Space, the final frontier…

Sorry, couldn’t help myself. But seriously, space is an important component of your ministry – it’s a partner that can help or hinder how you and your team interact with your students as well as how they interact with each other. If you’re lucky, it has been intentionally designed and tailored to the needs of your students. Happily, this is becoming increasingly common, as most churches are moving away from the ‘stick the students somewhere they won’t bother us’ approach to dealing with the not-kids-not-quite-adults demographic. There was once a time when this was the norm, and there are a few ministries who are stuck with the sterile, former storage room/attic areas or encased in bare (or haphazardly painted) cinder block, adorned with leftover furniture in various stages of disrepair, lit by garish and unforgiving fluorescents (or a few sad incandescents reminiscent of the attic that used to exist in the space), finished by the thinnest and most threadbare of thin, industrial carpets or bare concrete floors – or in one case I’ve experienced, inexplicable actual bricks. Needless to say, the ‘used to be a craft room’ feel is less than conducive to effective ministry.
If your church has recently dropped a few million into your own personally tailored space replete with all the bells and whistles, and you’re one of those churches everyone references in hushed tones as ‘what could be’… there is a solid chance you have very little to gain from this feature other than an opportunity to scoff at my pedestrian ideas.
For our purposes, let’s assume dear reader, you are neither operating out of student ministry utopia nor a discarded shipping container. And like many of us, you are always on the prowl for ideas on how to make your students’ space more engaging, inviting, and for it to feel like a safe space for them to explore their faith.
Unlike the vast, unknowable reaches of the universe; your student area is probably a finite thing with very distinct boundaries and a defined shape. So we’ve taken some time to observe and survey, coming up with some ideas that will hopefully help you as you explore the next frontier (last space joke, I promise).
Everyone is somewhere on this spectrum…
I grew up participating in two different student ministries that were very clearly afterthoughts for their respective churches. This isn’t to say that the students themselves weren’t valued, but the student ministry areas were very clearly spaces that were mentioned in some committee meeting assembled around a “where do we put these kids?” theme. Again, this doesn’t mean that the churches didn’t care about their youth or youth ministry, but these areas just felt like afterthoughts. The space your students meet needs to have a distinct vibe for youth ministry in order for your students to be comfortable. They spend 5 days a week in classrooms built for teachers and worship Sundays in sanctuaries built for adults – their space needs to have a younger attitude.
The best way to begin this process is to make it clear this area is different – just like your youth.
A few really simple ways to do this. First: Paint. It sounds too simple, but if you don’t have much of a budget or you’re limited in your remodeling capacity – a coat of paint can give an area (or various rooms) a new feel. For the record, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy or Pinterest-worthy but it does have to be a different color. Make the change noticeable! Bonus points if you get your students involved in the painting, because every time they enter that space they’ll know, “I did this, this is my space.”

Creating a prominent focal wall in the youth room is simple and effective as well. Hang a t-shirt from each of your recent trips, rotate them out or add as you go. These are hanging on a fishing net (cheap at places like Michael’s) using clothespins. It’s a great way to add lots of colors and serves as a conversation starter when people ask about the different trips we’ve taken (especially true of youth visitors).

Next easiest way to set a mood or attitude for an area? Seating. What type of seating do you have available? And directly related to the type, how is your seating arranged? Do you have only industrial folding chairs or those Sunday school wooden ones (you know exactly the ones I mean)? If you’re stuck with those, consider arranging them differently for a more engaging space. Put your classroom/discussion areas in a circle so everyone has to look at each other… it’s scientifically proven (probably) that it’s more difficult to ignore folks when you’re facing everyone. In large group or presentation areas set them up theater style ahead of time to make sure it’s obvious what your expectations are. Bonus points if you have a crew or everyone help set up or take down. If you have other seating, or even better yet have someone to donate couches or comfy chairs, set those up in conversation/discussion areas to relax the mood. If you’re super chill you can set them up in large group areas, just know that 1) they will be fought over if there isn’t enough for everyone and 2) folks will straight up sleep through your lessons if they aren’t engaged… or are students. One caveat – if you have secluded or sectioned off areas that have doors that close or aren’t readily visible to people just walking by – maybe don’t have large comfy seating that fits more than one person without some guaranteed supervision. We’re talking about boy students and girl students who… well, they’re teenagers. Regardless, how everyone has to sit in different situations has a solid effect on how they approach the area. Here the space is divided into two main sections, one for meals and one for conversation and study. The space is pretty flexible too, as they can be shifted and arranged for various sized groups or turned for presentations or larger group worship times.

