Why Big Fun Doesn’t Work Anymore for Youth Group
Fifteen years ago, it was pretty easy to get a big crowd to show up for a youth ministry event.
Make the pizza free. Bring in a band. Play some awesome games. Buy a skid of Mountain Dew.
Then open the doors and watch people pour in. Getting them there was easy.
Drawing them into continued involvement was the hard part.
But today, both parts are hard, and in many communities, big fun isn’t working like it used to.
If we’re going to draw students in with fun and excitement, we’ve got to remember we’re not the only game in town anymore.
I’m going to be throwing around a term a lot in this article that I call social teenage entertainment. I’m pretty sure I just made that up, so let me explain it.
Social teenage entertainment encompasses the list of things that both entertain students and let them be with their friends at the same time. It’s pretty simple.
We do that at youth group. Students do that when they wander around the mall or play pickup basketball. You can think of dozens of examples on your own, I’m sure.
Students crave opportunities to:
1. Have fun.
2. With their friends.
So what do STE experiences have to do with the demise of BIG FUN in the setting of the local youth ministry?
Let’s start with a history lesson …
Flashback to the ’90s …
Imagine yourself in a small- to mid-sized town sometime in the mid- to late-’90s. It was a drastically different time, and there were a shockingly small number of social teenage entertainment experiences available.
A town might have a movie theater, maybe a miniature golf course and a public gym that was open during the day. The nineties were the pinnacle of teenagers just going to the mall to walk around, because sometimes there was literally nothing else to do.
On a Sunday night in January, a youth group could put together a great big fun outreach event and students would show up, because there was nothing else to do. The mall was closed, the gym was closed, it was cold outside.
For students who wanted to have fun with their friends, all we had to do was to make our event more fun than whatever movie was out that weekend …
… and if we couldn’t do that, then we could certainly make it cheaper than the movie.
Getting teenagers to show up for events where they can have fun with their friends is easy when they don’t have a ton of other options.
But today is entirely different.
That small- to mid-sized town in the nineties is a lot different for teenagers today. It took a while, but entrepreneurs have learned to capitalize on a teenager’s craving for social teenage entertainment.
All of a sudden, we’re not just competing against the movie theater on Sunday night. If our big draw is fun with friends, than we’re competing with all kinds of things. Consider just a few of the following:
1. Activities like Paintball have gone from rising fringe hobbies to mainstream entertainment options.
2. Stores and retailers that cater to teenagers are keeping later hours than ever before.
3. Video games, which were once primarily a hobby enjoyed INDIVIDUALLY by a subset of teenagers, have gone mainstream. The addition of headsets, and team and social play, means that these can be considered group activities.
4. Teenage parties are a fully-realized economic industry. For-profit companies can put together so-called safe gathering places for teenagers, gather sponsors, charge for entry and sell food. That means they’ve got more money than you, so they can make sure their bands, facilities and food are better than yours. Oh, and way fewer rules.
If the biggest selling point for your outreach event is that it’s free fun with friends, then you can expect students to weigh it as an option against other activities that are fun and/or free.
Is your event more fun than a student playing Destiny with his friends?
Is your party better than the party at Teen Nite?
Are more of my friends going to be at your event? Or the food court?
Every time, it’s going to be real tough for us to out-fun people and companies who primarily do fun for a living.
And if we become the kinds of youth ministers who primarily do fun for a living, then we’re missing the point, aren’t we?
So Is BIG FUN Really Dead?
I don’t think so, or at least I don’t think that it has to be. In fact, I think most of the time, we have a marketing problem more than an event-planning problem.
The truth is that our events aren’t supposed to be as fun as the other stuff out there. Our events are just supposed to be more meaningful.
If we market our events by telling people that they will be fun and awesome, then people will judge them about how fun and awesome they are, and we’ll always lose.
But if we market our events as being meaningful and real, then people will judge them that way …
… and even students who disagree with our faith views would agree that youth group seemed more meaningful than another trip to the mall.
Next week, I’m going to share the most important marketing hook that we’re not using yet to appeal to our students, so keep an eye out for that.