The plot and sub-plot of every youth group meeting

Youth group meets every Wednesday evening at 7:00 PM. And every Wednesday night at 7:00 PM a cast of characters arrives on scene. Each character is three-dimensional. And each character is coming to youth group for their own reasons.

Every Wednesday there is a plot and a series of sub-plots. And it looks something like this.

Style: Drama

The plot: Youth group has an agenda. The youth leader picks a topic for the night and has themed everything around it. In tonight’s play, we’re talking about worship. Everything that we’ll do is targeted at the agenda. What is worship? How can I worship? Why should I worship? Let’s worship together. Worship-themed games. And a wall where we’ll write our own definition of worship.

This is the plot the youth worker, Adam, needs for the night to feel like a success. This agenda must win over everything. Why? The youth worker is in charge, duh.

The main characters: Here’s a list of fictional characters for youth group, along with what their plot is on Wednesday.

Ted: Ted was in the parking lot when the youth leader arrived. He’s thrilled it’s Wednesday night because the last thing he wants to do is be home. Ted’s sister is two years older and teases him constantly. That may not be a big deal, but Ted is sick of being teased. He comes to youth group because its a safe place for him to hang out. He’s got a couple of friends who come, too.

Ted’s sub-plot for Wednesday night is that he needs to feel loved somewhere. He doesn’t get that at home. And he’s not sure if the church can make him feel loved… but his new girlfriend sure is making him feel loved. So if he’s not feeling it this Wednesday, he probably won’t come next week.

Linda: She just wants to make it in the room. She’s been crying off and on all day. Not like in a dramatic way… but in a “I need to go to the bathroom” kind of way. Linda doesn’t know what to do because she is about 5 days late and might be pregnant. She doesn’t want to tell Mario because she knows he’ll freak. Her eyes are sore from crying and she’s completely on edge. She told Jill, Mary, and Christy what was up because they go to youth group with her and love her.

Linda’s sub-plot is she’s freaked out because she isn’t sure if she’s pregnant or not. And she doesn’t even want to think about what would happen if she really is. That’d cause drama in every corner of her life. Youth group, school, and especially home. Yikes, her mom doesn’t even know she’s having sex. And the youth leader, Adam, that dude doesn’t have a clue. And she might just slap Margaret. That kid is so happy and she had the nerve to ask her on Facebook why she’s been a bitch all day. That kid doesn’t have a clue.

Margaret: She’s everybody’s best friend. At least she thinks she is. She calls everyone each Wednesday after school to make sure they come to youth group. She helps lead worship, she helps Adam plan youth group activities, and when she isn’t getting straight As at school she is doing pretty good on the soccer team. Her home life is meh, but it doesn’t seem to faze her. Sure, her parents are getting a divorce, but God is in control, right? Plus, Adam and the other youth group leaders come to her soccer games– they are the only family she needs.

Margaret’s sub-plot is tat she wants the night to be awesome. Youth group has made a big difference in her life, she knows she is loved and safe, and she feels like if people will just give it their all, they will all love Wednesday nights and the youth group will really start to grow.

Mario: Mario loves coming to youth group. It’s silly, it’s fun, he learns a lot. He likes learning about God. For the first time in his life he feels like the stuff about God is making sense. He hasn’t told Adam yet, but at the retreat he prayed the prayer and has been reading his Bible every day. Speaking of the retreat, for the last 2-3 months since the retreat… he’s been giving Linda a ride home from church. It’s kind of funny because everybody knows they are going out but no one really suspects anything.

Mario’s sub-plot is that he looks forward to youth group on Wednesday night so he can see his friends, learn about Jesus, and give Linda a ride home. He knows it’s crazy… but they’ve had sex on the way home every Wednesday for like 9 weeks. There’s no way he’d miss a Wednesday night. No not ever.

Carrie: Carrie is really quiet on Wednesday nights. She comes a few minutes late, brings her Bible, and just kind of goes through the motions. She comes to everything, loves Adam’s teaching, and just likes youth group because its a distraction from her home life.

Carrie’s sub-plot is that she comes on Wednesday night to get away from a verbally abusive home. Nothing she does is good enough for her parents. She feels unloved and youth group is the only place she feels safe. But no one at youth group would know that because she’s terrified to tell the truth about her dad, the pastor.

