This year I have the privilege of watching students graduate who were just entering the youth group when I started at this church. That means that I have relational context with them and adequate reason for the multiplying grey hairs on my head. It is impressive for me to look and think back to when I first met these kids. They have grown in obvious ways, with many of them towering over me, and in some very real spiritual ways as well. I have been on retreats with them, spent time eating meals with them, and played hours of dodge ball with them. Together we have wrestled with some of the most difficult questions, and confronted some challenging personal issues. It is, at times, very difficult to navigate.
This group is no different from any other graduating class. They all have plans, hopes and busy schedules. Most of them are more than ready to move on in life because living at home has gotten old to them. They feel like all of the rules and routines of home and school are just holding them back from a world of excitement And despite my warnings about how much they will miss this later in life, they also have gotten quite sporadic in the youth group.
This is a troubling trend, one that I have tried relentlessly to reverse over the years. In my mind, I thought that getting students involved in leadership would produce ownership in the ministry and help more of them see how important it is to stick around. It has done that, just not as often or predictable as I would like. Invariably there is a whole world to explore and spending time with younger students does not rank as high on that list of options. Yes, we see them at events, but we miss out on the opportunity to have peer-to-peer mentoring take place. What are youth pastors to do with the pressure to keep students engaged?
For starters, it is helpful to remember our role in the big picture. Our couple of hours of week, while intentional, is not nearly as life-shaping as all the time spent at home. That is where the vision for ministry through service and outreach needs to be fostered and encouraged. That is where kids catch what is important and watch faith get fleshed out in the ups and downs of life. As youth ministries, we are most often a resource to families. That being said, make sure you are completely engaged with those who are showing up. They are coming for a reason and should be encouraged, welcomed, loved and nurtured in Christ.
Rethink The Goal
The goal is not necessarily getting them to show up to a program. The goal is to help point these students to Jesus Christ as the answer for everything in their life. That means that our ministry needs to be much larger than a few programs. I like to think of it as following students, more than simply seeing them at a program. This is where contacting is so important. I have made many phone calls and sent many notes in the mail to students who very rarely come to anything anymore.
I know an important part of discipleship is service. So, look for ways to get these students involved in service with others in the group. Help cast the vision in them that their involvement is about far more than what they are receiving. They are able to give and come alongside someone younger than them who would naturally look up to them. Some of the best ways this has worked for me is to get students who have taken ministry trips to share with the group about their experience. We also have had older students share testimonies, lead sharing times, and prayer times. We need to be looking for ways to give ministry away to students!
Even if a student is not showing up to a program anymore, that does not mean you can’t pray for them. Ask them how you can pray for them and then do it. It is meaningful to them and to God!
Look for Opportunities
Even if a student has mostly checked out, you will still have opportunities come up. It might be a large conference that they will attend, or it might be conversation at another church event. Look for the open doors and be proactive in them. Your simple connections show you care about them even if they aren’t a part of the flashy program. It communicates a no strings attached love that we all need to experience.
There are so many forces at work against youth ministries in the church. And while it should never be assumed that a student has becoming involved in some horribly destructive activity because they have stopped coming, it is always important to find out what is going on. This is especially true if they were a regular attender and then suddenly stopped. But, the message needs to be one of care and one where we passionately point them to Jesus Christ. Because ultimately it is not going to be my youth ministry that changes their life, it is going to be the work of God in their lives. That is why we do what we do!
Do you have other things that have worked? What has been your experience?