COVID19 forces youth ministry change overnight


So, things happened very quickly with the lockdown. Only a week before, we spent quite a bit of time talking about contingency and ‘worst case’ scenarios with how to go about running youth with a reduced capacity in being able to meet and potential reduction in leaders. It turns out that all of that was completely pointless in the end because things moved much faster than we had imagined. Complete lockdown of non-essential gatherings, quickly followed by instruction to ‘stay at home’. So, here we are and have been for many weeks (updated: months!).

New concerns

All of a sudden, some of our usual hot topic youth issues have had to temporarily give way to the now disproportionately HUGE issue of lack of stable WIFI – which we cannot do anything about. The reality of digital poverty has never been more visible and important – particularly in youth ministry which, for the most part is reliant on online platforms and Zoom gatherings. Ok, so there is some potential on young people ‘dialling in’ with their free minutes (if they have that) but it’s not ideal for anything visual. It’s also not ideal from a point of view of seeing others in the virtual room which is more or less the whole point.

What we’re doing that’s the same

Our weekly rhythm of Friday night youth (yes, we’re still rocking that in our rural setting!) and Sunday morning youth group quickly needed translating online. Except we were largely without a translator! Big clap for all those tech geniuses who have been escalated to rockstars in our churches because without them, we’d be in a very dark (digitally speaking) place right now.

Like everyone else, youth in coronavirus times now consists of a slightly different weekly rhythm, while hopefully maintaining at least some of our core purposes.

Our loud, high-energy Friday nights are now low-energy but still pretty loud and chaotic over Zoom. Football and table tennis have been upstaged by weekly ‘Taskmaster’ challenges which youth video themselves in the week and attempts at a large group game.

Sundays are now Instagram Live straight after our main all-age church service. Mini games reign, with a short devotional which is now impersonating a Sunday group discussion. It draws maybe a quarter of the Friday audience but early signs suggest that for the small group who do engage, they get something out of this. We will keep a close eye on this going forward.

What we’re doing that’s new

And then all hail the unprecedented change to the weekly youth calendar – brand new for lockdown – small group Tuesdays. Small groups has been something that we’ve SO wanted to put in place for a long time, but struggled with many issues around it.

To name a few of these issues:

  • Location. We are in a rural setting, so VERY geographically spread out for mid week meetings to be viable;
  • availability of leaders (related to the first);
  • Time. It so happens that we we have lots of that now – and no one is going anywhere;
  • Competing with other extra-curricula activities and clubs. This would be a nightmare to navigate and difficult to pick a workable day for even a majority of young people.

Interestingly, early signs seem to suggest that girls tend to take to this new addition slightly better than boys. Perhaps it’s because there are more activities doable online that those in our girl group particularly enjoy. Things we’ve tried so far include baking, some group exercise, hair styling and mini games.

It certainly seems as though our local schools have less online interaction than other areas so perhaps they’re enjoying some extra opportunity to connect. This is what we’re observing so far in our setting, but it’s still early days.

How we’ve found it

Friday fun and games with video challenges have been the winner so far but we still think there’s value in continuing on with the rest of the activities online at the moment. We recognise that small groups need time to development and get passed the ‘awkward stage’.

One difficulty that needs a bit more thought and overcoming, is the lack of depth in teaching and group discussion. Some of this is down to the limits of not being ‘in the room’. We notice that our young people are great multitaskers. That’s the nice way to put it, but what we really mean is that some tend to carry on with their online gaming throughout sessions or get a little distracted with other things going on in the house.

To be fair to them, these are extraordinary times and they are doing remarkably well in the grande scheme. So, we’ll give them a bit of a break! Our hope is that once the dust has settled and the young people find their own rhythm with youth online, there will be more potential.

Surely, in the short-term, retaining a sense of community and togetherness is the primary objective, anyway. Would you agree?

When lockdown ends

Are there things that we’ll take away from this in a positive way? Will youth always look the same? Perhaps not.

One thing we have definitely learned, though, is the huge potential we have with online meet-ups in a relatively rural church (at best a small town) that is massively geographically scattered. We can thank the lockdown for ‘forcing the issue’ on small groups and we envisage that at least some online interactivity might well take a permanent place on a more permanent basis in our local youth ministry in the months and years to come.

Interested in reading more about young people and being online? Find out a bit more about online activities in young people in the UK with our post ‘Best Face Forward‘.

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