6 Things You Can't Afford to Miss When Programming for the Guest
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Your church probably wants to reach the surrounding community, see new people come, and hopes those people stick around. But it doesn’t matter how great our intentions or our desires and goals are if the visitor doesn’t feel like you expected them, wanted them, or understood them with your programming. This is true with adults, and it’s just as true with students.
What do I mean by “programming?” When I use the word programming, I am referring to anything that happens once people are all checked in, have grabbed drinks or snacks, have made it to their seats, and the up-front portion begins. Programming includes any formal welcome, announcements, games, skits, video clips, songs that are sung, prayers, transition moments from element to element, and the dismissal. After a student spends a few minutes in your environment and you move everyone into the actual programming you have planned out, what are they experiencing? Here are six things you can’t afford to miss when programming your student ministry for the guest.
1. A Guest Wonders, “Did You Expect Me?”
A couple of months ago, we were hosting our Sunday morning middle school experience, like usual, and we were giving some announcements between the game and the message. One of our announcements was about baptism. Each month, our church hosts a baptism service after church services. It’s pretty cool because this baptism service allows students, kids, and adults to all get baptized together and reminds everyone that we are one church despite having various ministry environments operating on Sunday mornings.
The announcement went something like this, “Alright everyone, we are SO EXCITED because we are having another Baptism Sunday coming up in a couple of weeks! And some of YOU are going to be getting baptized! If you have been following Jesus and have NOT been baptized before, this IS your next step! Let your small group leader know you want to be a part of this amazing weekend, or come find me after service today.”
Do you notice anything problematic about that announcement? We didn’t tell them what a Baptism Sunday even is! It’s like telling someone to check out your favorite show, and when they ask you what it’s about or who is in it, you reply, “It’s a great show! Each episode ends on a cliffhanger, and you can’t stop at just one!” That literally tells your friend NOTHING about the show. It may be enough to pique their interest, but it won’t be enough to get them to actually sit down and invest time or energy into the show.
Consider how you are explaining your events or the next steps you are asking students to take. Are you doing it in a way that assumes that some of the students in the room know absolutely nothing about what you are talking about? Are you thinking through how you can concisely and clearly explain something to a visitor sitting in that room who knows nothing? It does help to have a six-year-old child of my own. Considering how I would explain something to a young child really helps me write the script for an announcement geared towards teenagers who may or may not know anything about baptism.
Announcing baptism is one example, but use that lens to think through worship, your message, any game you may play, and even how you dismiss.
2. A Guest Wonders, “Do They Want Me?”
How can we communicate that we legitimately want the visitor or guest who was out at a party Friday night, who is a bully to other people, who dresses immodestly, and whose social media accounts are full of middle-fingers to feel welcome and find belonging in our environments?
What are the elements of programming that we can implement to implicitly and explicitly tell that specific student that THEY belong here now, rather than someone like them or some future Jesus-following, better-behaved version of them?
This one comes down to communication and culture. How often are we explicitly stating that we want them here from the stage? Each week in our middle-school ministry environments, we tell everyone in the room, “You belong here.” And then we double-down on that and explain it each
week the same way, “That’s a phrase you see on the walls, on shirts, and hear from us up here. But what we mean by that is three things: 1) You can be yourself. It doesn’t matter to us what you did on Friday night, or what interests and hobbies you have, or if you are a starter on your soccer team--You can be yourself here. 2) You can make new friends here and invite your friends here. Who you hang out with matters, and we want you to know you can find true community here. 3) This is a place where you can connect with a God who loves you more than you know.” Every single week, at every campus that’s how we start our programming. We communicate that sentiment clearly.
3. A Guest Wonders, “Do They Understand Me?”
How can you communicate with your programming that you understand your audience--what their interests are, pop-culture references, fads, and current binge-worthy shows? Do you understand what is causing your students stress and anxiety? Are you aware of what the cultural influencers are telling them to value and prioritize? How about what it feels like to walk into a school on a Monday morning nowadays?
By addressing these felt needs in your programming, you can really prioritize being relevant and effective, even for the most apathetic student. Here is a tough truth, answering this question, “Do they understand me?” takes the most amount of intentionality and effort to do well, and it could make or break your experience.
I don’t have a clue what it feels like to walk into a high school or middle school on a Monday when, during the preceding weekend, you made a huge mistake, and it got posted on whatever social media platform is popular at the time. I can’t comprehend the shame and embarrassment of knowing I have to walk into a place where most people already know my news, my mistake. I have no idea how much pressure it is to always be ‘on’ because if you say something dumb or rub someone the wrong way, it can be talked about at the speed of light.
