I recently went to a youth ministry event at a local, well-known Christian college. I arrived at the event on-time only to remember too late that youth workers seldom arrive on-time to anything. The school’s greeters directed me to the event space and a meager array of bagels and vanilla yogurt.

I went through the line slowly. As an introvert, I was panicking about what I’d do once I finished the food line. Upon grabbing my food, I noticed all the school’s greeters talking amongst themselves.

So I boldly walked up to a group of youth workers, introduced myself, and asked if I could join them. We small-talked for a few minutes. I found out everyone in the group was from the same church, which I was familiar with. So I asked about some mutual acquaintances and got one word answers in response. I then asked about the group’s ministry. Still nothing. Meanwhile, I noticed their eyes scanning the room. Before long, another youth worker walked up and gave them a big hug. As they talked animatedly with her, their circle began to close in on itself. Soon, I was literally left on the outside looking in.

So I made my way over to another group. The same story unfolded for the next 45-minutes.

Had I had the option to engage with female youth workers, I would have. But the event was largely dominated by males. I looked around and saw no one like me.

As I’ve continued to reflect on this moment since, I’ve become aware of how much it resembles many of our youth ministries. From the outside, they look great. There’s food, trained greeters, good programming, and even better speakers. And yet, as my experience shows, sometimes that’s not enough. Truly welcoming people requires more than that.

Knowing that, here are seven ways you can help people feel welcome in your ministry:

  1. Eliminate too much unstructured time. Free time is AGONY for introverts… And newcomers who don’t yet know anyone… And teens on the margins of your ministry. So get to your program quickly. Doing something helps everyone feel welcome. If you want to have free time, put a short amount at the end of your event. Then people can connect over the experience they’ve just shared. 
  2. Start on time. We don’t want teens to show up and feel like they made a mistake in arriving on time. If you say your event starts at 7, start at 7, even if hardly anyone is there. That shows value to those who are there. It also helps to eliminate too much unstructured time.
  3. Be present with the person you’re talking with. If you choose to talk to someone, that’s where your attention needs to be. Don’t spend your time with someone scanning the room for someone else. That devalues the person you’re actually with.
  4. Ask questions. During the event I attended, I kept asking people questions to learn more about them. No one ever asked me a question. This left me feeling as though no one wanted to get to know me. The same is true of our teens. Good, open-ended questions show teens you care about them.
  5. Correct your body posture. It’s natural for a group of three people to essentially form a triangle as they’re talking to each other; For a group of four or more to form a circle. That’s how you see everyone you’re talking to. The problem is those structures often prohibit you from seeing what’s going on just outside the group you’re talking to. Are there people trying to break into your circle? If so, discreetly take a step back and let them in. It’s humiliating for someone to want to be in a social circle but be denied access to it.
  6. Redefine the role of a greeter. If all a greeter does is say Hi to someone, chances are slim people will actually feel welcomed. If a greeter asks people a question about themselves, there’s a much higher chance they’ll actually feel as though they belong. Also teach greeters to be particularly aware of newcomers or those who live on the margins of your ministry. When they see such people, they should enter into an extended conversation with them to communicate that even if there is NO ONE else in the room like them, they, too, are welcome.
  7. Connect people. My morning would have been decidedly less awful had just one person taken the time to connect someone like me, who was there alone, with someone they knew. The same is true in your youth ministry. Life will be better for loners, introverts, and newcomers if you connect them to other people who can help them belong.