Face it. No matter how much you put into it, your church isn’t the most compelling place for older kids to hang out. You’re up against cell phones and text messaging, major media bombardment, the Wii, the pool or beach, the movie theater or live or live music venue, and a lot of other really fun places.
What do you have going for you? Take heart, you have a solid message—the very Word of God. And with today’s technology and marketing savvy, that is enough. According to the experts that Worship Facilities Magazine interviewed, kids want what you have to offer. They want the message. They want the place to hang around. They want the camaraderie. They want the high-tech equipment and games. They even want the guidance. But they’re unlikely to draw near to it without a certain balance between environment and amenities within your facility. Here’s how the experts say that church leaders today are attaining that balance.
Clean lines and customization are key
Some central trends are helping to stop busy kids in their tracks when they walk through the doors of a church. And when they stop, they tend to explore and stick around.
As Jonathan Martin, president of Tulsa, Okla.’s Jonathan Martin Creative Inc.—a company that designs and builds custom themed environments using murals and 3D art— reports, “A fun way to get a lot of visual impact is abstract design which can include a combination of clean lines, shapes and colors that dress up 3D theme pieces.”
Themed environment creator Reagan Hillier, president of Worlds of Wow in Argyle, Texas, is also finding that more is less in attracting today’s kids. “The Apple Store is themed with simple, clean design. It’s the perfect vehicle to attract customers and show them new products.”
Hillier adds, “I love going there because it’s a cool, fun space. We can accomplish the same thing at church by creating spaces where kids want to be. When they are engaged in the space around them, we have a better opportunity to reach their hearts.”
Much like the Apple Store experience, Hillier reports that Worlds of Wow is seeing, and helping create, a movement in church youth facility design that provides customization of activities in ministry. For example, “instead of just one event that all students attend,” he says, “some churches are providing multiple opportunities for learning, worship, volunteering and more.”
Hillier points to Cross Timbers Community Church in Argyle, Texas, as an example of a church whose youth facility encourages customization of experiences. According to Hillier, Cross Timbers’ family pastor, Andy Tilley, allows students to select their own individual experience each week. What’s his rationale in believing that individual customization helps get kids to stick with a youth program? “This generation has grown up customizing their experiences in every area of life, and that trend is emerging in our churches today.” In short, churches are learning to give youth the variety they experience in other areas of life—the variety of experience that they have grown up navigating and even expecting.
Customization of experience within the youth facility is also noted by Marcum Architects Associate Principal Bruce Mitchell. Marcum Architects is based in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and provides master planning, architecture and design services to churches.
Mitchell points out that separate worship space—worship spaces that are set up to cater to today’s students—are providing a non-traditional and appealing venue for student ministry. “[These venues] often include stage areas, assembly areas, sound booths and multimedia capabilities,” he says. “They provide a space for large group worship and teaching that is relevant and engaging for kids.”
And Mitchell adds, “This type of environment is just as important to kids today as stained glass, choirs, hymns and traditional preaching [can be] to older adults. Flexibility and adaptability is the key to designing this type of space, so it can serve different ministry needs.”
Technology is a magnet for teen millennials
What would make a teen’s eyes glaze over today? Put a teaching pastor in the center of a platform, with no professional lighting, video and audio, and ask a kid to sit for an hour and listen. Church leaders today know that this is not the way to compete with outside, engaging multimedia experiences. As Bill Chegwidden, FAIA and principal with Marietta, Ga.-based CDH Partners—an integrated design practice offering specialized architecture, interiors, engineering and planning services—puts it: “We find technology becoming more integrated into our youth spaces; our clients assume that technology will be integrated into their youth projects.”
Martin concurs that technology is here to stay, in many aspects of church functioning and communication—modeling the prevalence of technology use community-wide. “Churches now have computerized check-in stations, TVs in the hallways and classrooms, wireless Internet is available in cafes, and people are using iPhones to take notes.”
So when it comes to youth spaces—areas used by the most tech-savvy generation of all—Martin reports, “We incorporate computers, screens and any other technology into our theming. For example, [at Legacy Church in Albuquerque, N.M.,] we created 3D trees that house video game stations that kids could stand around and play. It tied into the atmosphere and allowed for functionality.”
Martin also says that his company has created church youth spaces with walls that light up with glowing graphics. “Pools of colored light on the walls and on the floor are all fun ways to add depth and interest. LED lights (PARs, neon and indirect) are taking over.” And he adds that many of these tech choices for youth areas get high marks in the area of energy conservation.
Sound effects, too, are tech elements being incorporated into engaging youth spaces at churches. “For example, if you are in a New York street scene [as part of a youth facility’s theming], you can hear the roar of traffic, horns honking, sirens blazing, people talking,” Martin says.
Mitchell finds that technology and the appropriate use of it in youth spaces actually helps kids absorb the message. “Technology is an integral part of kids’ lives today and can be used in a very powerful way to relate the message of the Gospel,” he says. “Jim Rayburn, the founder of Younglife, used to say, ‘It is a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ I think technology, when used properly and creatively, can help ministers and volunteers reach out and engage kids.”
What about adults and church leaders slow to see the benefits and importance of technology in helping to reach kids today? According to Todd R. Phillippi, principal with WPH Architects for Ministry in Penndel, Pa., the Holy Spirit may not speak to his teens’ hearts in the same way he gets the message best—through quiet and stillness. “While I may wish that [my teens] were not so techno-dependent, it is where they are at and I think we need to meet them there as a church, integrating the technology to get the Word across.”
The bottom line: get the teens coming steadily through the doors of your church and their parents will follow. As Hillier puts it, “Just like parents eat at McDonald’s because their young kids want to go there, many parents make decisions on where to attend church based on where their [older kids and teens] feel engaged.”