Where do you start when putting youth services together?

I think most of us tend to begin by asking ourselves, “Where can I find great games, funny videos, and line it up all in a way that makes sense?” Although that isn’t necessarily wrong, I think we actually need to go back to the beginning. Like way back. Not to a countdown video or the opening song, even further back than that. Great programming is amplified when all of the jumbled pieces work together from the very start.

The first key to effective programming is setting up a great environment. Make sure the experience your students are having from the street to their seat is one that communicates care and intentionality!

You see, a great program starts in the parking lot. A student’s first impression from the parking lot to your youth room can be important. Being thoughtful about your meeting environment sets the tone for the rest of the service. Before you ever get to a countdown video or a person standing up front, your signage, or lack thereof, is communicating.

As you prepare to kick off a new school year, I want to challenge you to first simply walk through your youth ministry environment, wherever it is that you meet regularly for service. Walk through it with fresh, outside or visitor eyes as though you’ve never seen it before. 

Think like a visitor might and ask questions about the room that has probably become common to you. 

  • Is the signage clear?
  • Do I know where I’m supposed to go if I’m new?
  • How is the lighting?
  • Is it accessible for all?
  • Are there any signs or posters or media graphics that ask a question or paint a picture of what the teaching series or the program is going to be about?
  • Could a student walk from the car to the youth room and get a bit excited, thinking to themselves, “Wow! They’ve really thought through tonight! This looks like it will be fun.” 

Part of the environment is how they feel right when they walk in the door. Is there a warm, welcoming experience awaiting them? What’s the first message they “feel” when they walk in? Are they met with a smile? A welcoming handshake, fist-pump, high five, Baptist side hug—whatever you’re into, are they greeted? 

Does your environment have volunteers or student leaders on the lookout for newcomers/people sitting alone?

Here’s a pro tip: if a kid feels alone, it doesn’t matter how magical your games and videos are or how great of a speaker you are—that kid will be thinking about how uncomfortable they are rather than your message.

Teenagers need to feel welcomed and connected in order for all of that other stuff on stage to stick.

Are you prepared? Or do you find yourself scrambling to track down supplies for the game? If your program starts at 7:00 pm, at 6:45pm when students start to show up, is everything dialed-in, so you’re available to connect with students?

Are the right amount of chairs or tables set up? Whatever your room situation is, and trust me, I’ve been to a ton of different youth rooms, your room setup matters—it’s either welcoming and inviting, or it looks like a school classroom that they want to avoid. Are there too many places to sit? Not enough? Is there any insider language being used that’s confusing to new students? All of these are great questions to ask, again, before we even GET to the actual program.

Is the youth room clean and well lit? Are their funny or informative slides on the screen? Does it look warm and friendly or cold and insider-y? Is there something for them to do while they wait for the service to begin? Simple stuff like Cornhole or some friends playing Jenga could be easy wins to think about. Standing around alone isn’t warm and inviting.

Is there music playing? Is it at a comfortable volume so people can have a conversation? 

Everything about your space is sending a message, so before you get to the flow of the service itself, make sure the place is ready for people. Thinking through the actual room environment is a great opportunity to set the table before we get to serving the main course: the program itself.

I encourage you to take a walk through your youth space like you’re visiting the church for the very first time. Take notes and compare thoughts with your volunteer youth ministry team. Plan some action steps to take this week, next week, and ongoing as you seek to set the table to share God’s Word. Sit in your youth room seats and pray together about the students that will then sit in those seats during your next service.

Josh Griffin is a 25 year youth pastor veteran and co-founder of DYM. He’s the Junior High Pastor at Mariner’s Church and always 10 minutes late.