13 Ways to Take Your Youth Ministry to the Next Level

April 18, 2017

There are countless ways to connect with your students as you encourage them to join a lifelong relationship with Jesus.

Here are 13 impactful thinking-outside-the-box ways to connect that have the potential to revolutionize how you run your ministry:

1. Use Instagram Live

In late 2016, Instagram followed in the footsteps of Periscope and Facebook by offering users the ability to go live with real-time video streams.

Although Instagram wasn’t the first social network to offer live streaming ability, they were the first social network to offer the feature that teenagers predominantly use.

This impacts your role as a youth pastor significantly because students will go live with video streams and offer you the ability to jump directly into their world in a matter of seconds.

While it would be nice to impact your ministry by attending every baseball game, tennis match or theatrical play in order to spend time on their turf, the reality is that you already have a lot of other job responsibilities that don’t just disappear when you invest hours of time to go cheer on your students.

Instagram Live does not replace the need for face-to-face interaction with students, but it now gives you an incredible tool to stop what you’re doing when a student goes live, jump into their world, post a few comments to show them value, and then go back to what you were doing.

You don’t have to get in your car, drive 20 minutes to their activity, cheer for them until they see you’re there, and then drive back to the office over an hour later.

Instagram Live can save you countless hours, and in many ways, it can be even more impactful than had you showed up to their event in the first place.

While initially I felt Instagram Live was a cheap alternative to showing up in person, I have since changed my position based on how students perceive attendees on their live streams. If you are one of the first to show up on a live stream, you position yourself ahead of the masses as someone who is there with them and for them.

Students are usually excited and proud that you showed up, and by jumping on board their live stream early, you also have a built-in reminder of accountability that what your students are saying and doing are visible to many types of people, including their youth pastor. They might think twice about what they share online, which is definitely a good thing.

2. Utilize Snapchat Geofilters

If you use Snapchat very often, you may have seen geofilters without even knowing it.

A geofilter is a pre-designed picture with a transparent background that overlays on top of a picture that a Snapchatter took.

Below is a sample of many rotating geofilters so you can get the idea of what geofilters look like. Assume that you took the picture in the background of the girls, but the geofilters were made available to you by the companies with the logos.

(Note: Do not use company logos in your own geofilters. This design is simply to show you sample logos and what geofilters may look like with your own logos.) 

Snapchat Geofilter Sample Animation

While geofilters were initially only available for large corporations, they are now available to non-profits, small businesses and individuals. You can make geofilters that reach large audiences for conferences or geofilters that reach small audiences—even as small as one person.

Geofilters build buzz, excitement, ownership, identity, and can be used to encourage students and leaders alike.

I stumbled across geofilters shortly after Snapchat made them available to the general public, and my use of geofilters has generated a greater ROI than any other form of advertising I have tried with Facebook, Instagram or Google.

There are so many creative ways to build your ministry by using Snapchat that I wrote a book about it called The Complete Guide to Building Your Brand with Snapchat. You can purchase a physical copy for yourself or someone else here, or if you’d like a free digital copy, I’d be happy to hook you up for free.

3. Implement Text Drip Campaigns

If you’re unfamiliar with drip campaigns, they are frequently used to roll out new information in a slow, yet deliberate way.

If you have ever subscribed to an email list, you have probably experienced a drip campaign. Right after you submit your email, you probably receive an email right away. Then probably a day later, you get another email, and then a few days later you receive a third email. That is a drip campaign—new emails are “dripped” out in a pre-determined frequency based on the date when you sign up.

While drip campaigns have been around for email for years, the same ability has recently been made available through texting.

In my experience with students, roughly 25% of my emails are opened whereas 96% of my text messages are opened.

I use text drip campaigns to assimilate students who are new to our ministry.

When a visitor shows up to our youth ministry, we greet them in person, and if they aren’t already in our Planning Center People database, we have them fill out a card with their contact information. Later that same night, we add them to our texting drip campaign, and they get a text shortly after they leave the same evening.

The text includes a pre-made video that I’ve recorded that thanks them for coming. I also ask a question in that initial video, which I am hoping elicits an actual response. If the student replies with their answer to my question, their response gets sent directly to my phone and I engage them in a conversation that they essentially initiated.

Then 3 days later, a new text is automatically “dripped” out to them with a new video and a new question, and another 3 days after that a third text is sent out with a friendly video inviting them to come back to our youth service again.

Multiple connections are made almost completely on autopilot, and students are included within moments of showing up to your service.

