Innovation youth ministry

4 Outside of the Box Program Ideas for Youth Ministry

Outside of the box ideas wanted

Here’s 5 ideas that are outside of the norm for youth group. (Nothing wrong with traditional youth group, just sharing ideas.) My hope is that these ideas will spark you to create programs that your community actually needs as opposed to building your ministry purely on a combination of felt need & what you experienced as a teenager.

4 Outside of the Box Program Ideas for Youth Ministry

haiti youth ministry

Go to Haiti with Me April 6-9

Go to Haiti with me this April 6-9
All the cool kids are going to Haiti this April. Join me.

Nearly 3 years ago the world watched in shared disbelief as a devastating earthquake flattened much of Port au Prince, Haiti.

That night, as I tried to gather my thoughts, I summarized it into three things: Pray. Give. Go. 

  • I committed to pray for people effected, people I’d likely never meet, and those who responded. I committed to pray for both immediate relief, for systemic change to a country devastated by decades of exploitation, and that somehow– mysteriously and amazingly– the earthquake could be used for God’s glory.
  • I committed to give appropriately and generously. As time went on that got messier and messier, but I committed to that.
  • I committed that if there was a way I could go and actually help people… I’d go.
The Youth Cartel youth ministry

FREE RESOURCE: YouTube You Can Use

Each week I produce a free resource called, YouTube You Can Use. The concept is simple. I take a viral video from YouTube and write a small discussion starter and/or devotional based on the content.

Currently, more than 1100 people around the world receive it each Monday. They use in their youth groups, in small groups, and as sermon illustrations. I’ve even heard from a number of parents who use it as a family devotional.

You can subscribe to the email list here and get it in your inbox each Monday. Also, the full archives, currently 56 of them, are available on our website. (free registration required)

Below is the latest edition.

youth ministry

The Deep End of the Pool

Universally, the first day of summer camp includes a swim test. For the safety of everyone the adults needs to know who can swim and who can’t.

Those who can swim can go into the deep end while those who can’t need to learn.

We need to teach our students to swim

As Jon and I began working on the Good News in the Neighborhood curriculum we agreed on a driving principle: Our curriculum cannot be prescriptive. It sickens me that so many curriculums dumb things down to “3 easy steps to application.” I hate the “easy” lie in ministry stuff. As if following Jesus were easy? As if becoming Good News in your neighborhood were going to be easy? It’s not, as we describe in the introduction… if you take the task of walking with Jesus seriously, you’re life will get jacked. 

One of the great failures of the church is the silent driving force of dependency. We’ve made one of the core things we teach that we need to keep coming to church in order to grow. That’s keeping students and adults in the shallow end with their floaties on. So, as the line of reasoning goes, to step into “pseudo maturity” you have to become more and more involved (read dependent) on the ministry of your local church. Whereas, that might be the case for some people– but for the vast majority of people, a sign of maturity would be less dependency on the ministry of the church. Consequently, worship services primary focus has become teaching stuff you’ll never be held accountable to apply instead of celebrating what God is doing in our collective.

The Push

Instead of keeping students in the shallow end and dependent on our teaching we need to push some students into the deep end of the pool. (So we can better invest our time on people who can’t actually swim!) Sometimes, at least in my ministry, I’ve had students who grew up in the church, who won every Awana award, who come from great families. And I want to tell them the truth… the best way for you to mature in your relationship with Jesus is not to be a part of youth group but to apply all of that stuff to your life! You’re competent, now get out.

Conversely, one of the biggest things holding students back is that we let them come back to the shallow end of the pool forever without ever forcing them to apply what they’ve learned. (And what does that say about their parents? Are they hanging out in the shallow end after 30 years of walking with Jesus?)

No more mommies

As we move forward with youth ministry into our next 50 years, I’m hoping we drop the mommy stance. “Oh sweetie, stay in the shallow end as long as you want. Lots of people wear floaties forever.


It’s time to kick that stance to the curb. If we really want to see our ministries become Good News in our context… we need to push the people who are ready into the deep end as the most loving thing we can do. Go, swim, let’s celebrate your success in the deep end.

Wanna flip the script? Let’s give them a swim test and if they pass, banish them from the shallow end of the pool for a while.

photo credit: West Point Public Affairs via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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youth ministry

Love is an Orientation DVD

I’m proud to be a part of the youth ministry session of this project with Ginny Olson. Together we talk about ministering to LGBT students in your youth group, creating a safe environment, and bullying.

