By Josh Hussung
On the way home from youth group on Wednesday night, Sarah got into an argument with her parents.
“I don’t ever want to go back there again!” she said.
“Why not?” said her mother, looking very concerned.
“Because no one even notices me. I go every week, and no one talks to me. I sit in the back, and after going for weeks and weeks it feels like no one notices me at all.”
If you work with students, you’ve probably had something like this conversation relayed to you by a worried parent. We all have a God-given desire for community. We want to know and be known by other people.
And when students (or adults) have a sense that they don’t know anyone and no one knows them, they aren’t going to want to participate. If a student really isn’t known, they could truly fall through the cracks and stop coming with no one noticing.
This should never be.
Effective student ministries will create an environment where this need is fulfilled. Why? Because the gospel will have a better hearing in the hearts and minds of students who know there are people in the local church who know, love, and accept them.
Here are four ways we can help students to be known and cared for in our ministries.
1. Recruit a ‘welcome wagon.’
The front end of your ministry provides a huge opportunity for students to feel welcomed and loved right off the bat. One of the best things you can do is train a group of students or adults to serve as the “welcome wagon” for your student ministry.
Create some sort of gift to give them (a t-shirt, or a journal, or a book) and a contact card to fill out. You can follow up with an email or phone call with this information later.
And here is the key if your welcome wagon is primarily students: Help them know how to ask questions and talk to people who aren’t talkative.
I know this might sound mundane, but sometimes students could practically use a “script” of questions to ask a new student to keep the conversation from getting too awkward.
And trust me, it will be awkward.
But teach your students to embrace the awkwardness, because talking to this student will show them they’re loved, even if they only give one-word answers.
2. Mobilize your small groups.
For mid-to-large youth ministries, small groups can be very effective. First, they make a big youth group seem smaller.
A group of less than, say, 15 students can all know each other’s names, provide opportunities for fellowship that leaves students feeling encouraged and accepted, and keep youth group from just feeling like a show to come and observe.
On top of this, small groups will be led by adults who shepherd their students over a period of time. Not only will students feel valued and accepted by other students, but also by an adult who shares their faith.
3. Leverage the content of your gatherings.
Whether you use a small group ministry or not, there are opportunities to let students know other people, even in the large group time.
Periodically play games where students interact with each other. In your teaching, make it a regular occurrence for students to turn to the person next to them and ask them a question or share a piece of information about themselves.
In your teaching, acknowledge a need for love and acceptance and encourage students who feel this need that it is good. In your application, encourage them to minister to other people by reaching out, whether a text, phone call, direct message, or approaching them during youth group.
Tell them to ask questions, listen to answers, and follow up. All of these are ways that our students can be encouraged to minister to one another.
So, find a group of competent, faithful adults. Train them to lead Bible study and minister to students, and then encourage your students to be involved in a small group.
4. Pay close attention to attendance.
While numbers are not always the most important thing about a student ministry, people are very important. Keeping attendance can help us know when someone is at risk for “falling through the cracks.”
If I know Sarah hasn’t been to Sunday School in three weeks, that gives me the opportunity as a youth pastor or Sunday school teacher to reach out to her and let her know she’s been missed.
So, use an attendance-taking software, or keep track on paper. Make it a point to follow up with students who have started to miss small group or Sunday School. Encourage their teacher or small group leader to do the same.
This communication doesn’t need to be confrontational. Simply tell them you noticed they weren’t there, they were missed, and ask if they are OK or need anything. These three pieces of information let students know they’re valued and missed.
In all these ways, we can seek to meet a deeply felt need in our students. And through meeting this need, we give the gospel an opportunity to be confirmed in their hearts.
Let’s not let students fall through the cracks, but make our ministries a place where they are known, loved, and accepted.
Josh is the pastor of youth and families at Grace Community Church in Nashville. He has also written for Rooted Ministry and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.