You can also use drip campaigns for Bible studies, baptism classes, apologetics classes, leadership training, and anything else that you want dripped out based on when a user signs up rather than you sending out texts manually or blasting them to your entire group at once.

I have investigated and tried a variety of texting groups including ProTexting, Call Fire, Simply Youth Ministry, GroupMe and Remind (which is hard to beat since its free). However, even though it’s not free, I prefer ProTexting for two reasons.

  • ProTexting offers the ability for text dripping, whereas others in the comparable price range do not, and
  • ProTexting offers another important ability in sending out birthday texts (which I cover in my next section of this post).

If you aren’t using a texting drip campaign, you’re either wasting time sending all those texts out yourself or you’re simply missing opportunities to connect with your new students altogether.

4. Automate Birthday Texts

As mentioned in the last section, ProTexting offers the ability to send out birthday texts automatically with the addition of one of their plug-in apps. It’s an extra cost per month, but it’s a flat rate no matter how many students you have in your groups.

To get it up and running, you simply export your CSV database of information from wherever you store your church contacts. Be sure to include their first name, last name, phone number and birth date in your export if possible. If it’s not possible, you can still add them to your ProTexting account by following their instructions in creating an Excel doc or by entering numbers manually.

Once you have your contacts exported, import all that information directly into ProTexting, turn on the birthday app plug-in on your account, create a group of names who you want to receive your birthday texts, write out whatever text message you want to be sent on your behalf, and you’re done!

From then on, each person in your ProTexting group will receive a birthday text from you first thing in the morning on their birthday! They usually reply back thanking your for your text, giving you the chance to respond by asking what they’re doing for their birthday and engaging them in a conversation.

You can set up different birthday texts for students, leaders, parents, staff members, and any other types of groups you may have. I have custom birthday messages set up for all 4 of those groups.

5. Give Birthday Gifts

When I send out an automated birthday text to students, I include a shortened URL that offers them a free birthday gift. When they click the link, it takes them to a page on our youth ministry website where they can select what birthday gift they want.

The gifts range from a $5 Starbucks gift card to a custom Snapchat birthday geofilter at our next youth event to a bag of gummy worms to a lunch with me and one of their friends. I also include a “surprise me” option so I can choose a gift for them.

The student chooses what they want as well as the date they want to receive it, and then they usually show up that night to get their free gift.

Not only does this show value to the students who are your core students who frequently attend, but it also brings students back who haven’t been in a while. By simply getting a free gift, sometimes that’s all the extra motivation they needed to get plugged back in.

6. Build a Student Leadership Team

A Student Leadership Team is a secret sauce to ministries that use them. Not only can you develop and train rising stars within your ministry, but you can also gain valuable insight into what is connecting, what is not, and where you should be headed in your ministry based on the needs of the students.

A few years back I was excited to bring my summer calendar to my Student Leadership Team, and with one look, they more or less crumbled it and said, “Let’s start over.” So we did.

Their ideas were better than mine, connected with more students, and they had ownership.

After I implemented a Student Leadership Team, I finally became the pastor over a literal student ministry—created by students for students.

However, there is danger in running your Student Leadership Team poorly. My own team failed 3 times before I got it right. If you want insight on how to run a solid team that changes the very culture of your youth ministry, send me and email and we can find a time to chat.

UPDATE: Based on ongoing requests from youth pastors on how to build a Student Leadership Team, I went ahead and created an entire course on everything I know about developing a Student Leadership Team of your own. Check it out here.

7. Take Advantage of Fiverr

As the weird spelling suggests, Fiverr is a site that offers creative services starting at just $5. For such a low cost, you can get logos, websites, voice recordings, designs, videos, or thousands of other things created for you.

Regardless of your ministry budget, Fiverr can save you a lot of time and money. I primarily use Fiverr to create bumper videos for sermons and video announcements. Turnaround time varies, but I usually get media returned to me faster than expected within 24-48 hours of placing my order.

8. Create Tribes

“Tribes” is typically a 4 to 6-week annual series focused on cultivating outreach, building friendships, strengthening community and defining culture.

Get ready for Tribes by creating a theme that can break the one big ministry into 4 smaller tribes/teams/groups. For example, you can create a theme based on Avengers, Transformers, Nintendo characters, Disney characters, animals, Indian tribes, or anything else that would create an epic feel to the individual tribes.

Use your Student Leadership Team to give insight and ideas regarding what is relevant and likely to connect with your overall ministry, and resist the temptation to do all the planning on your own since some of the best ideas will come from your young leaders.

