Several people emailed me asking to share some of my learnings from my visit out to Willow last week. Because Scott Rubin and his team were willing to 'pull back the curtain' and give us an insider's peek, I don't want to abuse that relationship by posting too much about them in a public setting. Believe me, everything I would post is good stuff...I don't think I've ever been around a group of youth ministers more in love with Jesus and students than the team at Willow. It's all good stuff...just stuff that Scott can post and share about on his blog (which doesn't exist). However, I will share a few observations.
- People in Illinois play a lot of darts. Seriously, every house we went to had a dart board and we always ended up playing. I think it's because they get locked inside for about 6 months a year and really have limited options. They play darts, but they don't play darts any better than the rest of us. I was partnered with Wes, their weekend program director, and we couldn't figure out how to lose. Really, we tried, but we just kept winning.
- The gift of hospitality is a huge deal. They let us follow them around for four days. We sat in on meetings, asked tons of questions, asked the same questions again, went to their homes for dinner and darts, went boating....and they NEVER made it seem like an inconvenience. But, of course, it was an inconvenience because in addition to running THREE weekend programs with over 1,000 students they played host to a bunch of out-of-towners all weekend.
- That whole Mentos and Diet Coke thing actually works. Well, sort of. One night, the High School team from Willow joined us in some junior high fun. We bought a whole bunch of diet coke and mentos and headed to the park. We tried just about every possible mentos/coke scenario and had a whole lot of laughs and a whole little amount of true success.
- It's all about volunteers. Okay, it's really all about students, but you can't minister to students alone. What popped out most to me was the caliber of volunteer leadership in their ministry. They don't just show up and do what they're told; instead they own huge chunks of the ministry and are equipped and empowered to make it happen. It really was awesome to see in action.
- Organization is your friend. This is an ongoing learning for me. I don't organize well. It has always seemed to me that organization gets in the way of ministry. The team at Willow is well organized. They think things through. They all know who does what, when and why. The result is a well organized, well lead ministry to young teens. Surprise, surprise!
- Jr. Highers are the same wherever you go. They look the same. They interact the same. They have the same attention spans. They have the same insecurities. I think a snapshot of Willow kids would look exactly like a snapshot of kids from your ministry or from mine. Except, of course, for that one dude with a mullet and skin-tight tank top (Really, Scott, the look doesn't work for you)!
- Jr. Highers aren't pre-programmed to be squirrely. Well, they probably are. But, they are capable of slowing down, paying attention and contributing to the meeting time. I really was blown away by how well engaged the entire crowd was. Sure, there were a few dipsticks in the crowd, but Scott's team has done something right in the way they build relationships and program in a way that keeps kids wanting to engage.
If you've never been given (or taken) the opportunity to visit another junior high ministry in action, I encourage you to do so. Find a church in your community that seems to be doing good junior high ministry and go take a visit. They may not treat you to a rousing game of darts, but they'll probably be happy to show you around.