I must confess: I love programming. No, I don’t mean computers. I mean I love creating the upfront program for a conference, a Wednesday night youth program, or even a retreat for adults. In college, I had the motto “Wherever there is a stage, I will be there” and I think that probably rings true at some level still today. In an age where ‘relational’ ministry gets all of the love and attention, I think it’s time to revisit excellence when it comes to programming in youth ministry.
Before ‘worship music’ took over as the almost singular way we do the pre-teaching of youth ministry programs, diverse elements pushed youth ministry leaders to think through what teens would do and learn through various activities. Now, many youth ministry nights look like a session from a retreat, which looks like a conference program, which looks like summer camp session: All use a set of worship songs and then a talk.
But every once in a while I visit, speak at (I know, bad grammar), or attend a ministry or conference that is different — they’ve realized a creative new level of excellence. So, I began jotting down a list of imperatives for those who want to excel in their programming, whether they’re leading 17 or 1700. These seven steps are difficult but if you take them, you’ll see immediate results from your work. Immediate. Guaranteed.
- Learn how to brainstorm with others. Get the right people at the right time in the right place to brainstorm. You need creative people to do this well, time to let the ideas percolate, and all at a setting that induces creativity. If I can give you a veteran tip here, find a ministry or group that seems to be very creative and see if you can observe their creative process. You can’t understand until you go and live with them for a few days. It’s like a ‘short-term mission trip’ into another creative culture. We had people come to our ministry every month to watch us work on programming elements. They could ask questions, see how the process works, and understand better by being involved. And they picked up the non-negotiables and commitment levels that it took to be truly creative and reach more teens.
- Bust past your creative limits. We limit our own creative, often because we don’t want to do the work necessary. Some youth workers can brainstorm, but find this step very difficult. I remember when Big Stuf conferences first came on the scene. Everyone who was on the stage or in the audience all agreed that Lanny and his gang did it ‘right’ and had found a new level of creativity. It’s no wonder that they’re sold out every year in an age where there seems to be a youth ministry conference on every corner and on every weekend. And during every week of the summer. Creative excellence will always draw an audience.
- Clearly define your objectives. Because I’m big on depending on God for our results, please don’t hear a lack of divine dependency here. But, like the ones who received the talents and were asked to use them, we too are called to do our best. So, what does ‘best’ look like? What is it that you’re aiming for? It’d better be something more than what you just did the year before. You and your people have grown since then. You ‘ve mature and journeyed. So, write out your objectives and then work backwards.
- Clearly define the ‘takeaway’ for those you attend. This is the ‘so what?’ question. At then end of the day, what are you asking of your people? I don’t think an “as you go this week, just think about….” approach will do. That will be lost in 3 minutes. This is actually a practical extension of your objectives. So, you’ve hit your objectives…… now what? What is next post-event?
- Create a script that achieves the previous two. I think this is a non-negotiable. Think through your program timing, transitions, and what it looks like. Who is up first? What does he/she say to transition to the next element? Where do people stand? What is the time limit? I think the gang at Simply Youth Ministry Conference write this out for the entire conference – they know what an attendee will be doing for every 15 minute block of time while there.
- Think through the “7 Minute” rule. I also think this is a non-negotiable for the upfront portions. The 7 minute rule states that you can’t do the same thing for longer then 7 minutes. Most recently, I saw this with the folks at conVERGE as they crafted an ever-changing dynamic. One particular session didn’t follow this, and the effect/result was evident on the crowd. The quicker pace with well-oiled changes kept students engaged longer and well-sequenced progressions could then take teens deeper content-wise due to that focused attention.
- Practice till it’s ready to go. I will never forget the night that I showed up to an event put on by Young Life in Edmonton, Alberta. After some opening refreshments, the program began with an emcee, a series of skits, some song parodies (that included some impressive dancing even), and a message. The quality of the skits and parodies, the well-prepared teaching, and the poignant closing was nearly professional. We roared in laughter early, we sang together in the middle, and we sat on the edge of our seats at the end with misty eyes. And we walked away thinking “God is good.”
Here’s the thing: For those of us in vocational youth ministry, we are professionals. We should seek excellence in what we do. I think we can over-rely on our relational skills and the informal nature of youth culture and end up under-developing an integral part of what we do. I’m not saying that we stray from strong relational ministry strategies. But, when we do put on an event or program, we can do it to our best ability. So, I encourage you to be your best, and don’t settle. Put your talents, and the talents of those around you, to their best use and take these 7 difficult steps.