One Size Does Not Fit All: The Importance of Targeted Programming

Youth Specialties
August 11th, 2016

We’re excited to have Duffy Robbins as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations he’ll be navigating in his seminars. Check out more information HERE

Jake’s Story

Jake showed up for Sunday night youth group prepared to lead the group in a program that consisted of a snack, a brief game or ice-breaker, some worship time and a short Bible study with small group discussion (can you say, “innovation”?). And had all of the students in attendance that night been “regulars” – church kids who kind of knew the youth group drill, or at least basic Church Etiquette 101, Jake might have been okay. Or, if his group had included mostly kids who were genuinely hungry to grow deeper in their walk with Christ, that probably would have been fine too.

But, after only a few minutes of worship, it was clear that there were a group of students attending that night who had no intention of owning Jake’s agenda. Two girls, who came to youth group off and on (mostly to get out of the house), had invited two of their guy friends from school (who had apparently come mostly to get in good with the girls).

It started off as a minor annoyance for Jake. They were in the back of the room, texting each other and laughing about the messages that had been sent. But as he got into his Bible study, the disruptions and discipline problems grew worse. The laughter had become louder, the group became more disruptive, and one of the visiting guys demonstrated to the others his keen wit and sense of daring by tapping the shoulder of the guy in front of him and playing, “Who me; I didn’t touch you?”; which the touch-ee began to find bothersome, which made the touch-er all the more eager to keep up the game.

Jake didn’t want to ask these students to leave – after all, these were the very students he and his team wanted to reach.  On the other hand, for the students who wanted to be engaged in the study, who were actually eager to learn and participate in what was going on, the disruptions were becoming more and more of a nuisance.

After several friendly and not-so-friendly pleas for the two girls and their friends to settle down, Jake reasoned that maybe he needed to change his tactics a bit. He decided that he would recast his study to make it something more suited to his visitors, who were probably unchurched and, understandably, not exactly rabid for biblical truth. He reasoned that, at least,  if the more committed students were bored,they would be bored politely without hasseling anybody! He was concerned that if he continued to bore the crowd in the back of the room, they might begin taking hostages.

So, he decided to dumb down the study, making it shorter and more shallow than he had planned. It wouldn’t be as meaty as he had hoped, but what was the point of serving “meat” when several kids in the room, at least spiritually, seemed not to be carnivores? By the time he was nearing the end of the study, he decided to cut the discussion time altogether.

The evening finally ended, but it wasn’t a very satisfying night. Jake certainly didn’t feel he ever connected with the girls and their guy friends, and the students who had actually come to dig into the Word left feeling frustrated and unchallenged. Jake left the meeting that night feeling discouraged and disheartened. He had just wasted a night trying unsuccessfully to entertain one group of students, and, in the process, he missed the opportunity to nurture another group of students.

And, what he had demonstrated in vivid color was a basic axiom of youth ministry:

[bctt tweet=”Activity doesn’t necessarily yield productivity.” username=”ys_scoop”]

Just because teenagers are in the room, doesn’t mean effective youth ministry is taking place.

If You Aim At Nothing

We’ve probably all heard the old expression: “if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time”. And yet, one of the most common paradigms of youth ministry programming is the once a week meeting – Wednesday night/Friday night/Sunday night (pick your night) – for which we try to gather the largest possible number of students in one place for ninety minutes. It’s understandable: we all want to reach the maximum number of students, and most us sense that the chief metric by which folks evaluate our ministries is precisely: how many kids were in the room? The problem with this approach to programming is that typically it lacks any real intentionality, any attempt to target particular programs for students who are at varied levels of commitment. And if you aim at nothing, you’ll usually hit it.

One simple way to sum up this idea is to think of it in terms of what I call the No Target-Low Aim Principle: When a particular program (Sunday night youth group, Sunday school, Wednesday night, the Fall Retreat, etc) has no intended target group, the tendency is to program for the lowest common denominator of spiritual commitment.

