As a youth pastor, I am always on the look out for new and creative ways to engage students. I like trying new things. And I really like when I can combine some of my favorites things with student ministry.
Recently, we moved our student ministry to our local McDonald's for an evening of dinner and fun! The idea came as I sat in the McDonald's parking lot, waiting to pick up my son after his shift. It was a beautiful afternoon. The sky was blue and cloudless. The tempertures were just right. And the restaurants outdoor dinning area offered a certain separation from the regular business of customers and food sales. It would be the perfect place to host one of our weekly gatherings.
That week I reached out to the manager, who is also a friend of mine, and asked if our student ministry could take over the outdoor dinning area one Sunday night for our meeting. I explained that we would have between 15 and 20 adults and students. Each would be told to brings some money for dinner. Then we would eat, play some games, and have some fun. Being outside would allow us to keep the noise and commotion at a distance, thus not disturbing customers. It would be a win for both sides. We would have a great place to meet, and for the manager, she would be able to pick up some sales during our time there. (We meet on Sunday nights, a normally slow sales night.) She agreed, so we booked and promoted the night.
The day of the event came and we had a great time. We saw just a few more than 20. Everyone ordered. Everyone ate. And everyone seemed to have a lot of fun. We even had a few first time visitors! The only problem we encountered was that it ended up pouring right as we were about to get started. No worries though, we moved everything inside.
We let the students eat and hang out around the tables. It was great to watch the dynamics of students as they simply enjoyed being together. After eating we played a little McDonald's trivia, blended up a Happy Meal, and pounded ice cream cones as fast as possible. Then we wrapped it all up with a short challenge to think about how they would spend their summer. (Now each of these will be posted elsewhere on the blog. When they are, I will add links so you can see what we actually did.) But aside from the food and fun, I discovered that an event like this might have a greater impact than I first realized.
What if Our Ministry Was More Public?
One of the mistakes I think we sometimes make in ministry is that we or to comfortable with our buildings. I remember when I started working as a youth worker, I like many, met in whatever available Sunday school classroom there was at the church. When in churches with fellowship space, or even a gym-like space, we did large room games there, before heading to the classroom. There we'ren't always comfy sofas (used or otherwise), fooseball tables, flatscreen TV or video gaming systems, or anything like we see now. We worked with what we had. And when the church wasn't available or big enough, we had to relocate to homes and backyards, parks or other public locations. But as student ministry grew from what we did with a handful of church kids to the mega-ministry models of outreach, discipleship, and multiplication, those humble little classrooms became student-dedicated santuary's of choas and fun. For those of us who have been around long enough, being given dedicated ministry space was a real accomplishment. But what I often wonder now is, have we become so comfortable with our dedicated space that we have forgotten what it was like to be creative and to be public.
Before dedicated space, we had to make do, be creative, and sometimes meet elsewhere. We had to sometimes think out of the box, maybe taking our ministry to a public space, or at the very least, flooding a neighborhood with cars and teenagers. Whether it was a park or a backyard, or even a driveway and street lined with vehicles, people knew something was going on. It was a visible hint that people had gathered. it was an opportunity to go to where the people were. But with our own dedicated space, I think we find it easier to simply stay put. We have what we need here in the space, so why go elsewhere? We're comfortable here. We know and can expect what will happen. It's a sort of safety net. And when we're comfortable, well, ministry is comfortable, right? All we have to do is get the students to come to us! Thence the eye candy that some of our spaces contain. (And I have had and I have seem some amazing 'Student Ministry" spaces. What teen wouldn't want to come?!)
But when I think about Jesus, his ministry took him to where the people were. Yeah, I know that we know that, but follow me here. As I sat there in the McDonald's watching the student eat, talk and laugh, I thought, what will the people (other customers) see? Then as we played games, drank our blended Happy Meal, talked about Jesus, and prayed openly, what would people (the customers) think? These weren't questions of fear, like, oh my goodies, I hope people don't see us praying together... but instead, my questions were more, if someone wasn't involved in a church, or didn't know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and the watched us, would they wonder what we were all about?
Then I thought, okay, maybe having students jug a Happy Meal smoothie isn't the best example of the church...
You see, Jesus' ministry wasn't centered on a location. He didn't have a dedicated space to meet. He went to where people gathered and he made himself known. I don't think we do that as much today. We go to our buildings and we expect people/students to come to us. Oh sure we go out to sporting events and school functions and make ourselves visible in the community. And maybe even we involve ourselves with what's happening around us as coaches, or volunteers, or as the guy who goes to Starbucks every Wednesday, whips out his bibles and commentaries and studies and preps to teach, all while sitting there with earpods in ears and nose in book. But when does the community see the body of Christ gathering as the body of Christ to to celebrate, worship, and be in awe of our Creator?
As I sat there, watching my students, I found myself glancing around to the few customers who had come into the store while we were there, and wondered, how can we make ourselves more public like Jesus did? How can we go to where the people are and simply be with them. No hokey events or outreach gimmicks, you know the kind that come with a commercial for the church at the end.
Now I'm not championing that we abandon our youth buildings and rooms to meet every week in a different public location. I'm simply asking the question, what would it look like for us to take our ministries to a place where others can watch, hear, maybe even get involved? Places where others can see that we're not the church that hates, and condemns, and judges, but instead sees that we are loving and welcoming, and that we enjoy having a good time.
What would it look like for your ministry to schedule a handful of events that moved you to a place where the public was given the opportunity to simply observe you? What potential conversations might you have with your students and those watching?
Our night to McDonald's was great. And as I continue to evaluate what we did, I will be thinking about what we can do next time that might allow us to engage the public just a little more.