What can your weekly Young Life club learn from a world-famous, fine-dining restaurant? I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question myself until recently. I stumbled across the Season 2 opener of the “Building a Story Brand” podcast in which author Donald Miller interviews Mark and Brian Canlis. These two brothers own and run Canlis, an upscale restaurant in Seattle, Washington. Ranked one of the top 20 restaurants in America by “Gourmet” magazine, the staff at Canlis know how to put their customers first while delivering unforgettable experiences.   

As I listened, I could not help thinking of applications when it comes to kids’ experiences when they walk into our clubs. Below are three questions I began to ask myself as I thought through the Canlis experience and the Young Life experience:

  1. Does our Young Life club create a sense of belonging or exclusivity?

It would be interesting to go back to the first time you walked into a Young Life club. I asked my seniors to do that every year. I wanted them to think back to when they were a lowly freshman and felt insecure about showing up.   

According to Miller, at Canlis, “You walk in wondering even if you belong here. You walk in going ‘I hope I fit.’ And within seconds you get this overwhelming rush from their customer service that you belong here — that you have always fit here. Any insecurities you’ve had are absurd.”

Is that the feeling kids get when they show up at club? Are they greeted? Is there something for them to do (corn hole, giant jenga, frisbees, T-shirt table, leaders and seniors greeting, music playing) rather than standing around awkwardly as crickets chirp?

How do popular dress-up theme clubs (Disney, Harry Potter, America) affect whether kids feel like they truly belong just as they are or don’t fit in? What if you are the kid who can’t afford a new costume every week? What if the “America” theme club does not necessarily make everyone feel welcome in today’s political climate?

Club is our widest open door and it always should be. Kids should always feel welcome and within seconds know “any insecurities they had (about fitting in) are absurd.” Let’s do our best to remove all obstacles to opening that club door wide so that all are welcome.

2.   Are we trustworthy with two of our kids’ most precious assets — their story and their time?

Each student walks in the door of club with a unique story and a finite amount of time in their day. They have chosen to give it to you to care for that hour. They come from different places that day, and I don’t mean just geographically. Their SAT score came and it was not as high as expected. They just broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Someone just asked them to prom. Mom and Dad just had a fight. They just got their first new car.   

It is our charge to take those kids, no matter their story, and welcome them to a place where they can see, hear, and experience the gospel.

The staff at Canlis understand being a good steward of their customer’s time and story, and so should we.

“They understand that a guest walks in the door and tonight needs to matter. That guest brings their most valuable asset … almost like a treasure … their time. They walk in the door with this fragile memory, and they are offering it to you and saying ‘can you take care of this.’ They’re coming to make sure tonight will matter, and that’s what our staff get so excited about.” — Mark and Brian Canlis.

Is that what you still get excited about? Like the Canlis staff, is that what your leaders get excited about? Or has club become something you “have to do” and “paint by numbers” rather than something you GET TO DO and a work of art that you can’t wait to share with your kids?

We have the greatest job in the world! Kids run in the door, laugh hard, sing loud, engage with leaders, and then we get to open up the Bible and talk about Jesus. May we always say like Canlis, “That’s what our staff get so excited about!”

3.   Do you have a strategy or do you simply follow the rules?

“Pay attention to strategies and not to rules.” — Brian Canlis

Let me try to make sense of this in a Young Life context. Young Life rules might include raise money, form a committee, have a banquet, turn in your GPS and R1 and R2, do your Concur, have an assignment.   

I’m certainly not saying not to do the above Young Life “rules.” I just wonder if in our day-to-day experience if our attention is in the wrong place. A staff person who recently went through our “Brilliant at the Basics” training in Dallas said, “We got back to our areas and tried that ‘Ministry Strategy’ stuff but quickly got distracted by other things.”

Other things than charging the hill and going after the next kid? That’s focusing on the rules my friends. Again, no great coach’s inspirational speech ever began with the words, “Boys, we’re going to go out there and not kick the ball out of bounds! Now go get ‘em!”

Start and end with strategy, not rules.

Do yourself a favor and listen to Season 2, Episode 1 of the “Building a StoryBrand” Podcast with Mark and Brian Canlis. There are so many more applications to our ministry in what they share. And you might want to stop by Canlis next time you are in Seattle. I guarantee they will be trustworthy with your story and your time.