Several weeks before you launch your Tribes, have students choose who they want in their tribe by letting them pick 3 of their friends to be on their tribe, while guaranteeing at least one friend on their tribe.

While one of the primary goals for implementing Tribes is to break apart existing cliques in the ministry, it is crucial to keep students connected with at least one friend they have chosen. Therefore, keep students with at least one friend as promised, but be intentional about shuffling their other friends into other tribes if possible. This will break apart cliques while still building existing friendships and encouraging growth for new relationships.

Then debut your tribes with a kickoff with a memorable tribe competition where all 4 teams can battle one another. The more interactive the competition, the better.

Make each experience of your tribes incredible. Spend time and resources to making sure this is the best-of-the-best of what your ministry has to offer. Providing excellence is not to create a bait-and-switch for visitors to your ministry, but rather, to make it easy for your core kids to genuinely be excited about inviting their friends to something that is different and fresh from their perspective. Students will naturally invite others to something they are naturally excited about.

Give away points for teams that win games, but also give away points during the entire series for spirit, colors, attitude, teamwork, and visitors. Heavily weight the points for bringing visitors, so students realize the more people they bring with them, the more likely their tribe will win the overall competition.

Some pastors have a difficult time with the concept of students inviting students for points. While the concern is valid, the invitation is extended to join a fun and exciting service that may be a different experience than what is expected of church.

While students inviting friends run the risk of making others feel used, typically those who are invited are simply thankful to have received the invitation to come and see what all the buzz is all about.

Keep track of scores throughout each week and give updates for which tribe is currently in the lead, and offer a reward for the winning tribe when it’s all over. Incentives can range from as small as a pizza party for the winning tribe up to theme park tickets for each person on the winning tribe.

Tribes will fuel your ministry’s outreach, likely bringing in droves of students who have never stepped foot in your ministry before. Make sure you have a system ready to assimilate your visitors and reach back out to them. This is an ideal time to implement a text drip campaign to connect with new faces.

9. Customize the YouVersion Bible App

The YouVersion Bible app recently added the ability for local churches to create events that are visible from within the app itself.

While churches are beginning to make notes available for each of their adult services, you are able to create an event for each of your student ministry services and encourage students to take notes from within their app.

Check out a sample event that’s been set up for our student ministry so you can get an idea of what it looks like. You may open it in the Bible app or view it online.

Here are eight benefits to using the Bible app for your own ministry:

  • Increased learning.

It develops a note-taking culture within your youth ministry. Research shows that taking notes increases retention in learning, so you are giving students one additional tool for remembering what they have learned.

  • Customized notes.

While you can provide the outline, students can write their own custom notes within the app itself. This means they aren’t just reading a glorified outline of your message, but they are adding their own thoughts and takeaways.

  • Acts as a journal.

Each event disappears from search results after each service time, but students are able to save each event within their app so they can pull it up later. This means that what you’re teaching this week is something they can pull up from their phone in 5 years from now.

  • Engages students with scripture.

When you add Bible verses to your event, students can use the links to highlight those verses directly in their Bible app for future reference.

  • Encourages positive peer pressure.

The YouVersion Bible app acts as it’s own social network, allowing users to add friends and see activity for when they finish Bible plans, add notes, or highlight verses. By seeing their friends’ activity within the app’s newsfeed, students will be more likely to want to engage with the app as they see their friends doing.

  • Announcement board.

You can post announcements for upcoming activities directly within the event you create for each service. If you have a website page for registrations or more information, you can include a link to your website to capture leads who are engaged with your event.

  • Acts as a standalone website.

While I wouldn’t recommend shutting down your own ministry website in exchange for creating events in the Bible app, the Bible app can, however, serve as a website for ministries that don’t have their own sites. You can have a contact section with an email address and phone number so students, leaders and parents can reach you. You can include announcements for all upcoming events and activities. You can include a link to a welcome video for visitors, as well as a tithing link for your congregation.

  • It’s free.

The price is right.

Create your free profile here and publish your first YouVersion event for your ministry.

10. Launch Blacklist

Blacklist is a ministry-wide game where students and adults engage in a massive Nerf battle that can last for months.

The basic premise is that all players are assigned a target by a Commissioner. Once a player receives a target, they have a pre-determined amount of time to find and eliminate their target by shooting them with a Nerf dart or the equivalent.

When a player successfully shoots their assigned target, that target is eliminated from the game and the shooter gets assigned a new target.

Everyone in the game is assigned a target, but everyone in the game also has a target assigned to them, creating a recipe for a ton of excitement, fun and paranoia.

