posted by Michael Raia
Here it is… one of the biggest questions in all of youth ministry: How do I create an appealing space for teens? There are many large churches that pay good money for their youth ministries to have brand new, state-of-the-art, top-notch youth centers. [If you belong to a church that is considering such a project, we would love to help you. The biggest piece of advice I can offer in preparation for that effort is COLLABORATE. If you are struggling to get buy-in for a dedicated youth center, partner with other ministry leaders who can benefit from the space when you aren't using it.] For all of the other churches that do not have a need to build any new space, or churches that simply can't afford it, this is usually a DIY project – making the best of what you already have – some more successful than others.
“In general, teens want to be in the same types of environments that many adults do.”
For the past few years I have been offering design consulting services to youth ministers and volunteers around the country who are looking for answers regarding their youth rooms and youth centers. It began with a video my friend, singer-songwriter and speaker Jackie François Angel, made after visiting a youth center I helped design at the church at which I was doing ministry at the time (pictured above). Over a decade of youth ministry and work with dozens of church clients made me realize that often the people most in need of design direction are the ones that have the fewest resources with which to pursue it, and they seldom get much say in suiting a physical environment to the ministry that happens within. Some youth ministers have a great eye for design, or have someone at their disposal who can help. For the rest, the youth room (if a church is blessed to have one) more often than not receives little design attention and quickly becomes an accumulation of ratty furniture, dated posters, and all of the other stuff that nobody else wanted. This room is the place where we expect our teens to actually want to come. Imagine if any business set themselves up this way!
Some youth room examples from our projects:
Granted, the Gospel itself is an appealing message and must be the core of every ministry effort; without content, the environment matters little. Clearly, effective ministry can be done in any setting, but that does not mean the physical environment is not important. Particularly in a world dominated by distractions that all vie for the little bandwidth teens have left for God after school, band, soccer, scouts, etc., we have to lead with beauty and relevance to the culture to establish a foothold for the message to take root. [It should be stated here that the ministry environment is created physically but also enhanced through intangibles that the people create, such as acceptance, community, inspiration, and love offered within.] In general I tell people that teens want to be in the same types of environments that many adults do: well-designed spaces like restaurants, coffee shops, music venues, and other places that are hip and trendy and full of action. You don't need to do anything new or inventive. Take a look around next time you are somewhere you really enjoy and ask yourself what it is that makes it an enjoyable environment. There are a handful of elements that make for a really successful place to gather, pray, study, recreate, etc. I have listed these with some practical DIY tips for renovating (and planning new) youth rooms below. These layers of design concepts will help you build a successful environment for your ministry.
1. CLEAR THE CLUTTER.
A youth room should not look like a storage closet. Figure out what really needs to be out on a regular basis and store the rest. If there is not an available closet, consider purchasing or building shelving or cabinets. Items that have been donated or accumulated over time that you aren't using are doing more harm than good because they send a message that is cluttered just like the room is cluttered. Each week return the room to what needs to be there, carefully returning the excess items to a more appropriate home. And if there are things you don't use, there are places that would probably gladly take them from you, such as the Salvation Army, Goodwill, or a local shelter or halfway house. Being a good steward and keeping only what you really need and use is a valuable lesson for the young people to whom you minister.
>> Know exactly what purpose everything in your room is serving and make sure it's essential!
2. PLAN THE SPACE.
Understand what activities you need to accommodate in the room. Is the room primarily for assemblies? For un-programmed lounging / hangout time? For small group meetings? All of the above? Know the amount of space you need and understand how those spaces need to work together. Planning a central cluster of sofas around a TV is a good lounge space that can easily become the focal point of a small stage for assemblies, with chairs added to the outside of the ring of furniture when needed. At other times, those additional chairs can be around the outside of the room for students to use at other times for chatting, studying, and playing games. Think of a room in terms of zones of space. The materials and furnishings need to serve the function of the zone to visually cue what is happening in each area. Draw a scale drawing of your room on grid paper or an inexpensive drafting software, and put in all of the items you already have and the ones you hope to buy. You can use tape to mark off spaces in the room to get a feel for scale as you determine how you want to configure your layout.
