It started out with a simple livestream over YouTube, but Youth Group as we knew it, was about to change significantly. Several months ago, social distancing practices meant that we would no longer be able to safely run Youth Group on site from our church. We opted to use Zoom and an app designed for gaming called Discord—myself and fellow youth leaders at my church have been using these to run online youth groups that follow a similar structure to what we’d usually do on a Friday night.
Struggles of online
For those of you who might not know exactly what it looks like to be a youth leader, I’ll try to give a brief overview of the activities one might take part in on a Friday night throughout.
As a leader you genuinely want to spend time with the youth and just have some normal socialising time with them to see how they’re going with school, hobbies, etc. On a typical Friday night, we would organise games to play with the youth, but over Zoom we are somewhat limited in this regard. For us, games are associated with lots of running around and teamwork—examples include capture the flag, soccer, ‘rob the nest’, and honestly whatever other crazy idea either the leaders or youth may have.
The thing is, it’s hard to replicate the type of games we would usually play when meeting over zoom, and it can be difficult to find a balance of engaging all of the youth and using games that feel fresh. One game that has been a hit for us is an online game called skribbl.io, which is essentially a virtual Pictionary with up to 12 players (we usually have to break the group in half). The youth at my church love this game, but it’s a bit lazy on the leader’s part to play the same game each week.
Another difficulty is actually getting kids to come to youth group. I think there’s more incentive for teens to come to a physical place, catch up with their mates, play games with their friends and the leaders (who to an extent, should be their friends), and some of them even enjoy learning from the Bible! Quite remarkable really.
The need for social isolation changed this culture, a break from the normal routine that comes with the need to adapt to living online. I’m certain that anyone who’s had a few too many Zoom calls can understand how drained you can feel (or ‘Zoomed out’), it’s the same for kids. They’ve spent a great deal of time in online classes over the last few months, and by the time Friday night comes along it’s hard to keep them engaged, let alone motivated to join the Zoom call. As a leader, there’s not much we can do about kids not joining an online youth group, and it’s discouraging not having as many youths join as we would have come to church for ‘real life’ youth group. One week, we only had six kids – less kids than there were leaders! However, we don’t know how the night might have impacted the youth who joined, maybe for those six kids God worked in their hearts.
For us leaders, there’s also the added element of not seeing your fellow team and having to purely communicate online to plan for youth group. I personally find it more helpful to plan for and evaluate the night in person, so switching to online fellowship makes this difficult too. Additionally, the move to online Youth Group meant we had to come to terms with practicing safe ministry standards online, having to be more cautious about how we interact with youth and present ourselves online.
Joys of online
Thank the Lord it’s not all doom and gloom. Though it can be a struggle to do Youth Group online, it always had its challenges anyway. They simply present somewhat differently. Though when it comes to the joys of doing youth group, these moments aren’t that different to a typical Friday night. If anything, they’re more enhanced because of the separation from doing Youth Group through a screen.
Hanging out and playing games with youth is very important, but of course the main motive behind running a youth group is to read, talk about, and understand the Bible with young people. And we’re fortunate that we have the technology which allows us to continue doing this. We’ve still had Bible talks and discussion groups over Zoom, and although they suffer from the same lack of interaction and engagement that any video call has, it’s better than nothing.
Discord gave us a platform where we could have a public chat for all our youth and leaders to communicate on in a large forum, which also helps in accountability and maintaining safe ministry practices. Throughout the week a leader might send resources to the youth to get them thinking about the Bible content for the coming Friday, and it also just gives the kids a place to connect, message each other, and have a sense of community.
Blessed to serve
Colossians chapter 3 verses 23-23 is inspiring for people in a situation such as this, where it can be difficult or disheartening to do ministry:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians chapter 3 verses 23-24)
Sometimes it can be hard to lead in ministries, but we are blessed to be able to serve others, just as Jesus did. We need to work with all our heart, not just out of love for the people we are serving, but because we are also serving Christ at the same time.
I have the hope that the experience of doing Youth Group online will not be in vain. We intend to keep using Discord when we return to normal Youth Group to send the youth updates, resources, and prayer points throughout the week leading up to Friday night. Zoom calls and livestreams could also be a way to include people who might otherwise be sick on Friday nights.
If you’re a youth group leader who’s struggling with doing Youth Group online, just know that you’re not alone. It can be challenging, but it’s still a critical ministry. If I’m certain of anything, it’s that I’ll appreciate being able to serve at Youth Group a lot more when we go back to meeting in-person. However, youth may very well be needing interaction with their church leaders now more than ever before, and we’re blessed to still have the opportunity to do this even if it’s not the type of social interaction we’re used to in these situations.
Jackson Reid is a journalism student currently studying at University of Wollongong in Australia. He has been working casually at Pulse 94.1, a Christian radio station, for the last 5 years. He is particularly passionate about youth and kids ministry at church.