I also have no clue what it means to navigate the ever-increasing competitiveness and pressures of school and, in particular, grades. I was a C / B- student. I rarely got As in school. But still, there was a path for me that included higher education. The demands of homework, class rankings, and college acceptance is at a level I have never seen.
My point is this: Just because you went through the teenage years (you once were a middle schooler and high schooler), it does not mean that you necessarily or inherently understand what being a teenager is like today. Do your research, keep your ears to the ground in various conversations, ask good questions and never quit trying to understand what being a teenager is like.
For programming, the keyword is intentionality. Doing both (programming for the outsider and doing church for your regular attendees) requires another level of intentionality. Maybe you don’t have the freedom to do everything you want to. Do what you can, but don’t sacrifice who you are. Here are some key tactics to help as you think through programming.
4. A Guest Will Appreciate You Avoiding Or Explaining The Churchy Language
Whether it’s in your welcome, your announcements, on your social media, your game, et cetera, you probably use some pretty churchy language. We all do it. We intentionally place a staff member in the back of the room to note any word or phrase said from the stage that would not resonate with a guest. We seriously do it every single week.
Here is an example generic welcome we might hear from the stage. “Welcome to Ignite (or whatever catchy name your ministry or event has)! We are so glad you are here to fellowship with us as we grow in our faith, talking about Ephesians 5. But first, we’re going to play a quick game of Bible trivia! Let’s pray as we start our evening/morning.”
Did you notice anything that a first-time guest would find confusing?
- The name of the worship service, student ministry program, or whatever it is called “Ignite.” That word may have a cool meaning to the people who are already there, but it doesn’t mean squat to anyone else. I am not saying that you should get rid of the name. I am saying that you need to explain what it means. For example, “Welcome to Ignite--what we call our middle school ministry here at ______ church. We call it Ignite because we believe that God wants to spark something new in you and give you a place to belong here.”
- What does it mean to “grow in your faith?” There are a ton of different answers to this depending on what parent you ask, what church you serve in, what denomination you’re in, or even your own background. Defining churchy words and phrases goes a long way to establishing culture, letting your volunteers know what the win is, and even letting people in attendance know what it is they’re supposed to be working towards.
- Using the word “fellowship” like that makes it sound like a cult. Sorry if that offends you. This is a direct quote from multiple friends of mine who don’t go to church. Just say “hanging out” or something similar.
- The audience may not know what the term “Ephesians” is or why there are 5 of them. It would go a long way to quickly explain who Paul was and why he wrote Ephesians.
- Bible Trivia might win the trophy for the most boring game to an outsider. Just FYI.
- This one may be controversial, but the word “prayer” may be confusing to guests. Take a moment to explain what prayer is! “Alright, I am going to pray--which means I am going to talk to God and ask Him to make Himself known to us tonight and allow us to hear what we need to hear from the talk on Ephesians.”
5. A Guest Will Feel Less Awkward If You Move It Along
Dead space is a killer. It’s awkward for everybody. It’s even more awkward for the people in the room who may not know anyone else because there’s nothing going on and there’s no one to talk to. The idea is to move from element to element as if you are taking them somewhere–because you are. You are taking them on a journey towards depth. Your welcome and game programming elements are more surface-level than your announcements. Your announcements are more surface-level than your message. And if you have small groups as part of your programming, then those groups are even deeper than your talk. You are taking everyone in the room on a journey towards depth. You want them to hear the message and not check out in small groups, so don’t lose them along the way with awkwardness or dead space.
6. A Guest Can Have Fun And Still Worship Jesus
Yes, church can be fun, creative, and exciting each week! But not in an entertainment way, but instead in a fun-for-the-sake-of-fun way. One of the most memorable and hilarious moments we have had happen was during a teaching on Moses. My co-worker was explaining who Moses was and actually had the students act out a part of his story on stage. No, it wasn’t the parting of the Red Sea. No, it wasn’t building the ark--that was Noah. It was Moses’ birth. That’s right, his actual birth. He had students draw characters out of a hat, and a 6th-grade boy had to crawl through the legs of a 7th-grade guy screaming and crying as a baby would. Pure comedy.
Remember, your program or event can be the BEST hour or hour-and-a-half of a student’s week! We, as Christians and church leaders, don’t always have to take ourselves too seriously. Have fun, make people laugh, create memorable moments, and leave them thinking, “THIS is church!?”
Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:
- What are you doing in your ministry programming to answer the questions of “Did you expect me,” “Do you want me,” and “Do you understand me”?
- What changes to your ministry programming would you need to make if you looked at the worship, your message, any game you may play, and even how you dismiss through the lens of a guest or church “outsider”?
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