My first year in ministry, I was haunted by a girl I never met.
Her name was Laura and she never attended anything.
She didn’t come to our weekly youth ministry gatherings.
She didn’t come to our special events – regardless of whether they were social or service in nature.
She didn’t come on our summer mission trip.
What’s more, her family rarely attended church.
Yet, every single time I met with the youth board – a group of lay people who, for all intents and purposes, functioned as my boss – I was asked, “Has Laura come to youth group?”
When I’d answer no, inevitably the follow-up question would come: “What have you done to reach out to Laura?”
I’d then diligently recount the steps I’d taken in the last month to reach out to Laura.
I called and personally invited her to attend.
I sent her a handwritten note saying how much she was missed.
I scoured the pews on Sunday mornings in search of her family, hoping for the opportunity to say Hi.
To my board, these steps were never enough so we’d spend the next 30 minutes brainstorming additional ways I could reach out to Laura.
None of these attempts ever worked. Yet, every month for the year I served at this church, I had the same conversation with my youth board.
Rather than focus on the kids we had, we obsessed over those we didn’t – despite the fact that this was a fragile youth ministry still in its infancy. Prior to my arrival, it was a ministry centered around a lone summer trip. It lacked a weekly gathering and content of any kind.
Much to my surprise, the launch of our weekly, Jesus-centered gathering was met with enthusiasm. A small, but faithful group of teens regularly attended.
In retrospect, those were the teens we should have been investing in; Not Laura, an almost mythical creature who we had no real hope of reaching.
Had my adult leaders and I spent the same time and energy following up with the students who actually came that we did with Laura, our relationships with them would have grown deeper. Those relationships would have then led to both spiritual and numerical growth within our ministry.
Now maybe this sounds contrary to Scripture.
After all, the shepherd leaves his whole flock in search of the one sheep who wandered off.
And Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
But here’s the reality.
There are lost teens in our churches; Even within our churched teens, there exists a gap between what we think they know about Jesus and what they actually know about Jesus.
There are also broken teens in our churches – teens who need to know we care as much about them as we do about the kids who never come.
So why not start focusing on the teens who already come to our ministries; The ones who God has already entrusted to our care? Why not strengthen their foundation before then chasing after those who are less likely to give our ministries a chance?
To me, such an investment not only makes sense, it also seems far more likely to bear longterm fruit.