Ask Rooted: How Do You Minister to Unchurched Teenagers?

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.

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!

Rebecca Heck, veteran youth worker based in Atlanta, GA

One of the foundational parts of our ministry was to attend school events for our students. Often this would lead to meeting their friends who weren’t a part of our youth group or any church at all. Whether it was suggesting we all grab pizza after a football game or meet up for coffee after the drama performance, it never failed that one of my students would ask their friends to join. These were the moments I both loved and felt the most nervous about in youth ministry.

Inevitably, one of the unchurched teenagers would ask, “why are you hanging out with teenagers on a Saturday?” They would ask questions about my job at the church, my role in my students’ lives, etc. But, it would also come with some layered questions, I assumed to “test” me in some way. Some of the my most intriguing conversations came from my unchurched students, who wanted to know how I thought about hot-topic issues like medical cannabis, sex before marriage, politics, etc.

I hope that I handled those conversations with grace. But the biggest thing I learned from those moments is simple: Continue to have the conversations. Continue to make time to grab pizza after an event. Continue to encourage your students to have unchurched friends and to care about them—and then pray that you’ll get to meet them one day. Continue to lean in, even if you know you’ll end up in big conversations with kids you hardly know. While it may be unnerving at first, you’ll quickly find that regardless of what students believe about Jesus, they just want to be heard, respected, and spoken to as though their thoughts and lives matter. Jesus told his disciples, “let the little children come to me.” One of the greatest joys of being a youth minister is getting to help lay out a clear path for our students to come to Jesus. Every awkward conversation can lead to just that.

Justin Talbert, Student Pastor at Christ Community Church in Little Rock, AR

The reality that Godhas put eternity into mans heart” (Ecc 3:11), is an exciting paradigm for youth ministry—especially as you think about reaching the lost students of your city. Unchurched students are searching. They are hungering. And they are getting their fill” from things that actually dont satisfy—and they know it. They just dont know theres a remedy: a Bread and Water in the person of Jesus that leaves them blissfully content. This is exciting because it brings confidence to our labor to share Jesus with them.

A primary route I take with truly unchurched students isnt theological or ecclesiological. Its social. At least at first. In a word, I guess you could call it Friendship Merger.” Do whatever it takes to get your non-Christian student into a community of believing students. Whichever student they tagged along with is a good place to start.

The end goal is for the life-habits, theology and character of the believing students to naturally envelope the non-believing student. For their hunger to be exposed and fulfilled. And for their eternity” questions and impulses to be talked about and, in Gods will, be satisfied as the gospel is, over time, both lived out and shared. Let your students be the hands and feet. You simply be there holding the rope as they drink from the well.

Chelsea Kingston Erickson, Pastor of Youth and Families at First Congregational Church of Hamilton, MA
Let me just be really honest and say that evangelism is not my leading spiritual gift; rather, it’s one of those things that feels painfully stretching. Like many youth ministers, I love teaching the Bible and relating to teenagers in discipleship relationships. Evangelism can sometimes feel like an afterthought, even though I realize, of course, that many of the students within our church family have not yet trusted in Jesus.

Several years ago there was a movement of evangelism that swept through our church,  and it started with some seventh grade girls who loved Jesus and loved their friends. At one point, our small group grew to the point that it contained as many unchurched (or minimally churched) friends from school as it did girls from within our church family. It was humbling to watch these young women first invite their friends to youth group, introduce them to others, and then share openly about their own relationships with the Lord—struggles and all. At least one of those invited friends is now following Jesus herself and actively praying for her family to do the same!

Watching my middle school friends share the gospel in that season has inspired me to be more intentional in making our youth ministry friendly to unchurched teenagers. I want our group to be the safest, most welcoming place a student could ever think to invite someone. Part of that is the way we treat newcomers, greeting them warmly, remembering their names, including them in conversation and inside jokes. I want their parents to sense this welcome, too, so we try to foster a warm and open relationship with them (i.e. telling them how much we appreciate their teenagers, always keeping them in the loop when we’re meeting up for coffee or lunch, etc.).

Another part of the equation is how and what we teach. I want our students to sense that our teaching team is mindful of those who may not have trusted in Jesus yet. I want them to hear us respecting the questions they bring, making space for the doubt with which both churched and unchurched teenagers may be wrestling. I want them to hear us holding out the gospel of God’s grace for sinners every single week, reminding them and their friends that they are loved not based on how they’re performing, but on the finished work of Jesus.

Rebecca Lankford, Associate Young Adult Minister at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL

What a gift it is when students in our youth group bring along friends who have not grown up in the church! More than anything, I would encourage youth ministers to love and care for these students just as if they were your own— with no hidden agenda or secret evangelism plan. Help them feel loved, welcomed, and known by engaging with them in questions. What sports do they play? How long have they been friends with the student they came with? How many siblings to they have? Introduce them to other youth group members to make them feel included in the larger group. Be mindful of any insider” language that might need to be explained to your guest (we often find that students are confused when they show up to our youth group Family Dinner” with no family members present!).

Guests at youth group are often a helpful reminder during a talk that we cannot assume everyone knows what the gospel means—perhaps including some in our youth group who have been faithful attenders for years. We cannot assume that everyone in the room knows what sin, grace, and faith mean. We cannot assume that everyone knows that Mark comes after Matthew or that Numbers is in fact a book filled with words. Unchurched guests at youth group are a gift in our teaching time, as they remind us that when it comes to presenting the gospel to teenagers, we always need to define our terms.

WIth these guests, followup is key. I would suggest getting their numbers and sending them a text either that evening or the next day telling them how much you enjoyed meeting them. Find a way to get together 2-1 with them and the friend they came with, then ask them for a one-on-one coffee date (with their parents’ knowledge). In this way, a relationship can organically form, paving the way for deeper evangelistic conversations. Above all, thank the Lord that a student in your youth group felt comfortable enough to bring a friend and that by doing so, you have another opportunity to show a teenager the love of Jesus.

Consider giving the unchurched teens in your life a copy of The Jesus I Wish I Knew In High School. New Growth Press is offering a special bulk rate right now. We think it makes a fantastic graduation gift for high school seniors! The Coupon code is ROOTED, and you will save 35% off retail price on 10 or more copies. Coupon expires May 31, 2022. Purchase from New Growth here.

Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

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