If you build it, they will come
Anonymous wrote, “I am going to be helping a youth director of 12-16 year olds who don't want to be there and the parents make them go but don't participate in anything except driving their kids to and from church. What can I do to make the youth group more lively? Any ideas will be GREATLY appreciated!” Thanks, Anon (for those of you keeping score at home, that’s our 1,738th different Anon on this site…no, but, it has been a lot).
The first question is what is the goal of the group? Is it to get together as a teen club or as a Church youth group? The former is more about getting together for just fun activities and recreation, and planning trips. The latter includes all of that, but also incorporates a spiritual dimension. I will assume that you mean the latter, that it will be a Church youth group. And, for our purposes here, I will go on the premise that it is a Catholic youth group.
One of the first things is to pray to almighty God for guidance and help. Go to Christ, and ask Him to send his Holy Spirit upon you and the director as you plan your activities. Implore the intercession of the Blessed Mother and all the saints and angels. In particular, pray to St. John Bosco and St. Maria Goretti for their intercession; they are the patron saints of Catholic youth. If it becomes a very dire situation, pray to St. Jude for his intercession; he is the patron saint of hopeless causes. Even if it’s just planning fun activities, you will want everything you do in this group to be for the glory of God (AMDG).
Next, you want to know what kind of kids you are dealing with. What is their family situation and background, ethnicity, race, school, etc.? Just like with public speaking, the first rule is to know your audience. It seems as though you have a good handle on this because you are aware that they really don’t want to be there. Btw, I wouldn't be too hard on the parents because at leats they are bringing them there.
Have you assembled a team of adults who serve as leaders? This is so important! If there are adults on the team who are good role models, fun people, and committed to the teens, the youth will respond. Probably the most important adult would be the parish priest. I would argue that youth groups that have an active and committed priest are the most fruitful. Also, when the timing is right, you will want to add solid teens who will serve as leaders on the core team.
So, what activities can you do to make the group more lively? (The first thing might be to do a search on google for “youth group games, Christian”). Before we kicked off our new weekly youth group last Fall, we played flag football during the summer. Then, we began the group with “Fear Factor” which was very popular with the teens. Since then, we have had a couple of “games nights” (Trivial Pursuit, e.g.), “Improv” nights (like the TV show, ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’), Bingo (our most well attended night), and nights when we had parties with karaoke and DDR (Dance Dance Revolution). We had a “Lock In” where the youth came out on a Friday night and couldn’t leave until Saturday morning - we had bingo, movies, and games.
Also, we’ve done some serious stuff geared toward youth. Just before Halloween, we had “Walk with the dead” where we constructed a make-shift cemetery on our grounds, and had characters (angels, demons, saints) discuss life after death. During Advent, we discussed what Advent and Christmas are all about in our “Reason for the season” night. Finally, we have had a few nights of Eucharistic Adoration in the Church to which the teens have responded very well. The more you present Christ as he really is, the more intrigued the youth (and all of us) are with Him!
One last idea to help get the teens “in the door”: gift cards to local restaurants and shops. Every other week, we raffle off (it’s a free raffle where the kids sign their names on pieces of paper, and we pull the names out of a hat) about three of these gift cards which the teens really enjoy! Starbucks cards have been the most popular. It takes time, obviously, to go around to local vendors to amass these “prizes”, but well worth it.
If the teens see that you are trying to meet them where they are, and are committed to them, they will come regularly. The biggest challenge in our youth group has been the competition with all of the activities that our teens have in their lives. Many of them make coming to youth group a priority, but many also just come when they don’t have anything else going on. We have gone out of our way to make them feel welcome whenever they come. If you build an open, warm, fun, and loving community, they will come!