In other words, if there are students in the room who are mostly or completely disinterested, most youthworkers, out of necessity, will work harder to engage those students than they will to engage the students who really want to learn. You have to, because the committed kids will be bored politely. So, we tend to consistently dumb down our programming to the level of the least committed students in the room. We end up cultivating wide programs that lack depth, youth groups that are really active, but not very productive. As disciples of Jesus we’re called “…to go and bear fruit…fruit that will last” (John 15: 16) . That means our focus should always be on productivity. Activity certainly has it’s place, but only as the servant of productivity.

The writer of Hebrews (5:12,13) implies that people at different stages of spiritual maturity require different types of spiritual nutrition (i.e. programming). And what we see clearly in both the ministries of Jesus (cf John 16: 12; Mt 13:5-8) and Paul (1 Corinthians 3:2) is that they each took these variables seriously. That sort of suggests it might be something we’ll want to consider.

What that means in practical terms is this: if we really want to engage the students who want to go deeper with Christ, we need to do that in a program space where the least committed students are not in the room. Or, if we truly want to target the kids who don’t know Christ, we need to create a programming space that is crafted and suited for that unique audience, and we need to do that without worrying that maybe the more mature students in our group “won’t be challenged”. Trying to facilitate those kinds of intentional programming opportunities for different levels of commitment is what we mean by targeted programming.

Targeted programming is an approach to ministry that takes that seriously two key questions:

  1. Who are we trying to reach with this program? i.e. what level of spiritual maturity?
  2. How can we create a unique program opportunity that brings those specific students into our space, and how can we minister to them in a way that meets their unique needs?

Why are those two questions so important? Because if we try to meet the needs of everybody withevery program, it’s pretty likely we won’t meet the unique needs of anybody with any program. Targeted programming isn’t about providing less care or concern  for students whose commitments are shallow; it’s about giving adequate care and concern to those students who want to go deeper…and those who don’t (yet).

Programming should be designed and branded in such a way that both leaders and students understand what level of programming is on the menu. This can be addressed:

  • In the way events and activities are publicized to students;
  • By building requirements into certain upper-level programs so that less-mature students will exempt themselves from involvement.
  • By making the students aware of these various levels of commitment, and explaining that every program, every activity has an intention.
  • “Guys, we’re not just having youth group to be active (i.e. to keep delinquents like you off the streets, off drugs and un-pregnant); we’re trying to be productive (i.e. to change, by the power of God, delinquents like you into world-changers, just like He did with delinquents like us!). Jesus gave us a mission to fulfill, and we’re trying to embrace it!”
  • Parents should also certainly be a part of this discussion at some point. They need to understand these ideas as well. If I’m speaking with a Mom or Dad whose  son or daughter is still at a very early level of spiritual maturity, but they’re eager to get them involved in youth group, I would be totally comfortable advising them that Activity A is an activity for more committed kids, and that they would be better advised to encourage their teen to attend Activity B.

This is a critical point, and we can’t afford to miss it: targeted programming is not about the youth leader telling a student that they are not suited to a program. It is designing the program intentionally in such a way that only students to whom it is targeted will want to be there. Having said that, if a spiritually immature student comes to an activity targeted for deeper growth, and they become disruptive, the youth leader must assume the responsibility of (a) not allowing that student to deter the growth of other students, and (b) not catering to that lower common spiritual denominator. That may mean having less students in the room, but, again, we’re not aiming for wider; we’re aiming for deeper.

[bctt tweet=”Programming for spiritual growth is not one size fits all.” username=”ys_scoop”]

Intentional programming will design an event, activity, weekend retreat or lesson with a specific intention for a particular target group, and then, will work hard to make certain that those intentions are fulfilled in those students who attend.

For more information on targeted programming, see Building a Youth Ministry to Build Disciples, Duffy Robbins, Zondervan (2012)

Duffy.Robbins.2015-minDr. Duffy Robbins, professor of youth ministry at Eastern University, is a youth ministry veteran with more than 40 years of experience. He speaks around the world to teenagers and people who care about teenagers. Duffy serves as a teaching pastor at Faithbridge Church, and his conversational style has made him a popular speaker. He’s the author of numerous books, including his latest, Building a Youth Ministry That Builds Disciples.


Youth Specialties

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.