While students tend to play for the fun, the primary goal of the game is to break apart existing cliques and encourage students to get to know one another in a creative way. In order for one player to track down another, they have to do some recon to find out where they go to school, who their friends are, when they wait at the bus stop, etc.

If it sounds a bit like stalking—you’re right. On the other hand, the tracking and recon is all part of the fun in the game, and when players conspire with one another, your ministry gains unexpected alliances, friendships established that likely never would have existed otherwise, adult leaders engaged outside of the church, and a buzz that permeates not just your ministry and church, but surrounding schools where students attend.

There are a few cons that go along with the game, such as heated tempers, hurt feelings and sadness when eliminated from the game, but typically those emotions subside rather rapidly and in most games, the pros far outweigh the cons.

To view a website from a completed real game of Blacklist, visit mixblacklist.com.

UPDATE: Following the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, my leaders and I revisited Blacklist from a safety and fear standpoint. We felt the Las Vegas shooting was too recent and fresh to be able to pull off Blacklist with sensitivity, so we launched a modified version leading up to Christmas called You Been Sleighed. Rather than tracking down students to shoot them with Nerf darts, a few of us “sleighed” homes of each student in our Student Leadership Team by showing up in the middle of the night, wrapping doors and cars and garages with wrapping paper, and then posted a printout that simply said youbeensleighed.com on it. Prior to that point, we had never promoted the game nor told any students about it. Therefore, when a student got sleighed and inevitably went to the website, that was the first time they learned about the game. Once on the site, students also had the ability to join the game by sleighing other students. If they chose to sleigh other students, the Commissioner would provide home addresses to sleigh, and each time they sleighed a home, they would then receive a new target from the Commissioner. The student who sleighed the most homes by Christmas Eve won a prize valued at $200. It was a $200 gift card. I’m super creative. In total, students successfully sleighed 84 homes during our first-ever round of You Been Sleighed. I suppose that number would only be 82 if you don’t count my own home. 🙂

11. Adopt PCO Registrations

PCO (Planning Center Online; www.planning.center) offers a suite of incredible apps that help churches create orders of service, handle check-in seamlessly, manage assimilation of visitors, and much more.

One of the most valuable resources they offer is an online app called “Registrations”.

Registrations allows administrators the ability to set up registrations for events that require sign ups. Events can be offered for free or can require payment. You can accept credit card payments directly from within the app through a 3rd party vendor such as Stripe.

You can also set up your event to require registrants to answer whatever questions you wish. For example, you can have registrants not just provide their contact information like their name, phone number and email, but also submit any food allergies and their t-shirt size.

As people sign up for your event, you can assign them to rooms or vehicles with literally one click that auto-assigns them based on rules such as age and gender. Of course you also have the ability to manually assign registrants to rooms or vehicles as you wish without using the auto-assign feature.

While PCO initially began by providing churches with a solid solution for creating orders of service, they have become an all-in-one solution handling nearly every aspect of church administration.

You can try out PCO Registrations for free with a 30-day trial here.

12. Memorize Names with the Flashcards App

Learning names of your students is one of the quickest ways to make the know they are important. However, if you’re like me, you struggle to remember names.

Download the Flashcards app for iOS or Android and you can upload photos of each new student and tap their photo to reveal their name. By creating a flashcard for each student, you can sit at red light or during lunch and quiz yourself on your students’ names.

As you learn their names, you can mark them off as “learned” and only focus your time on the students whom you don’t know yet.

The best part of this app is the fact that you can sync flashcards with your leaders. In other words, you can have your check-in team be responsible for taking pics of the new students and then sync the flashcards with every adult leader on your team so they are all learning names.

If you find it too cumbersome to re-sync the flashcards every time you have new visitors, consider at least setting it up each summer when you onboard a new class of incoming students so you can learn them quickly and efficiently.

13. Build a Donut Wall

If you have student services at different times than your youth services, creating a donut wall will give you a powerful way to reach students attending your adult services who don’t yet know about your youth services. Set it up in a place that is visible to the general public at your church so when people come by, then can see the donuts on display. Have a team of students ready to connect with other students, and for each donut you give to a new high schooler, also give them an invite to your student service. You will likely find that parents will drag their student to your wall just so they can get a donut.

If you’d like a supply list and instructions for how to build your donut wall, I’d be happy to hook you up for free.

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What ideas have I missed for how Youth Pastors can be connecting with students in new and creative ways? Join the conversation below in the comments section.

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