If you are a youth minister, odds are you have had to do a lock-in. Maybe just hearing that word makes your stomach feel sick as if you just stayed up all night drinking soda. Youth love them though, but is that enough to make up for losing a Saturday trying to catch up on sleep? Which is why this week we as ourselves….
“Lock-Ins: Why do them?”
Carol Harston has served as Minister to Youth at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, since 2007. Born and raised at Highland, Carol has found the joy of caring for youth in the same community that shaped her as a young person. Outside of youth ministry, Carol has her hands full as a mom to James (4 years old) and Collier (21 months old) and wife to Drew (orthopedic surgery resident and faithful youth volunteer).
The days before Christmas bring about my annual tradition of texting youth, sending last minute emails, adjusting numbers, and wondering why I ever agreed to host again another Lock-In. Every year that passes, my youthful stay-up-all-night spirit seems nowhere to be found. When the evening finally comes, youth pour into our doors. Every one of our youth is there and they have each brought one or two friends. The building swarms with teenagers and I remember why our lock-in is an annual tradition.
Highland’s tradition is to host a Winter Lock-In every year on the last day of school before winter break. The anticipation of weeks without class, mornings to sleep in, and Christmas celebrations is almost too much for the youth to contain. It spills out throughout the building late into the evening. Some walk in with the awe that they have not only permission to stay up all night but that it is encouraged. Some walk in exhausted with a sense of relief after surviving a week of final exams. Some walk in with memories of last year’s Lock-In still fresh in their mind. Some walk in hesitant because this is their first time entering a church and they are curious to know how a diverse group gets along and why adults care to get to know them.
The evening is possible because of the few brave adult volunteers and the large amounts of youth group alumni that reunite at the Lock-In. The alumni catch up while also reliving their glory days of youth group. They talk about college major decisions and future career plans while leading games. They share about new relationships and talk about old ones while serving late-night Bagel Bites. The Winter Lock-In is a reunion that breaks down the boundaries of age and grade and allows us all to be one body together for that one night.
The church building is transformed into a holy house of play. Every nook and cranny is filled to the brim with joy, friendship, excitement, and community. The night begins with free time where youth cluster up in groups and roam the halls expectantly as if the Lock-In is our own version of Night at the Museum where church symbols and church ladies might just come alive and jump in front of them. Then we gather everyone for the “Opening Ceremonies” of our “Lock-Olympics.” Teams are formed, identities created, and games begun. Youth are integrated young and old to build relationships through shared memories of insanity. Sixth grader and senior run hand-in-hand through an obstacle course. Seventh grader and junior struggle to identify Christmas carols. A surprise murder mystery scavenger hunt sends youth all over the building on the lookout for clues to uncover who, how, and when a murder happened. Underground Church allows the church building to turn into the greatest playground of all time.
In the final hours, the high schoolers pass out after sharing deep conversations and deep laughter. A few middle schoolers can’t stop running through the building laughing and playing games indecipherable to anyone else. A game of four-square crops up and youth and adults of all ages becomes competitive and silly all at once.
Lock-Ins are hard work. They are long hours and building directors’ nightmares. And yet, they are the greatest opportunity we have to fling open the doors and welcome friends in to witness the Body of Christ that is our youth group. I often see it in the eyes of the friends as the night goes on – who is this group? What is this bond they share? How I wished I had a group like this in my life!
Lock-Ins are our invitation to live out our life together and welcome others to “come and see.” It is our hope that each visitor might find not only a fun event at church but ultimately belonging as one who is known and called beloved by the Body of Christ.
Tim Schindler serves as the Associate Pastor of Youth and Ministry Development at Georgetown Baptist Church in Georgetown, Kentucky where he lives with his wife and four awesome kids. He studied at the University of Kentucky and Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY and has been in youth ministry for 17 years, with the last eight at GBC. In addition to student ministry, Tim also leads the church’s contemporary worship music. Follow him on Twitter @timschindler.
I hate lock-ins. They are a pain in the butt to plan. They are even worse to clean up after. It’s hard to find good volunteers for the dead of night shifts. Our church space is conducive to neither good supervision nor extra large group activities. And I’m old now and hurt the next day. (Last year I broke my finger at a lock-in.) But I still do them. So why subject myself to this kind of torture?
Kids love lock-ins. They get to be together. They get an event almost entirely planned around having fun. And they get to test the limits of caffeine, pizza consumption and sleep-deprivation, typically without the oversight of their own parents.
Because they love lock-ins, they show up. In addition to the regulars, I can always count on those students who only darken the door of the youth room about once every couple months to be there with bells on. It doesn’t even take promises of door prizes or raffles; they just come.
But the biggest reason I still do lock-ins is because students invite their friends to them. In a day when it seems harder and harder to find good ways to reach out to new or unchurched teenagers, the lock-in has been the biggest and easiest way to introduce myself, my youth ministry and my church to new students and parents.
I personally find it easier to fill my calendar with missions and retreats, but I have to be intentional to plan and create outreach events. Because even though I encourage my students to invite friends to weekly programming or “spiritual” activities, I know that it’s hard for a middle school or high school kid to invite their non-religious friends to church. However, most of them are happy to say, “I’m having an overnight party with 50 of my friends with all the food we can eat and all the games we can play. Want to come?”
Here’s the important part though: When I do have a lock-in, I’ve really got to leverage the event. I have to gather as much information that night as I can on all the guests. Other than basic data, this should also include any other church affiliation, who they came with, and how to connect with them on social media. I need to speak with them at the event, but additionally, even if it takes me a couple days to recover physically, I need to follow up and connect immediately afterward in a couple different ways. I usually contact them through social media and send a postcard in the mail thanking them for coming.
I also need to leverage my student leaders here. Explain to them that, in addition to the fun of the event, the lock-in really is intended to reach out to students who are new or are not currently active and help make them feel welcome. They need to be on the lookout for teenagers who may be ignored or overlooked and take the initiative to help them be engaged and included. It’s a real opportunity for growth for those core students in our groups, and I’ve been impressed at how seriously some of my kids have taken this assignment.
So do I add fifteen new students to our weekly youth ministry programs every time we have a lock-in? Nope… at least not yet I haven’t. But here is an example of what has happened: When tragedy struck and I showed up at the funeral of a young person in our community, I had enough of the beginnings of a relationship with a whole bunch of students that I was able to go around and give, not only lots of hugs, but also lots of offers of prayer. And I truly owe much of that privilege to the effects of those unpleasant lock-ins.