Planning Youth Activities
What gives identity and cohesion to most youth groups is the weekly or monthly activities, which build group comradery and foster positive peer acceptance. Some groups have youth fellow ships that meet on Sunday evenings; others have Saturday-morning breakfast clubs; still others have midweek meetings. For parachurch organizations and church groups alike, these meetings and activities build fellowship, foster outreach, and provide Christian, fun activities that give students alternatives to the drunken parties of some of their school friends.
What Do We Do?
Let’s assume that our plans for Sunday school and the weekly Bible study are settled. Now we need to plan the extras—the programs that make our students proud to be part of our group or club, the programs that help us make a balanced effort to help meet the various needs in the spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical realm.
We need to plan gym nights, pool parties, trips to concerts, hayrides, “lock-ins,” and progressive suppers. These programs may be the reason that students keep coming back for the Bible study. They may be the programs that will encourage group members to reach out to unchurched friends. These programs aren’t simply peripheral aspects of the youth ministry; they are integrally important to a balanced ministry.
What is the best way to use our group time? Do we focus on one kind of activity or do we try to do something different each week? Do we use prepared materials, or do we write our own?
If we choose to use published material the Ideas library (Published by Youth Specialties Inc., El Cajon, Calif.), Group publication and the Any Old Time series (Victor Books) are helpful either as supplements to programs or as the basic program model. If we choose to design a youth program and the regular group meetings ourselves, we have many options.
Eight Steps For Planning Activities
Although every program or meeting will have its own unique list of preparatory details, organizing youth activities involves eight basic factors.
1. A plan. First of all, we need an overall plan for the youth ministry year. If activities are to be useful and meet needs in our students, we must have some idea of where we are going. If we don’t have a plan, our activities will be random and even purposeless.
Plans for the year should be related directly to goals. What is the overall youth ministry goal? If we can answer this, the activities begin to take on new meaning.
During our years of youth ministry, we have created several successful and not-so-successful activity plans. Two examples may help you plan your own activities.
PLAN A: From September through June, we held weekly programs that rotated activities in an attempt to meet special needs that couldn’t be met in Sunday school, where the emphasis was on Bible study.
A week: Fellowship activity
B week: Outreach service activity
C week: Fellowship activity
D week: Outreach/evangelistic activity
Comments on Plan A: Like all plans, it looked better on paper than it turned out to be in practice. Several months we had difficulty coming up with service projects (especially on our regular meeting night). We also had scheduling conflicts due to school schedules and holidays. Add to this the activities that didn’t fit into one category (like retreats), and the weaknesses of the plan become evident. Nevertheless the plan did meet some significant student needs. The twice effort at fellowship was helpful in meeting social needs, especially because our students come from many communities and sometimes don’t know each other. The alternating outreach effort helped add purpose to the fellowship nights (we taught students to serve each other so that we could serve those outside of our group), and the monthly evangelistic thrust helped us to keep from becoming ingrown.
PLAN B: From September through January, we focused on reaching unchurched students and training the Christian students in discipleship; from February through June, we focused on follow-up and student-led discipleship activities.
Under this plan, the fall and early winter were filled with evangelistic and pre-evangelistic activities (which give a visiting student positive feelings about the youth group and a brief, but general, introduction to the gospel). We also held special seminars for Christian students on “Being a Leader” and “Starting Your Own Bible Study.” By February, we had many students to disciple, but the Christian students were too busy or too insecure to launch their own Bible studies.
Comments on Plan B: The plan looked good and gave us many ideas for the first half of the year, but programming for the second half of the year was difficult because of the students’ broad range of needs. We had hoped that the Christian students would get busy with their own groups, but they never really owned the plan (see chapter 20).
In our situation, Plan A was relatively successful, but Plan B was poorly devised because it presumed five months of programming in response to the results of earlier activities. When the responses were not as we expected, our plans failed.
When constructing the overall activity plan, however, remember two things: first, remember the youth ministry’s total program (if certain needs are being met elsewhere, don’t focus on those needs in the weekly or monthly activity); second, plan for both churched and unchurched students (like Plan A above). It’s easy to focus either on one group or the other. If church students are obnoxious or rebellious, it’s easier to think about the unreached (and ignore the church group). On the other hand, if we have a strong youth group with dynamic fellowship and growth, we may forget about those students who have no relationship to Jesus Christ.
2. A purpose. After we create a plan, we can design the individual activities. Each activity needs a purpose within the overall plan. Under Plan A, Christmas caroling at a nearby nursing home would have fulfilled our purpose “to reach out to those in need at least once per month” (week B). Perhaps it’s artificial to separate the purpose of individual meetings from the overall plan, but it helps us design specific activities that are incomplete in themselves but that can contribute to the overall plan.
