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Why BIG FUN doesn't work as well as it used to - and it's getting worse...

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman | loading comments...

Fifteen years ago, it was pretty easy to get a big crowd to show up for a youth ministry event.

Make the pizza free. Bring in a band. Play some awesome games. Buy a skid of Mountain Dew.

Then open the doors and watch people pour in. Getting them there was easy.

Drawing them into continued involvement was the hard part.

But today, both parts are hard, and in many communities, big fun isn't working like it used to.

Here's why:

If we're going to draw students in with fun and excitement, we've got to remember, we're not the only game in town anymore. [Tweet this.]

I'm going to be throwing around a term a lot in this article that I call social teenage entertainment. I'm pretty sure I just made that up, so let me explain it.

Social teenage entertainment encompasses the list of things that both entertain students and let them be with their friends at the same time. It's pretty simple.

We do that at youth group. Students do that when they wander around the mall or play pickup basketball. You can think of dozens of examples on your own, I'm sure.

Students crave opportunities to:

1. Have fun.

2. With their friends.

So what do STE experiences have to do with the demise of BIG FUN in the setting of the local youth ministry?

Let's start with a history lesson...

Flashback to the 90's...
Imagine yourself in a small- to mid-sized town sometime in the mid- to late-90's. It was a drastically different time, and there were a shockingly small number of social teenage entertainment experiences available.

A town might have a movie theater, maybe a miniature golf course, and a public gym that was open during the day. The nineties were the pinnacle of teenagers just going to the mall to walk around, because sometimes there was literally nothing else to do.

On a Sunday night in January, a youth group could put together a great big fun outreach event and students would show up, because there was nothing else to do. The mall was closed, the gym was closed, it was cold outside.

For students who wanted to have fun with their friends, all we had to do was to make our event more fun than whatever movie was out that weekend...

...and if we couldn't do that, then we could certainly make it cheaper than the movie.

Getting teenagers to show up for events where they can have fun with their friends is easy when they don't have a ton of other options. [Tweet this.]

But today is entirely different.
That small- to mid-sized town in the nineties is a lot different for teenagers today. It took a while, but entrepreneurs have learned to capitalize on a teenager's craving for social teenage entertainment.

All of a sudden, we're not just competing against the movie theater on Sunday night. If our big draw is fun with friends, than we're competing with all kinds of things. Consider just a few of the following:

1. Activities like Paintball have gone from rising fringe hobbies to mainstream entertainment options.

2. Stores and retailers that cater to teenagers are keeping later hours than ever before.

3. Video games, which were once primarily a hobby enjoyed INDIVIDUALLY by a subset of teenagers have gone mainstream. The addition of headsets, and team and social play means that these can be considered group activities.

4. Teenage parties are a fully-realized economic industry. For-profit companies can put together so-called safe gathering places for teenagers, gather sponsors, charge for entry, and sell food. That means they've got more money than you, so they can make sure their bands, facilities, and food are better than yours. Oh, and way fewer rules.

If the biggest selling point for your outreach event is that it's free fun with friends, then you can expect students to weigh it as an option against other activities that are fun and/or free.

Is your event more fun than a student playing Destiny with his friends?

Is your party better than the party at Teen Nite?

Are more of my friends going to be at your event? Or the food court?

Every time, it's going to be real tough for us to out-fun people and companies who primarily do fun for a living. [Tweet this.]

And if we become the kinds of youth ministers who primarily do fun for a living, then we're missing the point, aren't we?

So is BIG FUN really dead?
I don't think so, or at least I don't think that it has to be. In fact, I think most of the time, we have a marketing problem more than an event-planning problem.

The truth is that our events aren't supposed to be as fun as the other stuff out there. Our events are just supposed to be more meaningful.

If we market our events by telling people that they will be fun and awesome, then people will judge them about how fun and awesome they are, and we'll always lose.

But if we market our events as being meaningful and real, then people will judge them that way...

...and even students who disagree with our faith views would agree that youth group seemed more meaningful than another trip to the mall.

Next week, I'm going to share the most important marketing hook that we're not using yet to appeal to our students, so keep an eye out for that.

But for now, do me a favor, leave a comment, and tell me two of the things that you're competing with every time you try to out-fun the world around you.

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My struggle to do youth ministry through depression

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman | loading comments...

45% of youth ministers will struggle with depression.
Four years ago, I finally told my wife that I thought I had depression.

She agreed with me.

Shortly afterward, I told the same thing to my doctor.

He agreed with me too.

The whole time, keeping a thriving youth ministry going was getting harder and harder.

I didn't want to, but I had to admit that I had a problem.