You can pre-order the DVD curriculum from Amazon here.

youth ministry

Inside out youth ministry

A couple Sunday’s ago our senior pastor, Ed Noble, was talking about the inside out revolution underway at Journey. He gave an example about an area of the property where the church used to meet weekly for a big, family dinner. Now that space is used to run a food pantry for families in our community.

It’s not that the big family dinner thing was bad. Quite the opposite. For where the church was at it was just what was needed. A lot of good was done in that room over those meals. The fact that the room is now used for a food pantry is not a more noble use of the space– it’s just a strategy that reflects both the needs of the community and the heart of the congregation and where we are at today.

When Ed gave that example it got me thinking about youth ministry. Because, to oversimplify and generalize, youth ministry is typically a “come and get” kind of thing. (Like the family dinners) Volunteers come to serve students who show up. And the church puts on the program because they feel like it’s ultimately good for the church. It’s good, it’s noble, it serves a purpose.

But what would it look like if we turned our ministries inside out? 

What would it look like if youth ministry in the local church weren’t seen through the lens of “what’s good for the church” and was built around “what’s good for students needs in this community?

That’s no indictment on how we do ministry or even challenging the assumptions upon which our profession is built.

That’s turning the coin over and asking, “How could this same space, same staff, same budget serve 95% of the population of students in this community alongside of the 5% who currently are engaged?

If we believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for all students– what should that change what we do?

The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” We all nod our heads in agreement. But what would it look like for youth ministry to truly embrace that?

youth ministry

Lie to me, baby

Maybe we are just a little too authentic in youth group?

Last night, our high school ministry night met. We were down a couple of adults and up a few students. Actually, the night felt right at that balance between “out-of-control” and “in control” that is some of the secret sauce of youth ministry.

As I struggled to push my table group through a Bible study they clearly weren’t interested in I was feeling a little heart tug in a couple of directions:

  • I need to push these students through this study on Psalm 19, this is God’s Word… and David was describing some really cool stuff they need to know.
  • I need to pull the plug and call an audible. There’s something serious going on that’s more important than Psalm 19 right now.

Instead, I decided to just let it ride. We half-pushed our way through and half-let them stay easily distracted and unsatisfied. I resisted the urge to either side.

I’ll never know if I did the right thing or the wrong thing. But I do know I came home deflated and frustrated. Again.

Another time, another place

I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of Tuesday nights in our group’s life. On the one hand, we want to “keep it real” and be authentically who we are. But my problems aren’t their problems. And my students already deal with more crap than they can work through in a lifetime. So I’m not sure “being authentic” about a lot of stuff is very helpful.

Nearly all of my students have spent some time in foster care. Nearly all of my students have at least one member of family member who struggles with drug addiction. Only 1-2 students have a dad in their lives. More than half have experienced some level of physical or sexual abuse. Most scrape by academically.

At 15 years old most of them have lived a lifetime of grief.

At the same time they deal with all of the normal pressures, temptations, realities, and burdens of being a high school student.

They don’t want to keep it more real. They want to keep it less real.

Maybe instead of dealing with the realities of life… Tuesday night should be an escape from all of that?

When you desperately need a new life “being authentic” just feels like you get dragged back into the quick sand you’ve just escaped.

A little less authenticity replaced with a glimpse of Fantasia?

Maybe Tuesday night would be better if it were kind of an other world experience? A healthy escapism? A place that intentionally disoriented students from their own reality and allowed them to escape to another reality for a night? A place in which at some point, on the way home, they questioned… was that even real?

Maybe youth group should be more of an escape? Sure, one on one or in small groups or in other high trust situations… we can go there and deal with that stuff. But when we gather as a large group I’m questioning the value of creating an authentic experience when a fantasy one is so much more desirable.

For discussion: I’ve used my own group as an example. But the reality is, youth ministry-wide, the pendulum has swung back and forth about youth group nights as a whole, about the youth worker being more authentic with their struggles, about sharing in small groups about life stuff vs. Bible study groups, etc. What do you think? Is it more useful for students to have a place of deep authenticity? Or is it more useful for students to have a place of escape to play, worship, and laugh?

hmm... thoughts

Shut up and drive

Church Van
Photo by Simon Abrams via Flickr (Creative Commons)

People are showing up and I have a million things running through my mind.

  • Do I have all of my personal stuff?
  • Do I have all of the stuff we need that the church needs to bring?
  • Are all of my leaders here?
  • Did I double check fuel levels? What about oil changes, we good there?
  • Which students still need to turn in permission slips?
  • And those two students I was trying to convince to go at the last minute, are they going to show?
  • Did I print off directions? The other drivers hate it when I forget to do that.
  • Don’t forget the orientation before we leave.
  • Did I print the flyer for parents? If I don’t write down all of the details they will call me the whole time.
  • How will I start a meaningful conversation with someone new on this drive?

