As we prepare for our elaborate Fall Kick-Offs designed to reel in the teens and get them hooked on our absolutely amazing youth ministry programs, I am reminded of my past failures in achieving what is most important in a new beginning. Welcoming new teens is not a strong suit of mine. After all, I am a youth minister. It’s not as though my job is welcoming teens, right?
Now throwing a rager of a kick-off? That I can do. In fact, by most perspectives, I have never had an unsuccessful kick-off party. We have done the bouncy house and sumo wrestler thing, the photo booth superhero party, the messy games. I have definitely figured out how to have fun with my teens.
However, according to another perspective, I have not forgotten (and I probably shouldn’t forget) a brand new student who slipped through the cracks starting with Kick-Off. This girl was new in town, attended a school for gifted students, and didn’t know a soul at Youth Group. The majority of my teens have either attended our Catholic school together since they were in Mother’s Day Out or have at least been coming to Youth Group for some time.
So New Girl is surrounded by 60 middle schoolers who know each other and are running around screaming and laughing and having the time of their lives. She sits alone through dinner, through games and through prayer. Throughout the night, each core team member made a point to sit and talk or interact with the New Girl, but none of us bothered to introduce her to a kid her own age.
To her credit and in spite of two very harsh emails from each of her parents, New Girl kept coming to Youth Group. She gave us a solid try and even brought along another Catholic girl who attends her school. She came for a full semester before she completely disappeared off our radar. I returned from maternity leave in the spring to a final email from one of her parents stating that they wanted their daughter to have a positive view of Catholicism and Youth Group was not doing that for her.
This criticism of my program stung, but held some very legitimate concerns for me moving forward. How would I prevent this from happening again? Was there any hope of winning over New Girl’s heart or was she truly gone for good? What could I have done differently? The loss of New Girl plagues me to this day. She went from being New Girl to the One Who Got Away.
To answer these questions, I need look no farther than the Good Shepherd and what He demonstrates. We know that the Good Shepherd leaves His flock and ardently and relentlessly pursues the stray sheep to return her safely to the fold. The whole flock is important and a good shepherd tends to all of the sheep with loving care. However, if one goes astray, a good shepherd doesn’t simply say, “Well, I’ve got 99 other sheep and that’s good enough for me.”
Indeed, the 99 who remain consistently active in our programs are being fed. Their hearts have already been won to some extent. They will need to be continuously fed, but they are easier to pursue than the ones who come sporadically or stop coming altogether. If you are present, you can receive God’s Word. If we fail the ones who don’t come, what is the point of Youth Ministry?
As I reflect on God the Father’s relentless love for me and reflect upon all of the times He never gave up on me, I know that He has already shown me the way to do unto others. He forgives me time and time again when I fall short. God is always ready to listen to my prayers, even when I take selfishly and don’t reciprocate the listening part of our conversations. He never stops loving me and chasing after my heart when I slip away from Him.
What does it look like to model God the Relentless Father and the Good Shepherd in our ministry? How can we prepare to incorporate those models into our program as we kick-off a new year? The following is a list of practical tips to help you have a great year in ministry:
- Do a Get-to-Know-You Icebreaker at your kick-off even if you think everyone already knows each other.
- Recruit and train a solid Core Team who can help you keep an eye out for those sheep that wander astray.
- Break bread together at every youth gathering, even if it’s a package of Goldfish or an ice cream sandwich.
- Pray together at every youth gathering, including asking your teens how you they need prayers each week.
- Develop consistent and regular small groups that can grow in relationship together over the years that you have them in your program. Keep the same leader and the same teens if possible.
- Follow up with families that have fallen away. Give them a phone call or send an email to reach out when you notice multiple absences.
- Identify outgoing and friendly teens who can help serve as a welcoming committee for new faces. Partner them with a new teen and encourage them to help the new faces mesh with the regulars as much as possible.
I pray that you will learn from my mistakes. Don’t let the new faces slip through the cracks. Be bold enough to leave the 99 and pursue the one. That is the greater good. That is the model left for us by greatest Good Shepherd of all time. Have an amazing year!