The First Step to Get Students to Show Up

Like it or not, every physical setting communicates a message.

Or, as Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s, “The medium is the message.”

What McLuhan meant was that the message you are sending is significantly affected by the channels through which it is communicated.

If you communicate good news in stale ways, it’s perceived as tired, old, and irrelevant.

The setting in which you do your ministry communicates a message.

What is your student room saying?

In his book, Deep and Wide Andy Stanley recounts a time when he visited a friend’s church. The Bible study room where they were meeting had a weird odor and lots of clutter. Because the medium is the message, Stanley says that the messages the room sent were:
We aren’t expecting guests; what we’re doing here isn’t very important; and we don’t take pride in our space (p. 154).

Basically, “Whatever. We don’t care.”

And if they don’t care about the space they’re delivering the message in, then the logical conclusion is that they don’t care about the people they’re communicating to, or the message they’re communicating.

The Broken Windows Theory

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell points out a social theory of crime called “The Broken Windows Theory.” According to this theory, “Crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is left broken and unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes” (p. 141).

There are 2 things that stand out to me in this description:

First, if disorder communicates that “no one cares,” then order communicates that we care.

Second, saying that the environment “sends a signal” is the same thing as saying that the physical environment sends a message.

Here’s the point:

Aesthetics matter.

How your student room looks sends a message to your students about how important you think they are, and how important you think your message is.

If you aren’t good at figuring what colors, shapes, designs, and decor will help people feel comfortable and welcome, then find someone who is.

This relates to audio/visual technologies as well. If you’re still using 4×3 Powerpoint slides, you need to recognize that we’re in a 16×9 widescreen world now. It’s time to replace your old projector and screen with flat screen televisions.

Taking the time to get these things right will make a world of difference in how students perceive the most important message you are trying to communicate.

This isn’t just about adding new things; it’s also about removing the outdated things. There is a difference between old and outdated. Some things are old and vintage; other things are just old and outdated. If you don’t know the difference, find someone who does.

Andy Stanley is right when he connects the medium with the message:
“If you create an appealing setting for my middle school student, I will have a much easier time believing that you will present content that is relevant to his stage of life” (Deep and Wide, 170).

Your Move

It’s time to ask some hard questions:
What does an irresistible ministry environment for students look like?
How can I make our programs more inviting?
What can I do to make our student space more appealing?

The Broken Windows Theory suggests that cleaning things up and dusting things off would be a good first step.

Books Mentioned in This Post:

Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The following two tabs change content below.
Trevor Hamaker (DMin, McAfee School of Theology) is an author, adjunct professor, and youth ministry coach. He helps youth pastors see their potential, develop their skills, and reach their goals.

Did You Like This Post?

Sign up to get updates sent to your inbox each week!

You're in! Want more ideas and support for your ministry? Check out the BYM Community!

4 thoughts on “The First Step to Get Students to Show Up

  1. You’re welcome. Feel free to create a post, link to the blog, and spread the ideas to anyone who will benefit from them!

  2. Thanks for the comments. Very thoughtful and practical. Do you mind if I create a post fro this on my blog and link to your blog? So of my readers might benefit from this.

  3. That is great advice. But, what about those churches where youth groups share or don’t have their own space? Where the space they use is the main sanctuary and where the parishioners are unwilling to accept that Aesthetics matter? Just asking.

    1. Good questions.

      First off, if people don’t think aesthetics matter, then I would ask them 2 questions:
      1. What is your favorite restaurant?
      2. Why?

      Given the fact that most restaurants serve some variation of chicken, beef, or fish, I’ll assume the answer to the second question will have more to do with the atmosphere or environment than the actual food served.

      To prove the point further, you could ask, “Would you take your spouse to McDonald’s for Valentine’s Day?” Of course not. Why not? Becasue the environment at McDonald’s doesn’t communicate what you want to communicate on that special night.

      Secondly, for the issue of shared space, it’s complicated but it might not be as hard to handle as some might think.

      I worked at a church plant that met in a high school. Every Sunday our students met in the cafeteria for large group and classrooms for small groups. It would’ve been impossible to change out everything in those spaces, but we did our best to focus on the portions of those spaces that we would use.

      Things like attractive signage, updated graphics on screens, volunteers in cool t-shirts with our ministry logo, removing broken chairs, and throwing away trash that was left in there from the school can go a long way. The key is to clean up what you can in order to make it appealing for the people you’re trying to reach.

      If your students meet in the sanctuary and your altar has fake ferns and flowers across the front of it, then recruit a set up team to get there early and help you clear all of the stuff out. Get some pipe and drape to close off the portions of the room you don’t need. You might even be able to get someone to build some sort of portable backdrop that you could set up.

      Beyond that, you could set up a few high-top tables and a snack area for students to hang out in some part of the space before the program starts or after it ends. Thinking about those hangout times, you could also try to set up a few games that require limited set up: Four Square, Corn Hole, or Spike Ball come to mind. The key is portability so you can move them out when you’re done.

      A tell tale sign that people aren’t paying attention as much as they should is when there are bulletins left in the pews from Sunday morning when students begin to show up on Sunday night. That’s just lazy, but I see it happen all the time.

      And don’t forget about the bathrooms. Make sure there’s toilet paper and soap in there! Maybe even put your ministry t-shirt on a funny cardboard standup character in the bathroom during the student program just to have some fun and show some separation from what they would see in there during the adult service time.

      Those are just a few ideas. Does any of that sound doable to you?

Comments are closed.