 

Lighting

There’s a reason TV makers inexplicably began adding LEDs to the back of screens not too long ago (do they still do that?). Lighting creates atmosphere. If you have all fluorescents or can-lights, or even if you have a sweet LED setup, all or nothing is a hard way to be. You have options, some more expensive than others but none of them super cheap. One option is to just add dimmer switches, this way when it’s time for serious mode; the lights go down to let everyone know. Or, you know, movie time without killing the lights completely. Another option is to create zones. How many and where depends on your space and what you want to do with them, but you can have different areas lit at appropriate times. If you have a stage, that’s a zone that can be lit exclusively when it’s showtime or something like that. Obviously, the combination of both allows for… well, a combination of options. From here we can go nuts with track lighting, color/gels, spotlights, so on and so forth. Lighting is an area that some people might have to have a ‘no person’ reign them in because it can get wild. Then again if that’s your thing do it do it.

Décor

Are your walls bare, or do they look like the refrigerator doors of proud parents? Either one may be a little too much (little?). Bare walls, no matter what color, feel sterile. Walls with your student’s creations are nice and pictures of previous activities and trips are great for reminiscing and mocking how students looked several years ago, but too much of that can feel like an overbearing parent that students are embarrassed to introduce to their friends. Balance, grasshopper. Enlist students to create specific decorations that go with your theme, or rotate their creations. Create a space for pictures of your youth that are refreshed every so often (command velcro strips with a standard pic size to interchange are fabulous!). If you have a theme, yearly or whatever, specific rotating decorations can be fun to find and potentially give away to seniors at the end of each year (or sell to the parents, have ceremonial burning, launch it into space, you get the idea).
Speaking of things that are bare… do you have a tile ceiling? Is it naked or full of pencils? Do you have obtrusive columns in the middle of your space? These suckers can be a perfect display for shirts as well. Pin the shirts around ceiling tiles to add color and a nice little timeline, or wrap your columns with swag from recent activities – or even

upcoming ones if you’re an über-planner (just remember to order an extra XL to sacrifice for activities/trips or you’ll have to use your own). And while we’re on T-shirts, if you find yourself with an overabundance of them (and an overabundance of funds) you no doubt know about the companies that will make T-shirt quilts, but did you know there are enterprising folks who will turn those jokers into a giant beanbag? It ain’t cheap but it’s super cool.

Presentation & Sound

If you are straight up old school and roll au naturel, good on you. If you can rock it without any augmentation then I am incredibly impressed and have nothing to offer you. For the rest of us mortals, we need this. If you’re a PowerPoint purist or like to throw down with pyrotechnics, you know that presentation and sound equipment and even software is pretty important to making things work. So you need something that will all work together. The first thing you need is a solid computer that can handle all this, preferably a dedicated one for your area. I’ve always run a mac, and I think everyone I know does too… but you do you. Spring for a decent HD projector, they aren’t as expensive as you’d think, and it’s totally worth it. As for software, ProPresenter is where it’s at for me. It’s like PowerPoint, but with a ton more control, the ability to import movies, use gifs in a slide, import an entire slideshow by dropping in jpegs, coordinating with song select to import lyrics, an iOS control app… yeah, I’m a fan. It’s not cheap, although you can get a site license, which will help if more folks are going to be using it. Mediashout, Proclaim, and Easyworship are decent as well, just check them out for your preference and price range.
As for sound equipment, if you want rock the building and scare the grandparents that can be done on a budget, just make sure your setup matches your needs, BUT – as you build out, plan to have more hookups for mics/instruments than you think you’ll need, have more (and louder) speakers than you think you’ll need, and have more range than you think you’ll need. Trust me on this.
Don’t think presentation has to be all digital though. Something as simple as whiteboards, note cards, or even those giant sticky notes provide interaction and engagement and invite your students to be creative during discussion time (bonus, most of them are magnetic!).
If you have a hangout space, it’s worth investing in a cable box and Blu-ray players are dirt cheap now – remember the HD projector? The lessons look good but being able to watch the game is a… game… changer.
One last thing in this area – get a subscription to Spotify. Customizable playlists are killer for all situations, but go for the premium because a commercial for corn flakes will ruin the mood during prayer stations.