>> Draw plans of your room in advance and make sure they work well for your activities.
3. USE COLOR WISELY.
Paint is one of the cheapest and quickest ways to completely change the feel of a room. They have a lot of power to communicate – for better or for worse. Using crazy colors because they sharply contrast the beige aesthetic of a classroom doesn't necessarily get you any farther than just the beige classroom would. Poor color choices can look stale and out of touch. We definitely don't want to communicate that we are out of touch before we even get to say a thing! Classy colors abound in newly designed buildings. You can see them in magazines, catalogs, on tv, in stores and restaurants, and in places you visit. Look at places that are known to be trendy and cutting edge. Some colors work better than others. Snap a photo of anything you like and take it with you when you go buy paint. If you don't trust your own opinions in this area (or don't see colors all too well), ask a friend who you think has good taste. Better yet, ask some of your older teens what their favorite places to frequent are, then take a look at the interiors, and imitate. There may also be opportunities to add painted stripes, trim or other materials like sheet metal, wood slats, or even a painted breadboard wainscot (which does a great job of protecting the walls from chair abuse).
>> Pick a classy, dynamic color and figure out where you can use it to take the room out of the boring and sterile beige look.
4. LIGHTING MATTERS!
In addition to color, lighting is an extremely powerful way to change a room. Unfortunately, 9 out of 10 youth rooms are adapted classrooms that have the classic 2x4 white acoustic ceiling tile grid with fluorescent lights. Not exactly a fun, intimate setting! Fortunately, inexpensive floor lamps are a way to quickly improve the setting. Target and Walmart offer several that are around $20-25. You may be able to plug them all into a switched outlet, or put them on an extension cord with an on/off button like the kind they make for Christmas trees. If you want to go the extra step, you can have the fluorescent lights in the ceiling replaced, or you can add recessed can lights, which can be fit with incandescent or warmer colored LED bulbs (color temperature = 2700 K) to produce a much warmer, more living-room like setting. If the ceiling tiles are bothering you, you might be able to consider painting them. Keep in mind that this will negatively affect the acoustical properties (they won't absorb sound as well). Another approach is to cover them in dark fabric. That said, in combination with recessed can lights, a darker ceiling (not stark white) can quickly help a room take on the intimate feel of a nice coffeeshop or restaurant.
Don't forget about window coverings. Controlling the light in a room may be crucial for certain times of day or the year. Inexpensive 2" faux wood blinds are a great solution to cut down glare and add a little homeyness to a room. They can be found at home improvement stores for around $50-75 each and you can hang them yourself. An inexpensive curtain rod and curtains can also soften the room and give you the ability to completely black out the room if you want. Again, Target and Walmart are well-stocked with options.
>> Produce a dramatic change in atmosphere with simple changes of lighting!
5. FLOORING ISN'T BORING.
Great flooring can make or break a room. If the flooring is not something that can change, consider using rugs to change the aesthetic. If you can replace old carpet or vinyl composition tile (aka VCT, which is in almost every classroom across the country), consider wood-look vinyl planks, or carpet tile. These products are affordable, look great, and are both extremely durable and easy to install. In general, resilient (hard) flooring like concrete, vinyl, or tile, is good for heavy traffic areas and anywhere food is served. Carpet helps create a softer feel in areas that need more intimacy. Carpet tile is also a good option for larger rooms that need a quieter setting for assemblies – they are easy to clean and wear well over time. Lots of options are out there from dozens of carpet mills; visit a local flooring store and get some options. You'll see a lot of great flooring used in the places we have discussed; restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and even in newer public buildings like libraries and airports. If you see something you like, take a picture.
>> If there is an opportunity to replace a floor at the end of its lifespan, do some scouting homework on the best products for what you want to do in your youth space!
