sure our kickoff events feel like a chance for people to reconnect, not to be impressed.
Now, hear me loud and clear. I am NOT anti-fun. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making fun a hallmark of your ministry. We should, however, check our motives for the uber-hype that often accompanies our kickoff events. Are we promoting something that is unsustainable? Are we simply attracting kids who are involved in other ministries in town? Are we ignoring our group’s context in exchange for hoping for something bigger and better?
What we have continued to find over and over, at least in our context, is that youth are currently looking for an antidote to the hype.
They are looking for something that is bigger and more meaningful than their entertainment and achievement filled lives. And the obvious thing that we can provide, the very reason our ministries exist, turns out to be entirely compelling. If we don’t trust that Jesus is compelling enough, if we feel we need to add cash incentives and dance parties to our Invite Nights, then maybe we need take a step back and reevaluate what exactly our ministries are presenting. Because the Jesus of love, hope, grace, purpose, forgiveness, beauty, understanding and peace should be more than enough.
May you have fun in your ministry. May you attract new youth to your community. May you take time to discern the specific, God honoring context of your ministry and not feel the need to make it anything more than that. May your youth find something worth being a part of. May your community grow into the sort of group that is attractive to the world around it because your students have found something compelling and worthy of their time—and may that be the person of Jesus.
Brad Hauge is a lifelong resident of the great Pacific Northwest and has survived this youth ministry thing for 13 years in spite of crippling introversion. He is currently the Director of High School Ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, WA and is part of the team that brings the Youth Cartel’s VIVA! curriculum to life each month.