The Performance Factor of Preteen Ministry

by Sean Sweet

Every Sunday morning and (for many) every Wednesday evening, we are putting together and carrying out a plan, and we call it “SERVICE” or “WORSHIP”.

Does it ever feel to you more like a performance than a service, though?

It does to me sometimes.

We have a script.

We have cues.

We have lights and microphones and other technical aspects.

We have time constraints. (“The parents are coming. The parents are coming.”)

We have a great object lesson, so there are mechanics to carrying out the illustration.

There are props that have to be put in the right space on the stage.

We might even rehearse, ahead of time, aspects of the service so they come off flawlessly.

All of a sudden, the volunteers become actors in our little production, and the preteens we are suppose to be ministering to become an audience.

Today I’m asking two questions about this whole thing:

  1. Is it a bad thing for services to have a performance aspect to them?
  2. What safeguards do we need in place so that our services are actually serving, and not just entertaining?

I don’t claim to have all the answers on this. But I’m asking the question, and sharing my thoughts about this. Please use the comment section below to share your thoughts as well.

Question 1: Is it a bad thing for services to have a performance aspect to them?

I remember a few years back hearing Aaron Reynolds speak at a preteen leaders’ conference. He spoke about the role of creative arts in delivering our messages. The main jest was that a creative element in service can either support and lift up a message so that it’s easier to see, or the creative element can crush the message so that the message becomes lost and/or hidden.

Of course, our goal in using creative elements in service should be to hold up and “illuminate” the message.

The same thing can be said for using words in a service. The same things can be said for using props and lights and schedules and all the things that can make our services start to feel like a performance. These elements can help to hold up and illuminate the message, or they can overpower the message and make it convoluted.

Are we really doing our best to powerfully deliver a message to preteens if we don’t employ the things and people that are available to us? I don’t think so.

When we ask a volunteer to put on a costume and do a skit THAT HELPS CONVEY THE MESSAGE, we aren’t necessarily “reducing” this human being to an actor in our little production. We may giving this volunteer an opportunity to be used by God to deliver his Word in a way that is meaningful to preteens.

God doesn’t speak to us through nothing. He uses words, and creation, and a person named Jesus. God tells King Solomon in Exodus 17:14: “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua.” Isn’t this God telling King Solomon to write a script and then perform it in front of an audience?

Jesus’ dying on a Cross isn’t something that we typically think of as a performance, but it was planned before the creation of the world (see 1 Peter 1:20).

When Jesus was on Earth, he used props (bread and wine, for instance). And he did it to hold up and illuminate the spiritual truth he was conveying. The whole last supper was a bit of a production, with technical aspects that had to be worked out (“Who’s washing the feet?”, “Where’s everybody going to sit?”, “Who’s serving the food?”).

The technical and performance aspects of our services aren’t something we should strive to eliminate. They aren’t the real problem; not if they are helping to deliver a message in a way that makes it more accessible to our preteens.

The real problem for me is when those same aspects which are suppose to be helping me to deliver a message become something that distances me as a human being from the other human beings in the room. When my mind is so consumed with the technical that I forget the humanity. When I’m only half-way listening to a preteen who is asking for prayer because I’m looking out of the corner of our eye at the countdown clock on the screen, and then I race through the interaction with the preteen so we can “get in place” before the next “act” begins.

We need safeguards in our services and in our approach to ministry so that our “performance” remains subservient to and supportive of the message and care aspects of our ministry.

Question 2. What safeguards do we need in place so that our services are actually serving, and not just entertaining?

Here are 4 safeguards to make sure that we don’t leave a service feeling like it was just another production:

#1 – Help your leaders to know “what’s serving what” in your ministry.

One of the biggest things we can do in ministry is to help our teams (and remind ourselves) what the purpose of the services is. If I am a small group leader in your ministry, and I know that the main point of the Wednesday night service is for preteens to personally connect with what God is revealing to them, then I won’t rush a powerful conversation that my group is having just to be back when the countdown hits zero. I will know “what’s serving what”. I’ll know that the small group time is serving the purpose of connecting preteens to what God is revealing to them. I’ll know that the countdown is serving the purpose of connecting preteens to what God is revealing to them. I’ll know that every aspect of the service is serving the purpose of connecting preteens to what God is revealing to them.

#2 – Pray for the preteens you are serving.

Before each message, I have found it a really good practice to think about how the service might affect individuals in the ministry. Last Wednesday, for instance, as I was thinking through the message about 2 hours before the service began, I considered individual students in the ministry and how this particular message might have application to their lives. One student stood out to me – that this message would hit them in a particularly strong way. I texted his mom and let her know that I thought God might have something really special in store for her son through the message. She was actually not planning on coming to church that evening, but ended up bringing him specifically for the purpose of hearing the message. When I pray for the intersection of the message I have prepared and the preteens that are coming, it changes everything. Then, when I’m doing the object lessons, and going through the script, it’s not a performance – it’s actually a service.

#3 – Simplify the Small Group Leaders’ Role.

If your small group leaders can just show up and be present with the preteens, I think that’s a really good thing. Sure, they’ll have discussions to lead and pre-service activities to run, but the message I want to send to my small group leaders is this: “The most important thing for you to do in this service is to be present with and aware of the preteens.” One of the things that leave a bad taste in my mouth is those times when I’ve seen a small group leader with a piece of paper in front of their face that has one…two…three things they have to do in their small group time. There’s nothing wrong with having a plan, but if the paper is getting more attention that the preteens, there’s a problem. If the plan requires so much attention from small group leaders that they have very little attention left to give the preteens, something is wrong. Keep the small group leaders’ role SIMPLE.

#4 – Don’t go for perfection.

At some point, you have to move from “preparation mode” into “being present with the people mode”. We have hours and hours in the week that we can put toward cutting circles out of cardstock, or into tweaking a picture so that it looks good on the screen. At some point, like when the leaders start showing up, we need to say, “It’s good enough.” Your service elements can ALWAYS be made better. You can ALWAYS be in the mode of thinking “How can I make service better?” But at some point, we need to turn off that way of thinking, and realize the way we can make service better is by being present and available.

So…those are my thoughts. But I’d love to hear your answers to these questions as well:

  • Is it a bad thing for services to have a performance aspect to them?
  • What safeguards do we need in place so that are services are actually serving, and not just entertaining?

Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Sean Pic 2Sean Sweet is the Community Facilitator for FourFiveSix.org, and is dedicated to raising the value of your ministry to preteens.

Check out FourFiveSix’s Preteen Ministry Leader’s Online Conference coming in April.

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