Food!

We all know food draws students as well as it does ants. So if you have the space create a snack closet/bar. Let the students pick their favs and stock up for hangout time. Set times and limits otherwise you’ll be cleaned out constantly, but if you managing it well enough creates a space and time for great conversation and involvement and could be as simple as a countertop stocked with donuts and hot chocolate on Sundays
If you already have a kitchen, or you’re remodeling/dreaming and have that as an option, go for it. It amps up the benefits of the snack area, allowing for groups to provide fresh meals or hot snacks. I mean those bagel bites commercials can’t be wrong! But seriously the ability to have fresh food, even from a close by kitchen can engage and involve students on a new level.

Other areas

Whether it is the entry/exit to your space or peripheral rooms, maximizing unused space to create new areas can be surprisingly beneficial. On the other hand, clearing out cluttered spaces to create open spaces can be too… this isn’t a silver bullet deal; it’s the opportunity to change up an existing space to suit your needs.
Throw out some bean bags and hook up an old TV for a game station, add some tables and chairs for after-school homework space, find a second-hand ping-pong table, or even clear out the unused pool table and let the space breathe. I realize that promoting the use of extra space you don’t have can be particularly unhelpful. More often than not ministers don’t find themselves with extra ministry space, and the rare times we do it’s already allocated to something. But hey, this does happen, I assume.
You do have entryways and exits, maybe even gathering areas that are perfect places for announcement boards or even opportunities for expressive art that will draw people in and keep them informed… or at least give your group an opportunity to walk past announcements and not see them. Any office supply store will have clear plastic holders that will mount on any door or wall to slide any regular sheet of paper in to keep information fresh, and if you wanna go big sticky “blackboard” paper, or just plain butcher paper can be found for super cheap. For a more permanent option, blackboard and dry erase paint are pretty cool for a piece of reusable, eye-catching real estate on a wall.
Do you have designated spaces for your grades/groups? If you just have one room, don’t make special corners for each grade or something, don’t put your babies in the corner. If you have classrooms, Sunday school or otherwise, designate a grade or few, depending on availability, for each room and encourage them to own it (see painting & furniture sections above). Everyone wants a clubhouse and letting the students take ownership of their room, even just for a year, can help them feel at home and even encourage them to invite others.
If you’ve done this, or sort of done this, or had it done for you – create an understanding of permissions for these areas. Don’t, I repeat, DO NOT code/key different locks for the rooms. This is a lawsuit waiting to happen, but yes I have seen it done. Do give a group ownership and thus the ability to grant permissions for their room. It may be a formality that everyone ignores, but being able to allow access (or having access protected) to a room/area helps make a group more cohesive. Of course, there are issues that will arise such as “so and so won’t let me in…” but establishing the precedent will actually make groups more receptive to using the vampire rule* with each other as they get more comfortable.
*vampires cannot cross a threshold without being invited. Get it!?
Lastly, mostly because this is what we have the least amount of control over, what is your areas proximity to other areas, and how distinct is it from those areas? If it’s right next to the children’s wing and the only distinction is that its inhabitants are older, your students are going to feel like kids. If it’s right next to the seniors (not high school), you’re going to hear about everything that happens, good or bad, because they are paying attention. On the other end of the spectrum, if your group is shoved in a corner somewhere or in another building… the message (intentional or not) is that youth need to be hidden away where they won’t bother the rest of the church, neither seen nor heard. I know the percentage of you who have any say over where in the church a student area will be is crazy small, and even though I’ve just basically told you to move your space – I’m not telling you to move your space… unless you can. Just ask your team, your congregation: how intentional are you about the message the student space sends? If the youth are relegated to East Buddha, are they included and welcomed into other aspects of church life? Are they seen as active members of the congregation, or just as numbers people want to hear about?
That got deep there for a minute. But honestly that’s what our student spaces need to do – they should be areas in which our young people feel welcome, feel ownership and responsibility, and feel both comfortable and engaged as important members of the Church.
Well, that’s it. You may have just read these and now you’re feeling really good about your space. If that’s you, awesome. Hopefully, you’ve gained some inspiration or at least some ideas that will help you create a space to effectively minister to our students. Go get em.
Ok one last bonus, for like $30 it’s worth its weight in gold. Chargers. Get a phone charging dock/station (with various cables, everyone doesn’t have an iPhone). It helps take phones out of the picture and provides a service!