Does Environment Matter?
Before my foot touched the ratty carpet of the Sunday school room, my skin began to crawl. The terrifyingly large dust bunny in the corner, an abridged-legged couch (propped by an unabridged dictionary), a sharpie-etched whiteboard, and a toppling pile of torn and mismatched Bibles framed a room in disgusting disarray.
Through the years I’ve been blessed to share faith in a variety of venues, including outdoor worship areas, gyms, choir rooms, locker rooms, classrooms, and under shade trees in the third world. Did environment matter for the central message of the gospel in those settings? No. Did the environment communicate a message? Yes.
When you meet with youth in their settings (schools, field, gyms, etc.), it communicates that faith matters and should be lived in their world. When you meet with youth in a Cheetos-encrusted dungeon, it communicates that they don’t matter.
When we teach within the walls of the church, the implied message of the environment is one of nurture and equipping. If forming disciples is done within the walls of the church, is it enough to love God and like kids and do our best in terms of where we meet?
The missional movement’s emphasis on moving gatherings out into the community is important and worthy of celebration, but we still must appropriately steward the environment within the walls of our church. The medium shapes and becomes the message.
This had become clear in my own setting: seventy youth trying to meet in a cramped, rectangle-shaped, cinderblock room with torn, yard-sale couches and mismatched, beat-up coffee tables. This did not communicate to our students that they were a priority—and our staff and parents soon realized it. We sold or disposed of the old stuff, and with paint and (moderately priced) furniture, we transformed the youth space into one they desired to be in and encounter God in.
- Did we need a climbing wall? No. We needed a space large enough to gather.
- Did we need a soda fountain? No. We needed somewhere to worship.
- Did we need a wall filled with gaming monitors? No. We needed matching Bibles.
- Did we need new presentation software? No. We needed a place to eat a snack/supper.
- Did we need staging and lighting? No. We needed clean, well-equipped classrooms where we could sit in circles and talk about Jesus.
It’s easy to get sucked into dreaming about the perfect youth space.
Ultimately what I wanted for our students was somewhere clean and well-lit that had comfortable seating and helpful teaching tools.
The environments we create for our youth communicate our value for who they are in the body of Christ.
In the same way, I think our environments might communicate that we don’t take our youth seriously.
Where is the line between what youth need and what we want in terms of communicating value for them?
Most churches struggle to strike a balance between opulence and practicality. Youth teams and churches need to pray about that balance, because it’s an important distinction. Just as your space can communicate lack of value, it can also communicate privilege—and that’s not a message you want to send either.
Here are some discernment questions I’ve found helpful:
- Is your youth space equivalent to the adult meeting space?
- How does your environment communicate value? Is it clean and well lit?
- How does your environment enhance the goals of your youth ministry?
- How does your environment allow for God to be glorified? Is it free from unnecessary distractions?
- How does your environment allow for personal connection? Is there room to sit in circles?
- How does your environment equip disciples? Are basic things like whiteboards, Bibles, or monitors available?
Before forwarding this post to your pastor or trustees, meet with your team and dream your dream for your space. Prioritize desired changes, and prepare a narrative of how each change will enhance your ability to make and shape disciples. Prepare also to raise funds for the improvements. Once the tentative plan is in place, seek approval.
I’ve found that plans to improve a youth space almost always are met with enthusiasm and at a pace surprisingly faster than I anticipated—but begin with a plan, nonetheless. Committees need and like plans, but you probably know that by now.
Youth ministry environments matter. What are yours communicating?
Tony Akers has been in ministry to youth and families in large and small churches for 25 years. He is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and just entered his 12th year serving as the Minister to Youth and Families at Trinity United Methodist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. Tony also serves as a youth ministry coach and writes fairly frequently at WWW.STUDENTMINISTRYSOLUTIONS.COM
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.