These are the myriad of things rattling through my brain as students show up for an event. I have a tendency to think 2-3 steps ahead of what is presently going on. Early arrivers check-in and I barely even acknowledge them as I’m still lost in the mental checklists of a deeply analytical moment.

And I’ve learned over the years that since I’m lost in those details it’s better to identify a couple of volunteers who can be fully present when students arrive with their parents. It’s better to allow them to greet trip participants, answer questions, and get their bag put in the right place.

But there comes a moment in each youth group trip where I have to intentionally shift gears and turns off all of that forward thinking.

Sometimes you just have to shut up and drive the van.

That’s how I’m feeling about life right now. There are a myriad of things going on. Too many things to list and some far too personal or private to share. But each day I have to find a moment where I tell myself, “Just shut up and drive.

All of that future planning and strategy is great. But if I don’t shut up and drive forward, those plans and strategies will become regrets. And ultimately, intentions, plans, and strategies don’t mean squat. All that matters is results.

Shut up and drive.

Church Leadership

If Sunday morning is about teaching…

Photo by Phillip Howard via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Then how are you measuring what people are learning?

As a youth worker I’m always aware of leakage in my teaching. That is, the difference between what I am teaching and what learners are learning.

There is a naughty little educational word called “retention” we need to deal with. If there isn’t, what is the point of my teaching if my pupils aren’t learning?

Questions I ask myself as a communicator of Biblical truth:

  • Why am I teaching them?
  • How do I measure if they are learning?
  • How do I teach all levels of learners, interest levels, and learning styles at the same time?

Those who have sat under my leadership know that I do a lot of repetition and context to my regular teaching. Why do I do that? Because I want some things to stick. It doesn’t matter to me if you write it down in your outline or talked about it in a small group, I believe the Bible has incredible value for believers, we are called to know God’s Word, and we as leaders as told that one of our qualifications for biblical leadership is an ability to teach. I repeat and quiz because I want to burn an image of God’s Word on your heart. It’s not enough to know about the Bible… the teachings of Jesus have to be in your heart to impact your daily life.

I also know, as a leader, I’ll be judged by what people actually learn and what people actually do with what I am teaching them.

As the years have gone by I’ve become less enamored with perfecting my lecture-styled teaching and more enamored with a discussion-based, conversational-style.

Why? Because I’ve found, for me, that method to be a solid way to engage with the middle 70% of my audience. Folks in the top 15% aren’t my target. And folks in the lower 15%… I hope to teach them with other methods that work for them.

Last Monday, I posed the question: Why are we, as believers, expected to listen more than we act?

Some commenters took the post as an attack on the church, going to church, and those who lead at church. Others seemed offended that I’d even bring up Sunday morning as something we could collectively improve upon.

My intention was to the contrary. It was an attack on doing something that is largely ineffective for the sake of doing what we know in opposition to what might work better. For all of the thousands of hours the average church goer has listened to we should have seen so much more fruit. Let’s not forget that the church is on decline.

That pushes questions to the forefront of my mind: Is it the hearer who is disobedient to the teaching? Or is it the teacher who is failing to teach truth in a way that influences action? Probably some fault lies on either side.

It is my hypothesis that the primary method we are using for educating our congregations on Sunday mornings needs alteration. Church leadership is full of brilliant minds. We should show off our brilliance in our ability to lead people in innovative way: Not just talk about leadership but do it.  Not merely preach a message that doesn’t move people, instead allow the message we preach to move us.

At the end of the day results are all that matter. Jesus isn’t going to look at you and say, “Awesome preaching, my good and faithful servant.” He will look at your body of work and judge you by the results & intention of your heart.

Photo by byronv2 via Flickr (Creative Commons)

What are the physical restrictions to learning on Sunday morning?

Nearly all churches are constructed the same way. Rows of seats all facing forward with a person on stage or behind a podium. That person lectures, sometime passionately, sometimes you fill out an outline, sometimes words are put on a screen.

But the Sunday morning experience is typically based on a single teaching method: Lecture.

Is that how you learn best? It isn’t for me. I learn best by hearing, discussing, and practicing. Passive-learning bores me. I need something to do!

And when I look around on Sunday morning I don’t see a lot of learning going on. (Bear in mind, my pastor is off the charts good at what he does, he is my favorite preacher. Week in and week out, he’s just as solid as people who have sold as who we have at our conferences.) Instead, I see a lot of polite nodding, the occasional taking of notes, and virtually no way to respond.

Sunday morning is highly assumptive.

