It’s the first day of Vacation Bible School. Crowds of kids are starting to pour in for your opening assembly. You have a fantastic video prepared for them once they get seated, but suddenly, from up in the recesses of the sound booth you see the AV guy mouth “5 more minutes!” You think to yourself, “What will I do for 5 minutes? I had this whole 20-minute assembly planned to the second and me doing crowd control was not part of that plan!” Large group situations (camp assemblies, VBS openings, movie nights and children’s worship pre-service) are numerous in our line of work. I would define a large group as 25 or more children; at this number, the group dynamic begins to change and you see opportunities for greater distraction. In the end, a poorly executed large group situation leaves your volunteers questioning your leadership ability, kids missing the purpose of your gathering and parents hearing a summary of the event from their kids that they “didn’t really do much.”
Individual relationships are terribly important in our ministry, but if large group situations are dull, poorly executed, and lacking in creativity, you will loose a lot of interest in your overall ministry. Typically a large group situation happens at the front end of a ministry event or program; therefore, it sets the stage for the level of enthusiasm that will carry through the rest of the time. Sadly, my experience has revealed that few people actually handle larger groups of children very well, regardless if they had a plan or had to wing it. Leading large groups effectively is about 50 percent who you are and 50 percent what you do. It encompasses both a persona that you display “on stage” and the actual tools you use to make it a fun, interactive and memorable time for kids. The skills you implement can most definitely be the difference between a “sleeper” time for kids at your church and an all-out-ball-of-fun leaving them wanting more.
Who you are on stage
Let’s start with the way you go about leading a large group of kids. A large group leader tends to make one of two errors: they slip into either Commander or Pushover mode. Either one can take the “Fun” out of a Family Fun Day in a heartbeat. Generally, people tend to stay in one of those modes because that is where they feel most comfortable. You have to be able to step outside of comfort for the sake of an effective large group experience.
The Commander is straight forward and business as usual. She thinks more about the kids staying controlled than she does about their fun and is simply there to get information across—nothing more. She is not going to do anything out of the box and would prefer to keep large group times as short as possible. Commanders often rudely point out disrupting children and penalize the entire group for the sins of a few. Commanders simply need to have fun. They need to let loose and laugh on stage with the kids. They need to be willing to fall on their face, do a silly game, or come out as a random character. Often this is simply a matter of brainstorming a few fun things to do thirty minutes before the assembly.
The Pushover is typically a nice, friendly person who gets along with everyone. Once she steps on stage, it is apparent that she has no control. She tries to get the kids’ attention by saying things like, “Shhhhh” and “Alright guys, listen up.” It never works. She tries a few fun ideas here and there, but they typically are not well thought out, nor did she try them before to see if they would actually work. They often fail and are anticlimactic. She then begins to loose confidence and looks to others to take control or provide guidance. Her lack of confidence is apparent to everyone in the room. Pushovers need to be willing to assert themselves. They need to be louder and when they have a creative idea, they need to get excited about it and make it work. Pushovers also need to do a better job of over planning so that when a snag in the schedule comes, they are prepared to adjust with new ideas.
Adjusting who you are on stage
If the large group assemblies you lead are a flop, then you most likely need to make some changes in your stage presence and attitude. I’m not saying you become a completely different person; I’m saying that you need to be a little more intentional about what you are doing and how the kids perceive you as their leader.
If leading a large group is one of the worst parts of your week, then you need an attitude adjustment. Essentially, you need to get yourself psyched up for the job. Maybe that means chest bumping your sound guy or going to a “happy place” in a dark corner. Either way, if you are not excited to be on stage, the kids will not be excited to see you.
Feed Energy to the Kids
As a leader, the kids follow your level of energy. If you come out with a full-blown excited attitude, they will catch on. I’m not talking about having the kids screaming all the time, but letting your attitude about why you’re there be contagious.
The adult service will let out late. The craft lady will not be prepared. The tables will not yet be set up for lunch. Your 15-minute game will only take five minutes. Something will go wrong. How will you handle it? Will you simply have the kids sit there and chat? That would be a waste of ministry time. Will you get frustrated and fuss at the person in front of everyone? That might get you fired. Will you ask an unprepared innocent bystander to take over while you escape to go “see how long it will take?” That will not score you any points either. The only good option in those scenarios is to roll with the punches. And while you are at it, try not to let anyone know that you are indeed rolling with the punches. If you have planned well (meaning over planned), you will have a backup, an idea you can pull out at a moment’s notice like it was part of your entire grand scheme from the get go.
What you do
Detailed below are some practical aspects of large group leadership that will help you conduct an energetic and smooth event.
You MUST have something that will keep their attention from the moment they enter the room. It can be a video, a PowerPoint game, or a character that interviews kids as they come in. If they enter and have nothing to focus their attention on, you have already lost a quarter of them by the time you actually start something you planned. When you do actually start, make it big! Play some intro music, run down the aisles, or have a funny saying that everyone chimes in on to get things rolling.
Utilize Energy Cycles
This is a concept that finds itself in many arenas: worship leading, play writing, film making, and event planning, to name a few. Essentially, you want to think through when you want kids to be loud and energetic and when you want them to be quiet and attentive. There is an art to this. You cannot simply plan to sit them down and talk to them for five minutes immediately after a loud and involving song. You have to transition from energetic to calm with some type of tool. Perhaps it is a character breaking in unannounced or a video being played. One way or another you have to plan out how the cycles of energy are going to be executed.
Keep Transitions Quick and Efficient
Lag time leads to uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to boredom. Boredom leads to lost opportunities to connect them to Jesus. Hopefully, you will have a plan. However, not sharing that plan with others so that they can be prepared as well is as equally detrimental as not having a plan in the first place. Make sure that people know their roles and their cues. If someone misses it, think through how you would fix it next time.
Throw in Surprises
If you are doing five nights of VBS, don’t let your opening large group time be the same every night. I know, you have a different video to show, but do you show it at the same time? Can you build the theme of the event into something different happening each night? Can a character come in unannounced? Make the kids unsure about what will happen each time they step foot into the room. Predictability leads to boredom.
Avoid being Distracted
Your job on stage is to lead the large group, not handle individual situations. Be sure you have clearly appointed other competent people to handle bathroom breaks and discipline situations. I have a friend who has employed a character named Gotta Go Joe. If you “gotta go” to the bathroom, you see Gotta Go Joe! I completely ignore children who come up to me individually while I am leading a large group. Without any training, a volunteer comes to escort the kid back to their seat.
Honor the Attentive Kids
I have a rule that any kid who jumps out of their seat with their hand raised while screaming, “Ohhh, Ohhh” will never get picked. I recite over and over how I chose to involve the kids who are paying attention and not messing with other people’s fun. Strangely, it works! Honor the kids who really want to be there. Eventually, the attentively-challenged kids will want to do what it takes to get involved.
Use (don’t abuse) Attention Getters
Attention getters are great. There are some really creative ones out there that involve shouting back, clapping, and hand motions. When you use the same one all the time, you move from “fun ministry” to “boot camp.” Reserve the attention getting tricks for when you have no other option. Otherwise, you should have planned such an exciting assembly that they will want to pay attention in the first place!
No, I am not suggesting you break the eighth commandment. I am suggesting that you observe what others are doing and use their ideas. Go to a Disney on Ice and see what they do to hold kids’ attention. Borrow transition and energy cycle ideas from network game shows. Go to a dynamic summer camp (Christian or not) and see how they handle large groups.
Now that you are educated, you have no excuse to not make your kids’ ministry assemblies the most exciting event a kid in your community can attend. If you apply all of these things, kids will want more. Trust me, it works.