Get in the Game: A playbook for connecting with youth and their hobbies


By Sara Clarke

It’s that time of year when “pumpkin spice something” is everywhere, school is in full swing, and everyone looks forward to cooler weather. I love the fall season, but as a youth director I also dread it because it inevitably meant the youth I served were consumed with practices, games, and Homecoming. For years there has been an unspoken–and in some ministries a spoken–tension between youth group and extra curricular activities. Most ministries experience seasonal attendance dips depending on the culture and the teens’ interests.

In the church I served football season ruled all. I struggled to plan fall retreats and seasonal youth group events that would “fit” everyone’s busy fall schedules. There was always a big game or practice that couldn’t be missed, a weekend team building retreat or competition, or the time set aside for Sunday night youth group was “the only time” youth had to catch up on homework and relax. I fought this battle for years. No matter what I did differently or how creative I was with scheduling or planning, I fumbled. I was never going to win this game of catering to everyone’s wants and schedules, so I eventually shifted my focus and let go of the former traditions that no longer worked in our ministry.

Continuing to do things that way had perpetuated a disconnection between me and a large majority of the teens I served. I had to come up with a new game plan. Rather than fight the losing battle and complaining about low attendance, I found ways to connect with the youth through the hobbies that were quickly becoming a large part of their identities. That’s what we strive to do, right? We minister to teens and walk beside them as their spiritual and individual identities take shape. It doesn’t always have to be during a big youth event or retreat. We can connect with them where they are and show we care and support them, even when it’s not at church.

Below is a “playbook” I created to connect with the sports culture I served. These ideas are here for you to use if they work in your ministry context, and if not, hopefully they will help spark ideas on how you can connect with the teens you serve during their seasons of busy schedules and activities.

POWER PLAY- Intentional Prayer

Be in prayer for your teens throughout their practices/games/competitions. Prayer can be one of the most powerful ways we support the teens we serve.

  • Encourage your youth to pray for and/or with their teammates and coaches.
  • Challenge them to pray before practices/games for God to work through them; not just pray for a win.
  • Text youth a quick prayer before the game.
  • Walk and pray over the fields/courts/buses.
  • Pray for their coaches/leaders by name.
  • Post a game day Bible verse or prayer on social media.

DOUBLE TEAM- Connecting with Coaches

These adults are also making a huge impact in teen’s lives, so why not reach out and lend a supportive or helping hand? 

  • Introduce yourself to the coach. Tell them who you are and that you’d love to support them in any way they may need.
  • Send card/email of appreciation and encouragement for what they do. If you hear a teen talk about the impact of a game or experience, share that with them.
  • Ask if you can volunteer in any way on game days or during events.

ACTION PLAY-Being Present

It means a lot to youth and parents when you show up! It’s unrealistic to make every game, but try to attend at least one a season, spreading it throughout the year so you don’t get overwhelmed. 

  • Attend. You don’t have to stay the whole time, but make an appearance when you can.
  • Wear your support. I served two rival schools in my high school ministry and fused a red and purple t-shirt together to wear to the games and show my support for both teams. It was a HUGE hit!
  • Volunteer. Think chaperone, concession sales or ticket booths, helping unload band equipment, etc. Offer your help before, during, or after events where there may be a need.
  • Take pictures at the events to post on social media. You may not be able to see all your youth while there, but they’ll “like” seeing your posts.
  • Text post game words of encouragement or ask about how things went if you weren’t able to be there.

TEAM BUILDING- Connect with the Community

If there is a cultural trend that reaches beyond the walls of the schools and into the community, use it as an outreach opportunity to connect with the local community. 

  • Create relationships with surrounding churches and youth groups to partner and host post game events. The fall is a great time to have community bon fires!
  • Host pre-game tailgating events like a cookout. You can host them in your church parking lot or reach out to the local schools to see if you can host something on-site before a game. You may be able to work with businesses in the area to host a pre-game food truck event.
  • Show your appreciation to the volunteers and teachers by providing dinner or snacks for those that are working a game/event.
  • Volunteer to provide snacks or feed a team/club a meal before an event.
  • Pass out free water bottles or popsicles to those walking to an outdoor event. The community I served used the church parking lot for additional game day parking because we were located across the street from the high school. I created labels to go on the giveaway items that included the church worship services and youth group hours.
  • Invite youth that aren’t involved in the particular sport or club to help out with outreach efforts.

PUMP UP THE CROWD- Connecting with Parents

You may not be able to connect and talk to the youth during an event, but you can connect with the parents.

  • Make the rounds by walking the crowds to spot and say hello to youth parents. I started doing this at football games and some of the parents would invite me to sit with them. This was a great opportunity to connect with them and build youth-parent relationships.
  • Don’t be afraid to text parents words of support and encouragement before or after a game. You may not get face-to face time with all the parents, but you can still show your support with a quick “great game tonight” text.
  • Visit the concession stands. Often you will find parents and family members volunteering in these areas. Stopping by to say hello is an easy thing to do when buying nachos.

These are just a few ideas to get you thinking about how to connect with teens during their busy sports seasons. Sports may not be “the thing” that competes for your teens’ attention, but think about what does and how you can engage with them and their passions. I’m no longer serving the church where fall football season ruled, but can tell you the youth and parents still tell me how much it meant when I came to their games, texted them “great job tonight”, or wore a silly dual-colored t-shirt sporting both team colors. They knew I cared about them, even while they were away from youth group. In some ways, I think this impacted them and meant more than any program or retreat I could have planned. So this fall, stop worrying about your losses, and get back in the game!