  • There is an assumption that people in the pews are going to live this teaching out in their lives.
  • There is an assumption that people are going to talk about what they heard at lunch or with a small group, or somehow try to knead the message into their lives.
  • There is an assumption that the church staff spends the majority of their work week living that message out.
  • There are no checks and balances to make sure anyone is putting anything into practice. (Staff and attendee alike.)
  • The proof is in the pudding. There are hundreds of thousands of churches in America. Most use the same methods, few grow. Conversely, where the church is growing around the world and even here in the United States, different methods are in play.

The “It’s not about Sunday morning argument.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Christian life isn’t 100% about Sunday morning. But, for most people, it’s the centerpiece of their walk with God. People aren’t just whining about being busy, they are. And they are sitting in your pews, bored, and saying to themselves… “You kind of waste my time on Sunday morning, why should I trust you with more of my time? We don’t need another program. We need this program to work for us.” If it isn’t about Sunday morning than why do we even do it? Of course Sunday morning is very important! Let’s not fool ourselves with double talk.

Are the methods we use on Sunday morning “sacred?

Sure, Paul preached until a young man fell from a window and died. (Then Paul healed him.) And Jesus preached both at the temple and in public. No doubt, he was taught by rote memory as a boy growing up attending the synagogue. At the same time, oral tradition and discourse were both forms of education and forms of entertainment. We see from the New Testament that Jesus didn’t instruct his disciples to build churches and hold meetings. Instead, he taught them while they were on the road from place to place. Or by sending them out in pairs to do ministry in His name. Or using parables. Or by asking them questions. In truth, we see a variety of teaching methods to communicate biblical truth in the Bible.

While the way we’ve always done church is held as sacred, the methods we use aren’t Biblically sacred. But what is sacred is the simple command to teach.

A challenge

Photo by SparkFun Electronics via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I want to challenge you to try something. Maybe it’ll sound crazy. But maybe it’ll just be crazy enough to change your church. (And maybe you don’t have access to try this with the whole church, so try it with your youth group!)

Conduct a six-week experiment.

Week one: Teach a normal Sunday service. On Thursday, send out a 5 question email (or Facebook) survey for Sunday morning attendees, asking them 4 basic questions about your message, and one open-ended question about how they applied the message on Sunday morning. (What was the passage? What was the main point? Which of the following was an illustration? What’s one way you are applying last week’s teaching today?)

Week two: Teach, again, in your normal fashion. This week, acknowledge after the sermon that they will again receive a survey via email on Thursday. This will tip them off that it is coming, so expect the results to be higher.

Take weeks three & four off from the experiment. You’ll be tempted to peak at the results so far. Show discipline!

Week five: Try a different teaching method on Sunday morning. Maybe teach by discussion. Or get people into work groups. Do anything that isn’t one person up front teaching. Don’t warm people that this is coming! That’ll mess up the experiment. Then send out the same 5 question survey again. (Expect some negative comments, people coming on Sunday might hate any type of change.)

Week six: Use the same method one more time. Send out the same survey. Just like in week two, tell them to expect a short survey on Thursday.

At the end of the six weeks unseal the results and meet together as a staff to look at them. Did retention scores increase or decrease? Did the change in method cause more people to apply teaching? Did the workgroups hold each other accountable? Overall, what was the net change? (Heck, maybe the old method was statistically better!)

Week seven: Send out one last email sharing the full results.

This will serve two purposes. First, it’ll communicate to your congregation that you are taking your biblical role as a teacher seriously and being professional by sharing the results of an experiment which involved them. Second, it’ll invite the congregation into the problem solving. Chances are good that you’ll get a lot of feedback simply by conducting the experiment.

Of course, I’d love it if you shared your results with me as well. Email me a Word document and I’ll share them on my blog.

youth ministry


A couple weeks back I wrote about our free retreat. I just got back. It was a quick, but profitable time.

I’m more convinced than ever that when you are good news first, not only will the Good News be received, but the news of Good News will spread like wild fire as a result.

Last night the whole group shared some intimate details of our story. At the core we found a deep need for our Heavenly Father to step in and our desperate need for our community to become our family.

There is great hope, there. To have a heavenly Father that literally can’t betray you, leave you, and is bound to never forsake you is a promise too important to miss.

Half of my brain is thinking, “Wow, we’ve stumbled on a great way to minister to hurting teenagers.” But the other half of me is thinking, “Wow, we’ve stumbled on an amazing way to minister to every teenager.

Our culture is wounded and destructive. But praise be to God that these wounded students cry out to God from Genesis 50:20, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

I’ll unpack that more another day.