Several years ago, one of our basic purposes was to reach out to unchurched students who were on our Sunday school rosters but who never came. In response to this goal, one of our volunteer staff members started up a street-hockey program. Every other week, about a dozen guys would get together for a few street-hockey games that were held a few days before the regular weekly activities. Half of the students who came to the street-hockey games were in our target group. At first, they seldom came to anything but Street hockey, but after eight months, several of them joined in on activities, and one of them came on a winter retreat—and became a Christian.
At first, the street hockey program seemed peripheral and unnecessary, but it served its purpose. It was one more way to incorporate new students into the group.
3. Preparation. After we’ve decided what activities fit into our overall purposes and plans, we need to prepare for the activity. At this stage the leader can assess what steps are needed to make the activity possible.
When I prepare an activity, I organize my thoughts on paper. At the top of the page, I list the primary and possible secondary goals of the activity. I then make a checklist of program responsibilities on the left side of the paper: promotion, place, personnel, order of events, etc. On the right side of the paper, I make a list of questions I have about the responsibilities. These questions help me see if there are any major obstacles that might keep us from having an activity.
Let’s look at an example:
ACTIVITY: the annual mile-long sundae feed.
PURPOSE: Primary goal—to provide a fun, kick-off activity (in September) that will build youth group comradery and encourage students to bring their friends. Secondary goal—to help leadership team assess what kind of spiritual growth took place in those who went away to camp or on vacation with their families.
Mile-long sundae Where did we store the gutters?
Youth lounge Is the room available? Do we have tarps to cover the new rug?
Speaker Can we get a football player to speak on the kick-off theme?
Student testimonies Who has had a meaningful summer?
Cleanup What will we do with leftover food supplies?
Prizes for best eaters Can we afford T-shirts as prizes?
Publicity Can we have “Welcome back” postcards in the mail by
New Youth Staff How can we introduce them to the students?
Personnel Who can we recruit to do these jobs?
A list like this helps sort out jobs and responsibilities involved in planning the activity. Once we have determined the various responsibilities, we can decide who can best handle each responsibility.
4. Promotion. A responsibility that needs to be addressed early in the planning stages is informing students (and group leaders, if (they aren’t involved in the planning) about the activity. Effective promotion informs students about the basic details of the activity (where, when, cost, etc.) and encourages them to come. For the church youth group, promotion can occur through a variety of channels:
a. Promotion through the mail. Mailing is effective:
• If the notices are creatively designed (“clip-art” books are creative tools).
• If the notices arrive before the activity (a problem with bulk mailings) but not so far before the activity that the students discard them and forget the announcement.
• If the notices are addressed to the student (addressing the notices to “the parents of. . .“ may insure that students come, but it could offend the student).
• If the notices are sent to individuals (if three students live at the same address, send three mailers; one mailer will usually be read only by the one who gets the mail first).
• If the notices are sent regularly (if students aren’t used to getting youth group announcements in the mail, they may not pay attention when the mailer comes).
b. Promotion through the church or the youth group itself. Bulletin boards, church calendars, and verbal announcements all can help to get the word out.
c. Promotion through schools. Some schools will allow posters to be hung or leaflets to be handed out. If so, this can effectively reach new students.
d. Promotion through word of mouth. This is the most effective means of communication, and it will provide the needed friendship gap left by posters or mailings. Students are far more likely to respond to a telephone call or personal invitation than they are to a poster.
5. The place. Educators are spending thousands of dollars each year to make classrooms more aesthetically effective in enhancing learning; from these experts, we can learn that the location of our meetings and the setup of our meeting place is important. When choosing a place for the activity, ask:
• What room is best for the group’s size? The auditorium may be great for playing volleyball, but trying to get thirty-five students to sing in an auditorium built for four hundred may be frustrating. Consider what activities you will do throughout the meeting time. In certain cases, two rooms may be needed.
• Who will set up the room for the activity? Careful setup will save time at the start of meetings. Communicating exact instructions to the setup person(s) is essential.
• Do I have the keys to get into supply closets or rooms? If the custodian goes home at 5:00 P.M., the volleyball game might be cancelled if no one can get to the equipment needed for the evening meeting.
• Do I have at hand all the needed supplies or equipment? The momentum of the meeting can be destroyed if the leader needs to leave to get supplies.
• What environmental impact will the activity have on the meeting place? I remember one relay race that included bobbing in water for apples and using our teeth to find candy buried in flour (get the picture?). The water and flour mixed to make little biscuits that got ground into the rug and required special rug cleaner to remove. Perhaps we should have saved that relay race for the parking lot!
• What cleanup needs to be done? Activities with young people can yield mounds of trash—from tattered newspapers to scattered toilet paper to leftover food. Failure to plan adequate cleanup will result in one of two undesirable things: either it will be a late night for us as we clean up alone or we’ll alienate the person or people who have to clean up after us.
