Fifteen years ago, it was pretty easy to get a big crowd to show up for a youth group event: Provide free pizza. Stock up on Mountain Dew. Bring in a band. Play some awesome games. Then open the doors and watch people pour in. Getting kids to youth group events was easy. Drawing them into continued involvement was the hard part.
But today, both parts are hard, and in many communities, big fun at youth group events isn’t working like it used to. Here’s why: If we’re planning to attract kids with fun and excitement, we must remember we’re not the only game in town anymore.
I’ll be throwing around a term I call Social Teenage Entertainment, or STE. I’m pretty sure I just made that up, so let me explain. STE encompasses the list of things that both entertain kids 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 local youth group setting? Let’s start with a history lesson.
Flashback to youth group in the ’90s …
Imagine yourself in a small- to mid-sized town in the mid- to late-’90s. It was a drastically different time, and a shockingly small number of STE experiences were available. A town might have a movie theater, maybe a miniature golf course and a public gym that was open during the day. That decade was 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 make our youth group 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 youth group events where they can have fun with their friends is easy when they don’t have a ton of other options.
But youth group is entirely different today.
That small- to mid-sized town in the ’90s is a lot different for teenagers today. It took a while, but entrepreneurs have learned to capitalize on a teenager’s craving for STE.
All of a sudden, we’re not competing against just the movie theater on Sunday night. If our big draw is fun with friends, then 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, once primarily a hobby enjoyed individually by a subset of teenagers, have gone mainstream. The addition of headsets and team and social play means 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. Because they have more money than you, 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 youth group outreach event is that it’s free fun with friends, then you can expect kids to weigh it as an option against other activities that are fun and/or free. Is your event more fun than playing virtual reality games with friends? Is your party better than the party at Teen Nite? Will more of my friends be at your event or at the food court?
It’s really tough for youth group to out-fun people and companies who primarily do fun for a living. And if we become the kind of youth ministers who primarily do fun for a living, then we’re missing the point, aren’t we?
So is BIG FUN at youth group really dead?
I don’t think so, or at least I don’t think 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 youth group 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 youth group events by telling kids they’ll be fun and awesome, then kids will judge them according to how fun and awesome they are, and we’ll always lose. But if we market our youth group events as being meaningful and real, then kids will judge them that way …
… and even teenagers who disagree with our faith views will agree that youth group is more meaningful than another trip to the mall.