Recently, I met with a potential adult leader. I shared my heart with him, interviewed him, and then asked if he had any questions for me
He proceeded to tell me about how his son, who’s now in his 20s, was never involved in our church’s youth ministry. When I asked why this was, he said no one ever reached out to him. He then looked me straight in the eye and asked, “So what do you do to reach out to kids like my son?”
As I listened to this deeply personal question, it occurred to me how often we in the church miss the population that includes this man’s son.
As youth workers, we spend a lot of time discipling our church kids. Since we know Jesus came to seek and save the lost, we also spend a lot of time reaching out to unchurched kids in our communities. But what about those caught in between? How can we reach those students who are, for whatever reason, within our congregations and yet very much still on the margins of our ministries?
Though there’s certainly no magic bullet for this, here are seven ideas for getting started.
1. Be intentional. Unless someone specifically requests to be removed from your roster, leave them on it.
2. Review your ministry’s roster every other month. Identify those students who are on the margins of your ministry – infrequent attenders, those who are absent all together, or those who attend but are marginalized socially.
3. Follow-up with marginalized students. Reach out to them via phone, text, Facebook, or snail mail. Inquire about their lives. Let them know you’re praying for them. Resist the urge to make them feel guilty about their absence from your ministry. Enlist students to intentionally do the same. An invitation or a heartfelt, “We missed you!” means far more to a marginal kid when it comes from one of their peers than it does when it comes from you.
4. When a marginal kid attends church, walk away from the students you know well in order to talk to her. Doing so shows her she matters. Ask her about her life & about how you can pray for her. Reiterate she’s always welcome at youth group.
5. When a marginal kids shows up at youth group, go out of your way to welcome her. Talk to her. Connect her to other students. Send a card afterwards to let her know her presence matters.
6. Regardless of whether or not a marginal kid ever shows up to your youth ministry, attend one of her events. Connect with her on her turf rather than expecting her to come to yours.
7. Use every opportunity you can – verbal announcements, e-mails, Facebook messages, texts, and newsletters – to publicly remind people that yours is a ministry where everyone is always welcome. Help students understand they and others are welcome whenever they’re able to attend, no matter how frequent or infrequent that is.
Like so much of ministry, reaching marginal kids is an area in which success is measured not so much in numbers, but in faithfulness. Regardless of whether or not a marginal kid ever comes to your youth ministry, trust that by intentionally reaching out, you’re being a tangible expression of God’s unfailing love to them.
Jen Bradbury has been in youth ministry for 11 years. She’s the youth director at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. Her writing has appeared in YouthWorker Journal, The Christian Century, and Immerse. She blogs at ymjen.com