So, you want to start a United Church youth group. You’re willing to jam a bunch of teenagers together and engage them in theological discussions. You’re prepared to play some games, organize a bowling tournament and wage a letter-writing campaign. You think you’ve got what it takes? Believe me, you won’t get far without a step-by-step game plan.
Find a youth room
The idea that spirituality is all about the people and not the building is just not applicable to youth groups. I can’t over-stress the importance of having a funky youth room. How do you know if your room is youthy enough?
For starters, there absolutely must be an assortment of old, ratty couches and easy chairs forming a rough circle. Don’t scrimp on the rattiness — the rattier the couch, the youthier the room. A perfectly ratty couch will almost sag to the floor when someone sits on it. You gain extra points for gaudy colours and patterns: the more it looks like it came from The Brady Bunch, the better.
The room’s walls should reflect the tone of your youth group membership — in most cases colourful, eccentric, a little messy, but grounded in the overarching message of love and Spirit.
Finally, you must have exposed water pipes running through the room. This may sound trivial, but I have never in my entire life been in a United Church youth room where you weren’t immediately aware when a toilet was flushed somewhere in the building.
Think of it as ambience.
Find your youth
A funky room isn’t complete until it’s filled with funky young people. The United Church has a good supply of them, but sometimes it takes work to find and gather them.
There are a few tried-and-true recruitment methods.
The first is an announcement in the Sunday bulletin. To make sure it catches the right eyes, use lots of emoticons, invented words and Harry Potter references.
You should also make an upbeat and exciting verbal announcement from the pulpit at the beginning of the service. Bring along noisemakers in case you come up after the announcement for the next meeting of the quilting club.
Don’t worry if there doesn’t seem to be enough young people in your congregation — you happen to be in a denomination that thrives on diversity. Few United Church youth groups consist solely of United Church members. Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists and many others have long come out to worship and party alongside our younger generation. Remember, just like their beliefs, youth groups don’t need to fit into boxes.
Find a night
Now that you have some prospective members and a place to meet, you’ll need to agree on a time and a day.
This shouldn’t be too difficult: just remember that Mondays and Wednesdays are reserved for basketball/volleyball/badminton/soccer practice, Tuesdays and Thursdays are for band/choir/piano/drama lessons, Saturday afternoons are when hockey tournaments happen, Sunday is when Grandpa/Grandma/Uncle Joe/a third cousin twice removed comes to visit, and Friday and Saturday nights are — Friday or Saturday night? Are you crazy?!
Prepare some ice-breakers
An ice-breaker is a little game used to generate a sense of comfort among people who don’t know each other all that well. A youth leader is well-advised to have a healthy stock of them. Ice-breakers invariably involve one of three things: a) memorizing things (names, things to bring on a picnic, etc.); b) revealing little facts about yourself that are interesting to others yet boring enough that you can still show your face; or c) a riddle game that makes everyone feel ridiculous for not catching on earlier.
Once your participants are comfortable making complete fools of themselves, you’re all set.
Teenagers like to eat. They really, really like to eat. The successful youth group is the one that finds a way to merge God and pizza. There’s just no way around it.
It doesn’t have to be pizza: what we’re looking for here is some kind of meal consisting of varied ingredients that the youth can throw together however they please.
Burritos, submarine sandwiches and taco salads are all popular choices. The noisier and more chaotic the kitchen, the better.
At the risk of slipping into stereotypes, allow me to make a bold prediction. The females in the group will combine their ingredients meticulously and logically; they’ll create restaurant-calibre dishes. The males, meanwhile, will pick out all the spiciest ingredients and see who can pile the most onto their food. They’ll then challenge each other to eat them without drinking any water, and at least one of the boys will go home with a severe case of indigestion.
No, I don’t mean the kind of drama where so-and-so has a crush on so-and-so, but so-and-so’s brother’s classmate’s cousin found out and told so-and-so about it (and it’s so unfair). You’re going to have that kind of drama whether you want it or not.
I’m talking about the kind of drama where your members get to put on a show. You don’t need a stage and you don’t need fancy lighting. Costumes are a good idea, but even those aren’t a necessity. All you need is a story.
Stories aren’t so hard to find around a United Church. There are tons of resources for this sort of thing. Our church is even known to boast a few homegrown playwrights.
But if you really want to unleash the creative forces of the young people around you, just pick up a collection of short stories called “The Bible.” Your church should have one somewhere.
It is remarkable what a youth group can do with Scripture. (Yes, even the rules on eating blood in Leviticus.) Ask your members to recreate a story; ask them to adapt it to our time; ask them to change the ending; ask them to replace the characters with vegetables. It doesn’t matter what you ask them to do. You’ll be amazed.
Whenever you make a list for anything with your youth group, the last item always has to be “have fun!” Always.
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