Designing Youth-Friendly Spaces
More than a decade ago, I wrote a book entitled Meeting-Space Ideas for Youth Ministry (Group). It was a title that took me across the country to compile the best architectural and interior concepts that congregations were utilizing for youth ministry. And, although that was years ago, I still enjoy discovering the best and latest ideas for building use. There are, in fact, some unique youth rooms and multi-purpose spaces to be had—and some of the newest ideas explore some revolutionary themes.
Rooms—like fashion and food and travel—all have their own language and expressions. And when it comes to youth ministry, a space can say far more than “welcome” or “fun.” In fact, a great youth room is more like a work of art—but with theological overtones—and some of the best ideas can be universally applied.
Take, for example, these over-arching themes and how they can be applied to your space—regardless of your congregation’s size or budget.
One of the most common features I see in youth ministry spaces is clutter. And clutter is not good. Sure, today’s teens are used to a fast-paced, fuel-injected lifestyle. Commercials use images for only a few micro-seconds at a time; music pops frequent images and sounds; and everything visual moves quickly to capture the limited attention-span of the average teen. The message that marketers preach time and again is: get their attention quickly and frequently.
But when it comes to youth space, the best ones employ an “open” and uncluttered concept for deeper impact. Youth rooms that are littered with posters, bulletin boards, and outdated images and ideas won’t gain anyone’s attention. In many congregations, the central idea seems to be one of mass communication—by which I mean not communicating to the masses but trying to communicate massive amounts of information. In actuality, an overburdened wall or hallway all but ensures that the most important messages will be lost in the hailstorm of secondary messages and outdated fliers.
The best youth spaces employ an open concept, with plenty of space for youth to assemble and enjoy. Over-creation by adults all but ensures that teens won’t find the space comfortable or welcoming. In fact, they may find the space over-indulgent.
If your space is littered, make it larger by doing some spring cleaning. Give the place a fresh coat of paint (forget the 1970s graffiti motif—it’s passé), and get rid of any furniture that says “mom’s basement.” If the ceiling looks old, try painting it black—as black gives a space a larger feel and also hides duct work, electrical and other basic components from the room.
Congregations that create this open concept will be surprised at how quickly teenagers will fill it with their own ideas. But a few tools might help.
Today’s teenagers are tech-savvy. If you are going to add any furniture to a youth space, make it tech. A large, flat screen TV works wonders. Or a game system. Or add a lighting system that can be utilized for a stage show, a band, or for an ambiance devotion. Think speakers and a dock for mp3 players. Think computers and wi-fi.
Youth spaces don’t have to be littered with screens or wires to be effective, but even a little tech can transform an otherwise drab area into a place that teenagers will want to inhabit. To teenagers, tech is a tool as well as entertainment. Buy into your teenagers by buying something basic tech.
When all else fails, or if your budget won’t allow it, ask the teenagers for ideas. There will be one or two ideas that you will probably be able to implement on a shoestring.
Nearly all of the top youth spaces have recreational themes. On the higher end of the spectrum I’ve seen rock climbing walls, basketball courts, and fitness rooms. Or, at midlevel, spaces anchored by ping-pong tables and video-gaming consoles. And on the budget end, great youth rooms can be created around the themes of game nights and multi-purpose tables and benches filled with sports equipment.
Regardless of your profile or limitations, a youth room can still have a recreational feel. A room can be open, basic, and still say “fun”. Again, ask the teenagers to inject their own creativity and resourcefulness into the mix.
Visit a used-sporting equipment store, browse, and in no time you’ll have picked up a dozen ideas for your youth room. You won’t have to spend big money to create a large impact. Kids will be eager to fill the space if it has an ambiance of fun.
Amazingly, all of the youth rooms I’ve seen that drip of recreation and energy also possess a subtle undercurrent of the sacred. There is a “feel” to a good youth room that underlies the presence of God—and youth understand this.
In one youth room, for example, I noted two pool tables and two open rooms lined with books and CDs (recent, popular fare) along with prayer invitations, charts for mission projects, and circles of chairs. The language of the space was both fun and inviting, and it was obvious that the teenagers were involved in a lot more than games of 9-ball.
Youth spaces today must have this incarnational flair—where God can enter into the mundane and take on flesh-and-blood. Swing too far to the obvious and kids will be turned off by the in-your-face décor . . . swing too far toward Disney World and kids won’t be able to discover God through their friendships. It’s a fine line—but one worth walking if we truly want to reach this younger generation.
In the end, what’s important in a youth room is integrity. The room truly has to be an open and inviting space where teenagers will want to hang out—and where they can buy-in to the messages expressed there. Anything less is just a space. And if we don’t want to get lost in space, we have to create it anew for each generation.