“Where did Jim go? Whatever happened to Mary? Why haven’t we seen Sharon in a while? Why doesn’t Aaron come anymore?” Change the names to fit your group and these are questions that anyone who has been involved in a youth ministry has asked. Oftentimes these are questions we don’t have satisfactory answers to. With most youth, there are a couple categories they can fall into:
- Sports/activities with time conflicts with church opportunities
- Active at another church
- Too much homework/don’t have time for church activities
- Friends stopped going, so they stopped going
- Dealing with sin/guilt (I need to shape up before I can go back)
- Parents stopped driving them/don’t have a ride
- Church simply isn’t a priority anymore
- They’re out fighting crime instead (probably not a huge percentage of kids, but it looks great on a college resume)
We don’t really like any of these answers and we may not think that they are good enough answers to justify unplugging from the church, but it is the reality of far too many young people nonetheless. I would love to just pull the “that’s not a good enough reason, try again” card and then double the group’s numbers overnight, but that’s not how it works. So what do we do about it? Certainly we must continue to hold these youth and their families up in prayer, first and foremost. We continue to invite and welcome them to any church function. We ask other youth to reach out to them and invite them back as well. We also need to check with their parents, because maybe they have insight on the situation or we can help them be an advocate in the home.
All of these ideas are certainly worthwhile and will help in reaching out to youth who are no longer active in the church. This is something all youth workers deal with. All of us can go through our contact list and see the names of kids we haven’t seen in a few weeks, months, or years. It’s a sad few minutes to scroll through, but there’s also good news. All of us can go through our contact list and see the names of kids that we haven’t seen in a few weeks, months, or years! Wait, isn’t that the exact same sentence as before, but with an exclamation point at the end instead of a period? Yes it is, and you get five grammar points if you picked up on that. There is good news hidden in that sentence of seemingly bad news: we have an open door to contact these inactive youth at almost any time. Especially in today’s world where technology dictates most of our communication, we really have a great opportunity. With the majority of my youth having cell phones, I can text/call them directly and strike up a conversation. We don’t just have to scroll down our contact list listening to “All By Myself” and eating ice cream, crying as we reminisce about the past. We have the opportunity to reach out and reconnect!
With all that being said and with this tremendous opportunity we have available, I would suggest one question to ask inactive youth: “I’d like to set up a time soon to talk and see how you’re doing. Can we meet up at church or somewhere else later his week?” Technically that is a statement followed by a question (five more points to the grammar folks), but hopefully you get the point. I have started using this question with my youth because it not only engages them in a brief conversation, but sets up a face-to-face meeting where I can learn more about their story, connect with them, and pray with them in person. Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned, but I firmly believe that a face-to-face conversation is vastly superior to a short text conversation or even phone call. It communicates to that individual that you care enough about them to not just send a quick text (which is important, too) but to take time out of your day to meet with them and see how they’re doing. What we’re telling them is “the church cares for you,” and for many youth, I’m convinced that’s all they really needed to hear again.
The first time I texted this question to one youth I hadn’t seen in a while and was concerned about, this was part of the reply I got: “I’m gonna be honest with you things have been kinda awful for awhile.” Yes, there are some typos in that text (no more points, grammar people, just let it go) but what I learned through asking that question is way more than I would’ve gotten if I had just sent the standard invite to our next meeting. We ended up meeting a few days later, had a good long talk about some of the issues that were going on, and hopefully it served as a positive way to reconnect with the church again. Lest we think that this question (or any other question, program, outreach, etc.) is the perfect solution, I will say that I haven’t seen an instant turnaround in terms of engagement, activity, or attendance in that first youth in the weeks following that meeting. But we had a great opportunity to plant some Gospel seeds and we’ll continue to water and nourish and watch how the Spirit grows. I thought I did everything right with this situation and things didn’t change immediately, while I had another youth who earlier in the year had requested to not be contacted anymore and then showed up at youth one week out of the blue after a 2 year absence and has been regular ever since. It’s all in God’s good timing and we can’t control that, but we have a great opportunity to reach out to these inactive youth with God’s love and our Christian concern. It’s a time commitment, but is certainly worth the effort because each of those youth are worth it.