6. Personnel. Who will help us during the activity? Preparation for activities includes the recruitment of people—both leaders to work alongside us and others who will serve behind the scenes. These people may include
a. Sponsors or chaperones. These volunteers may seem to be only along for the ride, but their purpose is to help maintain order, to reach out to the loner, and to provide adult supervision. Depending on the activity, the ratio of sponsor to student will vary. On an activity like an “all-nighter,” we have one sponsor for every eight or nine students. On a group trip to a Christian concert, we may have one leader for every dozen to fifteen students.
b. Co-leaders. These can be students or volunteer staff who assist in the leadership of the activity. These could include the people who collect tickets, the person who runs the projector, or the person who will share his or her testimony. Planning the activity means that each involved person knows his or her assigned task and is thus prepared to act.
c. Drivers. For activities outside of a central location, drivers may be needed. These can be either students or adults; if students drive, however, make sure their parents know they will be driving. Make sure the drivers know the times of the activity, directions to the place of activity, whether or not they will be reimbursed for gas, and other responsibilities you need them to fulfill.
d. Others. People who will lead music, perform in skits, and provide refreshments are but a few of the potential others who may be involved in the leadership of an effective activity.
7. The program. One of the great paradoxes that I have observed in my years of youth ministry relates to youth activities: although teenagers love to be spontaneous and free flowing, they also like to participate in a well-administered program. They like spontaneity, but they also like a meeting with direction. Nothing turns them off faster than a youth leader who stands up front week after week and says, “Well gang, what shall we do this week?” They expect leadership and programs with purpose and direction.
In the administration of youth activities, the “program” is the “batting order.” The program is the schedule of what happens next, who is speaking, who is praying, or who is leading the game. Students and staff alike benefit from a program.
A good program lists at least three basic facts:
• The order of events
• The people responsible for those events
• The approximate times assigned to these events.
Here’s a sample program from one of our special outreach meetings:
6:30 P.M. Leaders meet for prayer Paul
7:00 P.M. Brief team leaders Tom
7:15 P.M. Welcomers in place Lisa
7:30 P.M. Band plays ten minutes David
7:40 P.M. Introduction to evening Tom
7:45 P.M. Group competitions Tom/Team leaders
8:15 P.M. Introduction of Band Paul
8:45 P.M. Drama team performs Jeff & students
8:55 P.M. Summary message Paul
9:10 P.M. End
To facilitate the smooth operation of such an activity, we made enough copies of the program for every participant. The times were flexible, but the evening moved right along because everyone knew what was happening next.
If more than a few people are to be involved, a written program is a necessity. Then, after checking over their respective parts, people can ask questions, revise what they might have planned, and fit together to make the activity a better success.
The use of an actual program is, of course, related to the nature of the activity. Going to the baseball game together needs only a few details: departure time, drivers (or bus captain), and expected return time. Other activities, like the thirty-hour “planned famine,” make an official program mandatory so that all who lead can coordinate their efforts.
8. The postlude. All of us know the joy or relief of coming to the end of a particularly grueling activity. The task is accomplished, the students are sent home, and our work is done. Right?
Wrong. Effective youth ministry planning and administration requires follow-up to the activities we coordinate. It may not need to be done immediately, but we lose two growth opportunities if we overlook follow-up. First, good follow-up will enable us to grow through evaluation. As we ask ourselves how we did, we find out ways that we can improve programs and activities in the future. The comments of students as well as co-leaders should not be ignored. Instead, we should hear both the positive and negative evaluation so that our ministries can grow.
Follow-up to activities provides a second growth opportunity—affirmation. After an activity, I make a list of every student or adult who contributed to the activity. Then within a week, I try to send that person a note of appreciation for his or her participation. It could be as simple as “Thanks for having the courage to share your testimony,” to “I appreciated the fact that you were a good sport when you got that pie in the face.” This type of follow-up is our opportunity to say to others, “This ministry would not be the same without you; I appreciate you!”
Using this opportunity to affirm can cause great growth in us and in the people in our ministry. It can help us to be more grateful (something we all need in a ministry where it’s easy to find things to complain about). It’s also a powerful way to build students. When one student got my note thanking him for his help on an inner city work day, he told me that my note was the most important motivation for making him want to serve in the city on a week-long team the next summer.
In all of our preparation and planning for activities, we must keep our eyes on the ultimate goal—growth in the lives of the people in our ministry and of those being reached by our ministry. The reason why we endure practical jokes, water balloons, blundered activities, and long hours of preparation is to see our students grow in every dimension possible. The details of activities are important if we are to produce effective and cohesive youth programs, but the growth adds long-term meaning to all that we do.
Excerpted from ‘Organizing Your Youth Ministry’ By Paul Borthwick
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”