45% of youth workers will fight depression at some point and I was one of them.

My diagnosis was seasonal affective disorder. Yours might be different.

45% of youth workers experience depression and ignoring it will never make it go away.

By January and February, winter started to take its toll on me. I slept and napped whenever I could, even if I wasn't tired.

Even if I was at work.

When my wife asked me if I was happy, I told her that I couldn't remember the last time that I was.

Another winter could have ended my youth ministry career. Maybe forever.

My doctor recommended a therapy lamp that simulates the sun's rays. All winter, I spend thirty minutes a day reading near my happy light.

Here's what helped me:
Far and away the most common request I've received at Smarter Youth Ministry is from people who want to know specifically which type of therapy lamp I've used. Here's the link.

I'm obviously not a doctor, and you should talk to yours.

But I can tell you that after battling seasonal depression for the first 27 years of my life, the therapy lamp made a significant difference.

If you or someone you know struggles with depression, especially during the winter months, I'd check it out. Here's that link one more time.

After using the therapy light for about a week, I started to feel "better."

I was a better husband and more productive father.

My passion and energy for ministry returned.

Asking for help was the best thing.

There's a temptation to pretend to be flawless. We refuse to acknowledge or discuss our own problems, because we know the world has even bigger problems.

Maybe it seems admirable, but it certainly isn't.

Ignoring your own problems is the easiest way to make sure you're not available to help with anyone else's.

Remember, your efficacy as a minister can only be as a big as the length of time you're able to do ministry. If you burnout because of some unaddressed issue, your ministry will fall as well.

Getting yourself right might be the most important thing for everyone else.

Will you help?

If you have struggled with depression, I need you to leave a comment on this post and tell me about it.


Because there are dozens of youth workers reading this post right now who are afraid to admit that they might have depression.

They need to know that it's okay and that they're not alone.

Will you help me tell them that?

Leave a comment below > > >

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The unexpected truth about teenagers and video games

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman | loading comments...

I've heard the complaints from youth workers, and I've even voiced them myself...

Students find a dozen hours every week for video games, but they can't make time for youth group?

That's the frustrating reality we're living into right now, isn't it?

Parents let their teenagers play video games unchecked for hours and then tell us that they're too busy for our programs.

Students say the same thing, and that's obviously a lie, right?

Not so fast. The truth about teenagers and their video games is a lot different than you'd expect.

Let's start with the data. A recent Harris poll found that teenagers spend, on average, 13 hours a week playing video games; and you already know that some of your teenagers are spending 30 or more hours a week playing video games.

So far, the youth minister's complaint seems to be holding up. How can a student claim to be too busy for youth group if he's spending a full day playing Destiny?

But the problem with the research is that it tells us how much time they spend playing video games, but not when they play video games...

...and as it turns out, that seems to matter quite a bit.

This is how your students are really playing video games...

On mobile devices in small spurts. The rise of mobile gaming has impacted that cumulative number significantly. Students play iPhone games on the bus, in the car, in the lunchroom, or while they're sitting at their sister's orchestra concert.

That means that as many as 7-10 hours of their gaming time is filled in 10-15 minute chunks when they would otherwise be doing nothing. They're choosing gaming over normal, human interaction, which may be it's own issue...

...but this significant chunk of time isn't what's making them miss youth group.

On consoles in binge sessions. If you're a gamer, you know how this goes. Order a pizza when you get home on Friday, turn on the Xbox, and play games for six to eight hours. Repeat the process on Saturday afternoon.

Again, this might be an unhealthy behavior that brings enough of its own issues, but unless your ministry meets late at night on Friday or Saturday, youth group attendance probably isn't one of them.

(I'll allow that some students miss our Sunday evening programs because they have homework that they otherwise could have done instead of a binge gaming session. That's a conversation on priorities that might be beneficial to have.)

...and what it means for your ministry.

There are probably students who aren't at your your programs because they're at home playing video games, but it's almost certainly fewer than you think.

I have a student who's a prolific gamer at 20 hours per week, but doesn't play any video games Monday-Thursday. He attends every Sunday, but is too busy to make it on Wednesdays because he's trapped beneath 3-4 hours of homework per night.

And it's not like he could get a jump start on that homework over the weekend, because it's typically not assigned until the day before.

That's exactly how a student can be too busy for youth group, but still have a ton of time for video games.

So the next time a student (or a parent) can't make time for your program, give them the benefit of the doubt. It might be legit.

Instead of trying to figure out how to fix the societal ill that's keeping them away from youth group, ask yourself this question:

How can I minister to them anyway?

And that's the question I'd love you to take a stab at by leaving a comment below.

Leave a comment below > > >

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