6. NO NASTY SEATS.
Get rid of the stuff that was around when you were a teen. It's gross and it's a quick way to communicate that you aren't concerned with the level of comfort that visitors will have in the room. Furniture will be one of the more costly additions to the room, but it is worth the cost. Many furniture stores offer great deals on basic leather, synthetic leather, and microfiber furniture that is durable and fashionable. See number 10 for some ideas on how to acquire some nice furniture. There are great deals from some manufacturers on chairs for assembly seating to replace the old rusty metal folding chairs that are covered in stickers. MityLite makes comfortable mesh chairs that either fold or stack, and are not much more expensive than the popular but uncomfortable and not-so-sightly metal folding chairs or stacking plastic chairs. In addition to helping the teens stay more focused by being more comfortable, an investment in seating really shows a commitment to providing a desirable atmosphere.
>> Invest in durable, comfortable seating that creates an inviting setting.
7. DÉCOR & MORE.
We've all seen the inspirational posters with bible verses on them. Some are decent, others not so great. Don't try too hard to preach with your décor. Beautiful, authentic art can have a much more desirable impact on the interior of a youth room than posters that teens might find cheesy or dated. You may find someone in your church whom you can commission to produce something fitting. (Be sure to vet their work first!) You may also be able to use your logo or graphic as a centerpiece on a feature wall. This could be stencil painted directly on the wall, or made from another material. Sign makers and laser / water jet companies offer some relatively affordable options in vinyl, metal, plastic, and even wood. Again, make sure whatever you do is beautiful. Seek help from a graphic designer you know or someone who works for a company that also makes the signs to avoid paying money for something bad that you did yourself. A blank wall that is painted a nice color will look better than a wall cluttered with kitschy posters.
>> Don't hang it on a wall unless it's necessary and/or beautiful!
8. BE SMART ABOUT TECHNOLOGY.
Technology is expensive. But it's also getting a lot cheaper. It can be a very effective tool to creating a "buzz" in a certain atmosphere and making certain activities more convenient. Sports bars often feel very alive when you walk in. There is a glow created by the screens, and there is a lot happening visually. However, there is also a way to lose your message with too much. Use technology in a way that supports the activities you incorporate, not in a way that is superfluous. Some ministries really need a lot of technology to pull of the ministry model they use. Others simply don't need it at all. Chances are that you don't need a dozen large flat screens to do good ministry. Using a moderate amount of technology well is the best policy, and using it smartly. But if there is an opportunity to use a TV to show content for talks, to show lyrics for songs, or to even display announcements and act as digital signage, it may be a good idea.
>> Plan the areas where technology can pack the most punch to liven a space and help save you time and effort!
9. BRAND IT.
If you have any skills at graphic design or have a friend or volunteer who does, use them! Good graphics, as advertisers have known for decades, are extremely powerful tools for visual communication. Teens enjoy a sense of belonging, so if your church has a logo or even a name for the ministry, incorporate it into your space to reinforce the message. If you don't have one, ask a graphic designer in the church or consider a design competition for the teens. It helps your teens form a unique identity upon which you can build foundations for a strong sense of community. Incorporating graphics into all displayed content (event flyers, lyrics, announcements, room signs, etc.) will create a cohesive look for the ministry, which clearly communicates an organized and unified vision.
>> Be intentional about what you produce and make sure it is of good quality that matches the vision you have for your ministry.
10. MAKE IT HAPPEN.
Many times, ministries are not equipped with the tools they desire simply because they don't ask. Talk to your pastor to see what the church can provide or budget. You may also be able to let a few parents know what you are doing and they may want to chip in to help. A great idea for a group fund raiser is a Trash or Treasure sale. Announce several weeks in advance that the youth ministry will be accepting goods that people want to donate for a public church garage sale. Accept the items for a week or two, keep any items you want, and sell the rest. You potentially get some good used items, cash for anything you want to buy new, and anything leftover can be given to another charitable organization. You get what you need, you build teamwork among the teens, you raise the profile of the ministry within the church, and you also get to do some social outreach. It's a win all around.
>> Be bold in asking for help to achieve your vision – people may be sitting on something of value to you and are just waiting for you to ask!
Good luck! If you have any more specific questions, please don't hesitate to contact us for help. Anything that we can address in the comments section may be helpful to others with similar questions / issues.
Michael is a speaker, musician, event coordinator, and consultant in the Central Texas area. He has been involved in the planning of multiple youth centers for ministries of all sizes. Feel free to send him an email here if you have any questions.