If you look in Webster’s dictionary, I’m pretty sure lock-in is defined as a youth worker’s hell.

OK, maybe not… But let’s be honest, they’re certainly not our favorite events, or at least, they’re not the easiest events.

Maybe they’re also not even good events for us to hold.

Now, before we go any further, let’s clarify something. Throughout this post, I’m talking about lock-ins: Overnight events held at a church for a youth group in which there’s little to no structure and even less sleep. I’m not talking about retreats that are structured, filled with purposeful content, and mandate at least a little sleep.

For decades, lock-ins have been a staple of youth ministries throughout the country. My own junior high and high school youth group held them frequently and as a teenager, I loved them.

But then, during my rookie year in youth ministry, I held one that was a complete disaster. The kids outnumbered the adults 10 to 1 (I’ll NEVER make that mistake again) and as a result, there were all kinds of shenanigans.

Left jaded, when charged with creating a youth ministry from scratch at my next church, I quickly decided not to do any lock-ins. Sure, we did three overnight events a year – a summer mission trip, fall retreat, and the 30 Hour Famine – but they all had structure, content, and sleep.

Having escaped lock-ins for five years, imagine my chagrin when I arrived at my current church and inherited a youth ministry calendar that included MONTHLY lock-ins.

Let me say that again.

MONTHLY lock-ins.


Despite this, having vowed to make changes slowly, I kept the first lock-in on the calendar.

It was a mistake.

During the lock-in, I saw what traditionally happens at a lock-in unfold:

Teens divided into their typical cliques, making it readily apparent who was in and who was out.

It was a social free for all. Used to no structure, the teens refused to do any organized games, etc. Instead, they simply wanted to roam the church, going up and down in our elevator all night long because it was the best place to talk. This was great for the seniors, who knew each other well. It was horrible for the freshmen, who knew no one, and couldn’t even fit in the elevator where the seniors were chatting.

As the night wore on and students became increasingly tired, their moods grew increasingly worse. People started snapping at one another and fighting with each other. Feelings were hurt. People cried.

Despite my best efforts to get students to go to bed, having never before had a lights out, I lost that battle. Since kids were still up, my other adult leaders and I had to be as well.

Worse still, I heard from angry parents afterwards, upset because when their teens arrived home, they were cranky and tired, unable to do anything but sleep the rest of the day.

That experience, combined with a grad school class on adolescent development and a greater understanding of how important sleep is for the still developing brain of adolescents, made me rethink the wisdom of lock-ins.

I now believe that lock-ins do far more damage than good in a youth ministry setting.

I might even argue that no good can come from lock-ins.

Because I believe this, I slowly phased out lock-ins that first year.

I haven’t done one since.

And you know what?

I never will again.

Instead, I’ll continue holding a few short, fun events each year that give teens the chance to grow in their relationships with each other while laughing and having a good time.

Unlike lock-ins, short fun events won’t destroy the culture of welcome we work so hard to create the rest of the year. They also won’t leave teens tired and irritable for days afterward.

As a result, everyone wins: Me, my youth ministry, teens, and perhaps most of all, families.