Ask Rooted: How Do You Minister to Unchurched Teenagers? Part II

While we recognize that many of the teenagers in our youth ministries may not be walking with Jesus yet, it can be especially challenging to know how to reach out to their friends who don’t have a church background. We asked Rooted writers to share how they are seeking to grow in sharing the gospel as they reach out to teenagers who haven’t grown up hearing the gospel in their homes. Read Part I of the responses here.

And also: Join us on Wednesday, May 25 at 1:00 CST for our webinar Sharing Jesus with Unchurched Teenagers.” Youth pastors Clark Fobes and Arek O’Connell and Parent Steering Committee member Katie Polski will discuss practical tools for sharing the gospel with the teenagers and families God places in our lives. Time will be given to brainstorm with webinar participants. Register today!

Arek O’Connell, High School and Young Adult Youth Pastor at Hillside Community Church in Grand Rapids, MI
In her book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Tara Burton suggests— maybe to the surprise of many—that we don’t live in a godless nation. To the contrary, we live in a “spiritual but not religious country.” The unchurched aren’t opposed to God at all, they just largely aren’t interested in the God of the American Evangelical Church.

But as we observe the lives of unchurched young people, we can see very clearly that they are drawn to communities that offer them meaning, purpose, community, and ritual (you heard me right, ritual). The unchurched find their “churches” in online communities, wellness clubs, social justice groups, etc. Teenagers assume these communities have something the church can’t offer them: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. Oh, the painful irony. Whenever I approach ministry to unchurched youth I don’t start with an event, a strategy, or a game. I begin by asking, how can our ministry uniquely offer teenagers a sense of purpose and belonging? How can we immerse them in the spiritual practices of the believing community so that they will see Jesus?

Syler Thomas, Student Ministries Pastor at Christ Church in Lake Forest, IL

Too many youth ministries treat unchurched friends showing up to youth group as a surprise. They have no plan for what to do because they don’t expect new people to come. You have to start with two “E’s”: creating an expectation in your ministry that students should be inviting their friends and then an environment where your core students feel comfortable actually extending an invitation.

Some ideas for creating an expectation:

Have something ready for a new person who comes, a pen that you give them or a fun way to acknowledge their presence without freaking them out. This provides a way for you to meet the new person but also communicates to the whole group that new people are expected. In your teaching, talk about how important it is for teenagers to be engaging with those who are far from God. Tell stories about the joy of inviting people to faith in Jesus.

Ideas for creating an environment:

  1. Don’t use insider language, or assume teenagers know the basics of the Bible.
  2. Make a point to greet new people personally (don’t think “the friend that brought her will be her pastor”…no: YOU need to step in and reach out as a pastor), learn newcomers’ names, and make a point to remember it the next time you see them.
  3. Think through every aspect of the night: Are there any obvious obstacles that would cause a new person to feel like an outsider? Or…the two worst sins for any young person: anything a) awkward or b) cheesy.

In terms of engaging with parents of these students: I send a physical letter home to the student, and include a line that says “if your parents would like to hear more about our program, please let have them reach out to me.” Sometimes these students don’t necessarily want their parents to know that they came (some parents disapprove of their kids’ involvement in a religious event) but if a student returns and begins to be part of the group, I will then try to reach out to the parents via email to introduce myself.

In terms of meeting students…the best way to do this is through your core students. This is why having fun events like game nights or something similar is important—they provide opportunities to meet new people and have them get to know you in a non-threatening “neutral” spot. 

Liz Edrington, Fellowship Groups and Young Adults Director at North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, TN

Kids from unchurched backgrounds are all around us. They live in houses next to us. They go to school with the kids in our churches. They play on the teams and in the bands our youth group kids are involved with. When we want to consider how to build relationships with unchurched kids, prayer is always the best starting place. We can ask, “Lord, would you show me who you’d have me pursue more intentionally in this season?” And then, we can prayerfully keep our eyes open for opportunities to invite kids into community with our families or church families. Hospitality is one of the biggest assets we have as Christians; the grace of Jesus always welcomes. How can we welcome?

For me, high school sports were always a part of my youth ministry. I coached field hockey and soccer through college and then for years after, and it was a wonderful opportunity to get to build relationships with students who wouldn’t otherwise have any connection with the church. In different seasons, there may be opportunities for us to use our passions, gifts, and time more specifically to reach unchurched students. Otherwise, we can continue to pray and keep our eyes open. We can also ask our students to introduce us to their friends when we go to their plays, concerts, sports games, and robotics tournaments.

Steve Eatmon, Pastor to High School and Middle School Students at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland

I have a two-part approach to ministering to unchurched teenagers and families in the community: internal and external. Internally, we want to do all that want to make sure that our church environment is welcoming to those who don’t have experience with church. Once per month we have “invite your friends” events. Technically students can invite their friends every week, but these events are in particular meant to aim at reaching unchurched teenagers.  Some examples would be our coffeehouse where we deck out our gym and invite some Christian artists who perform in a low-key coffeehouse environment. We also have an annual water balloon fight and Thanksgiving dinner among other events. Serving opportunities such as volunteering at the homeless shelter or a food drive also tend to draw a lot of unchurched students from Generation Z because of their attraction to empathy and service work.

Externally, my assistant youth director and I go into the schools. Although we minister in a large metropolitan area, we are fortunate that a large part of our youth group goes to the same school. There is a Bible club run by one of our students there that meets once per week, and it’s an opportunity to invite many kids from the school who aren’t yet ready to try coming to church. The club has been run by one of our students for the past eight years and has successfully changed hands each time a leader has graduated. My assistant and I are on a first name basis with some of the office staff at the school, so when we enter it’s almost no questions asked. It is a great outreach opportunity as well as a way to connect with our own students who may drift out of fellowship for an extended period of time.

Kevin Yi, College and Young Adults Pastor at Church Everyday in Northridge, CA

One of the things that I’ve found to be really helpful when engaging students who are not from churched backgrounds is to make sure that they understand that they’re allowed to ask questions.  It’s important, I think, for youth group culture to allow for questions about why we do what we do. Especially for students who have grown up at church, they can forget how strange our church practices and traditions can seem to those who have never been a part of the church. And so letting students know at the beginning of youth group gatherings that it’s OK to ask questions about what’s going on signals to everyone that there might be some students who are not used to the things that we’re doing.

In our youth group, unchurched visitors were always invited by someone in our youth group, so usually, there was some kind of evangelistic hope that was associated with the invite.  My students were delighted that their friend would take up their invitation to come to church with them, so they’re usually hyper aware of how strange church can be as they experience their own comfortable youth group experience from the perspective of their friend. So for me, it was always crucial to follow up after youth group with the student who invited their friend to ask about what their experience was like, what kinds of questions their friend asked, and how I could help them navigate any further conversations or questions and pray for them. This kind of follow-up encourages our students to remain invitational with their friends while helping them see that me and our volunteer team are praying for them and their friend.

Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

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