ARISE: How I Started a Skate Church
Are you struggling to break past 10 students in your mid week service?
Have you ever planned an event just to have it flop?
In 2009 I accepted my first full time paid student ministry position, and I was going crazy trying to get more than 9 students to show up to church at the same time.
I had just spent 12 months in an apprenticeship program organized by our district youth department.
I spent two days a week in youth pastor heaven. Hanging out with our district youth director and listening to awesome guest speakers.
I learned a ton about student ministry and was ready to hit the ground running.
I showed up to my new position as Student Ministry Director ready to change the world. I soon learned the students had long since moved on, and our church had a bit of a bad name in the community.
It was fine by me. I was a student ministries expert after all. I was Confident in my ability to grow this motley crew into the next big thing in student ministries.
It was going to be great.
Just one problem…
Knowing about student ministries and having ministry experience are two completely different things.
So after a year of hard work, I had grown from 3 to 9 students. I was stuck.
Nothing I did worked.
One week a student messaged me that she was bringing a friend. I danced around the house celebrating. I was finally going to reach my goal of 10 students. Wednesday night came around and turns out her friend couldn’t make it last minute. Oh, and to pour salt in the wound, two other students missed that night.
What was supposed to be my big moment of glory, ended up being my lowest night in months.
One day, after yet another failed attempt to hit 10 students, I made a comment to my intern that changed my life.
We were walking across the church parking lot discussing another failed attempt to reach the ever so elusive 10 students at a single service, when I said.
“You know, if we built a skate park, we would get like 20 students no problem.”
Let me back up a minute and explain that comment.
We were serving in a small retirement town nestled into the side of a mountain.
When I first accepted the position, I was warned there were two kinds of people living there. People on Medicaid, and people on meth.
Turns out there was a third type.
Bored out of their skulls teenagers who liked to skateboard.
There was just one problem. Remember the nestled in the side of a mountain comment?
There wasn’t a single flat road in town, much less a sidewalk.
We had exactly three flat surfaces in town passable for skating.
The High School. The problem. It wasn’t allowed. If anyone got smart and tried, they paid the price the next day at school.
A shopping center at the top of town. The problem. Every store owner had the police on speed dial. You couldn’t get a decent warm up in before getting ran off.
Our church parking lot. It was two levels with a three foot drop from the top level to the bottom that was perfect for jumps. And to top it off we had recently resurfaced the parking lot.
The problem. I was under strict orders to chase off any teens loitering on our private property. Even had to call the cops a few times when students wouldn’t leave.
Okay, back to my providential comment.
“You Know, If we built a skate park we would get like 20 students no problem.”
Very matter of factly he said.
“Why don’t we?”
I didn’t have an answer.
One week later I was walking into a board room with 11 glossy black folders outlining my plans to build a skate park and run an after school outreach.
By the grace of God my plan was approved and I was off hammer and saw in hand.
Previously we had youth on Wednesday nights at 6:30pm. Pretty standard.
We moved our main youth service to Thursdays at 3:30pm. School got out at 3:10 or something like that.
We kind of won the lottery as far as location.
Our property line butted up against the school, and most parents just parked at the church and wait for their kids.
To make it even better the middle school was down the hill and most of the Jr. High students walked through our parking lot to get home.
So I made sure I set up my tools and supplies just before the schools get out.
Students would walk by and ask what I was doing. I told them I was building skate ramps… They freaked out.
The first day I told 3 or 4 students. The next almost a dozen more showed up because they didn’t believe their friends.
I did this for two weeks. Kids would stop by and ask about the ramps, or when they would be ready. I had a stack of flyers sitting ready to hand out.
This was the only advertising I did. Well that and the airplane we hired to fly a banner around town. Kidding.
In the weeks before opening, I was able to build some decent relationships with students.
I had tapped into a huge desire of the students. They needed a place to skate and we provided it.
Word spread incredibly fast. Opening day we had something like 27 students show up. The next week over 30. This was in addition to our 9 students.
And here’s the thing…
Our core group of 9 students started growing as well.
Word was out that we were THE place to be Thursdays after school, and students started coming.
We focused on one type of student—Skaters—and built the best possible experience for them.
Once they showed up, so did everyone they were connected to.
I call this technique “Niche Church”
The idea is when you niche down to your perfect ideal student you are able to create events, or programs they actually want to attend.
The added benefit is, marketing becomes much easier for two reasons.
They actually want what you are offering, because your offer fills a deeply felt need of theirs.
Once you have clearly defined your ideal perfect student, it becomes much easier to speak their language and hit all the right buttons in your marketing.
Okay I get that the idea of focusing on one type of student freaks people out.
It feels like a betrayal to all the other students in the world.
But as I mentioned in my story, we ended up reaching pretty much every category of student in our community.
We focused on the skate kids, but turns out they are people, and connected to other people, and surprise surprise. People attract other people.
Opening day rolled around and we had 27 students show up.
I was ecstatic. My life had been about hitting my goal of 10 students showing up to a mid week service at one time. Now I had almost three times that number.
After a few weeks it reached as many 35 students a week. It even continued to grow once I had left.
Last I heard it topped out between 40-50 students and I wasn’t even there anymore. The whole thing was being ran by volunteers.
It had such a positive impact on the community, the town offered to pay for a professional skate park to be built on church grounds.
Now I know what you are thinking.
“Numbers don’t automatically mean success. True success comes from how many students you disciple, not just attend.”
I 100% agree with you, and my experience has taught me a very important lesson.
You can’t disciple students who don’t show up.
That’s why I have been so obsessed with reaching new students.
They need Jesus.
Sometimes we have to venture outside of our comfort zones and be willing to be used however God leads us. Even if that means doing things differently than they have been done in the past.
Jared Elrod is a Youth Pastor, Online Marketer, and part time YouTube video maker. He has been involved in youth ministry full time since 2009, and spends most of his free time studying the latest trends in both youth ministry and Online marketing so he can try out what works best (and what completely flops) then writes about it at Youth Factor.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.