Jill, Mary, and Christy: They’ve spent the whole day praying Linda isn’t pregnant. Well, they were praying when they weren’t asking their friends if they should tell a teacher or Adam. So now they feel a little guilty that about 200 people at school know Linda might be pregnant but that doesn’t really matter because if she is… everyone needs to know anyway, right? And if she isn’t pregnant than those 200 people will know that prayer works.

Their agenda is that all they can think about is their friend Linda and her uterus. They are just going to play along tonight and not say anything. And then they are going to go home and Facebook chat about it some more.

Adam: Adam just wants Wednesday night to be over with. He’s super tired and had a bad day. Staff meeting went way late. He couldn’t find the ingredients for the game he wants to play. And he’s annoyed that the elders are thinking about cutting his budget to go to NYWC this Fall. Adam got rushed through preparation because he was dealing with a problem between a parent and a former student who is now in college… like all day Tuesday. Adam thinks his lesson plan is solid and that this is what God wants him to teach. But he’s really frustrated that the students just don’t seem as into it since the retreat.

Adam’s agenda is to be faithful to the plan. His gut is telling him there’s a lot going on with his students but the truth is, there’s a lot going on in his life, too. So Adam just wants tonight to be over with so he can go home and watch some TV he’s DVRed and see his kids before they go to sleep. He’s really frustrated, too. Since the retreat there’s been a lot of apathy among the students. Which is weird, it seemed like everything at the retreat went so well?

What’s the point of the story: A lot of time in youth ministry we think that the plot of our lesson plan is the real story of our ministry. We go home feeling great if the lesson went well and kids seemed engaged in the plot. But when you look at all the sub-plots coming on Wednesday night– you see God is waiting for someone to intervene– and we go home frustrated because our gut tells us it could have gone better and we just don’t have a clue why. Sadly, we allow the plot to override what our students desperately need.

Students are bringing the mess of their lives to the church and asking, “Can God help me with ____? And we’re answering that question by distracting them with games, music, and a lesson that isn’t answering their biggest question.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

10 comments

  1. This hit me like a ton of bricks. Big stuff to think about. How do you suggest we get to the God-plot and not what we’ve already spent time and effort planning?

  2. @Marty.

    When i first started, I think our student ministry did a really good job of dealing with the subplots, but it takes hard work and lots of emotional & relational energy.

    But here’s what we did. We trained the adults to ask LOTS of questions. The goal was to LISTEN to the students’ stories and connect those stories with God’s story.

    When we show up with such a strong agenda that we can’t really HEAR what’s going on in their life, we’re being too rigid.

    Just my thoughts.

  3. We meet on Sat. nights so we have TIME. I let our teens(high school) know that we come to God with all our imperfections and they don’t need to hide their real selves for fear of getting in trouble. We have teens who have never been in church, teens who have been kicked out of their church, teens who don’t know God’s love yet, teens who have strong relationships with God. I come with a plan, but that plan often gets dropped when they begin sharing their struggles, their pain and their failures and doubts. We minister to real needs! I’m not a young guy-I’m 49-but I make it clear that I want to know them as they are because it would be a waste of my (volunteer) time to talk to a bunch of teens pretending to be something they aren’t. We see changed lives as they come to understand and accept God’s UNCONDITIONAL love. They reach out to their hurting friends and bring them in. I had to learn and help our Christian teens learn to be shock-proof and non-judgemental and just let God’s love work through us. It’s been an amazing experience to see what He can do when we aren’t afraid to reach out to the people He loves!

  4. Adam, Thank you for sharing this. I was just sitting here working on the “plot” for tonight, and this was a welcome wake-up call for me.

  5. Thanks for snaping me to attention and reminding me that YM is about partnering w/ God in what he is doing in and through the lives of the students He’s entrusted to us!

  6. Good stuff, Adam. Last Sunday I had a pretty deep series queued up to start with the sr high on the book of Haggai. But instead we ended up doing Q&A the entire time. We didn’t even touch my agenda. In fact, next week our agenda is to continue with the anonymous Q&A. A lot of good stuff popping up that I otherwise would’ve missed… and probably miss way too often.

  7. @tim and others- I’ve been doing this thing a while… and in my arrogance I have missed this 99% of the time. In my prayer time I’ve just been begging God to make me smart enough to know when to punt. We work hard and are faithful at preparing, but I tend to use that as an excuse to ignore the Holy Spirit and what He is doing with our YM time. Hoping the second half of my ministry life is less agenda driven and more listening-driven.

    Totally digging this conversation. So encouraging.

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