“I don’t feel like I fit in.”

“I don’t know anyone.”

“I don’t connect with the kids that are there.”

These are all reasons that I’ve heard for why a young person isn’t involved in our youth ministry, and I’m sure you could add a number of your own to the list. There are all sorts of other reasons why people aren’t involved, such as issues of faith, priorities and scheduling, but to me, the relational excuses are the most frustrating. It’s so easy for me to just respond with: “Well, if you’re only here once every few months, are you surprised that you don’t know anyone?” An excuse to not be involved that is easily rectified by just being involved doesn’t really seem like a good enough reason to me. I can tell them that everyone who comes regularly gets to know people, learns to fit in and becomes a part of the group. That kind of encouragement can work for some individuals who are just worried about the social aspect of youth group, but it isn’t that helpful in getting people plugged back in to the church.

My natural setting is to immediately respond either with accusations (oftentimes cleverly disguised as sarcastic questions) or a sales pitch about how great things are here. But really where I need to start is by simply asking the individual questions: Why don’t you feel like you fit in? Are there some times in the past that you have felt like part of the group? What would help you get more connected? This is so much better than just giving advice, because it gets their story out and helps me to relationally connect with them. Instead of just pointing out problems, both of us are now invited to be a part of working towards a solution.

Those excuses for lack of involvement may not be my favorite things to hear, and I may not always respond to them in the best way, but they do get at a bigger idea that I need to be keeping track of. Who is welcome in our youth group? Is it just a certain type of people? A particular skill set? A specific demographic? Am I targeting one group over another? Are the lessons targeted at a certain gender, maturity level or learning style to the detriment or exclusion of the others? Do the activities only cater to athletes and competition or is there a variety? Are there opportunities for the youth and adults to get to know each other better, or can visitors easily slip through the cracks?

These are all useful questions to be asking and are helpful in removing some of those blocks that exist for people. But ultimately, they are not the most important key to having a “welcoming” youth ministry. In spite of all those other factors (which we may or may not actually be able to control), does everyone at a youth ministry function hear the Word of God, both Law and Gospel?

Here’s why this is the key: if all those other factors are present and excellent, but this is absent, then what long-term good have we done? We’ve given young people a nice social opportunity, but haven’t really connected them with God or His Church.

But if God’s Word is clearly present and there are the natural sinful struggles that exist in those other areas, God’s message of welcome to us is the focus. Ideally, we’d love to have both, but the center and core of the matter has to be the Word. When an individual who has made some wrong choices and thus feels like he doesn’t “fit in” with the youth group anymore, and they are welcomed back with open arms by the group, that is important. But when that same person also hears of their God who acknowledges their sinfulness and does something about it through Jesus Christ, that is of greater value. When an individual learns that they are loved and chosen by the God of the universe and that is reinforced by the community of saints here on Earth, that is beneficial.

When young people have a church family that accepts them not because of how good they are, but because of the good God who loves them, died for them and has wrapped them in His robe of righteousness, that is a true family. Simply put, youth groups and churches are most welcoming when we are a place where we acknowledge, recognize and repent of our inability to meet God’s perfect standards (via the Law) and rejoice in the beauty of all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ (via the Gospel).

We’re not always going to get it right. We’re going to miss opportunities to connect with visitors, youth are going to be harsh to those who haven’t been in a while and adult leaders will forget to follow up with youth each week. Thanks be to God that the Kingdom does not hinge on our ability to be welcoming, but on His Word being the great equalizer for all of us: “For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24).