Jr. High -

The ABCs of theme development —

By Becca Haines

Created on 11/18/2019

The process of developing a theme for a CIY program starts a lot further back than most people might think. Take the Believe event, for instance.

CIY’s weekend program for junior high students has a tour schedule that starts in October and runs through April of the next year, but the initial planning stages for that tour start as many as 18 months prior to that. In fact, by the time the lights first hit the Believe stage in October the programming team at CIY is already dreaming and planning of the theme for the next tour, which won’t come for another year. The process starts with some pointed questions and conversations with junior high ministers from all over the U.S. And out of those conversations come the first glimmers of topics that God is leading CIY toward in coming years.


“We lean into the Holy Spirit and listen to the pulse of youth ministry by talking to pastors and leaders to understand what the needs of the students are,” said Mike Branton, Believe’s program director. “We don’t make the decision for the theme in isolation. We want to hear the voices of people who are in the trenches of youth ministry, listening to students to understand what they’re facing.”


Gathering information and listening is the first stage of theme development. The Believe team always keeps in the forefront of their minds how the ministry can come alongside the local church to bolster or continue conversations that are relevant to junior high students.


By December – midway through the tour schedule – the team has narrowed down the list of theme possibilities to three or four topics and has extensively prayed over each idea.


A summit is then held in January in the couple of weeks prior to the spring leg of the tour kicking off. The main goal of the summit is to land on a theme and specific scriptures for the program. In the room are Believe programmers, speakers, artists and sometimes band members. Branton said this approach of inclusion sets a tone of consistency for the tour and allows performers and speakers to know the trajectory of the theme because they helped build it. Jeff Walling – a nationally renowned speaker and CIY board of trustees member who has been a speaker on Believe stages from the time it started in 1997 – has joined this annual summit on numerous occasions.


“We begin with the Spirit’s leading and the humility of knowing God might take us a new direction from what we planned,” Walling said. “It’s all God’s Word, and it’s all good. So when we select a specific scripture for a specific moment, we trust God’s hand in that. It’s so great to know the backstory of where God will be meeting students. It’s incredibly helpful to me as a speaker to understand the students’ needs and be the straw from which God’s goodness channels through to the students.”


Once the theme is decided, Branton said the next stage of development moves fast in solidifying the details. Writers and filmmakers collaborate on scripts, musicians select songs and artistic graphic design teams all put their talents to work.


“It is a huge, year-round team effort,” Branton said. “We have experts in their passions who do amazing things with the theme each year. It’s evident in every area of the production – from the staging, lighting cues, songs, small group materials and films we use in the event. It’s fun to collaborate and produce the tactile elements that students will take home with them – like last year’s dog tags – all to tell a clear message of what God wants them to hear and have our speakers and artists pull the thread through to the story of the Gospel.”


The “last stage” of Believe development is in the spring months – even though Believe is in continuous motion throughout the year. Plans are executed, travel is booked and the entire CIY team lifts up prayers for the tour, youth leaders and students.


That means that as you read this, the Believe team is already taking the first steps of planning for the tour that will begin 18 months from now. It’s an exciting time for the Believe team, and your prayers on their behalf – and on behalf of the tens of thousands of junior higher who will hear those messages in the coming years – would be much appreciated.