Do you remember your first day at school? Those irrepressible feelings of fear and worry? Where do I need to go? Who should I talk to? How does this place work? This is what new people experience every time they visit our youth groups. Some may project an external bravado. Others are like a deer in headlights. All feel like an alien walking into a foreign planet.
Youth are incredible at inviting their friends. The childlike faith of a 13-year-old is beautiful as they invite anyone and everyone to Youth. The courageous, persistent prayers and invitations of a 16-year-old are inspiring. The amazing thing is that many of their friends say, ‘Yes’. They visit the foreign planet. Some are interested in Christian stuff. Others are looking for something to do. Many say yes simply because they were asked.
Our youth ministries need to be welcoming communities that actively enable all these newcomers to meet Christ and see Christ in the lives of their peers. Here are five practical ideas to help you grow as a welcoming community.
Think carpark to carpark
As a leadership team ask, “What do you want a first time visitor to experience when they visit?” Look through their eyes from the moment they arrive to when they leave.
What do they see when they get out of the car?
Who will they ‘hang’ with?
Where do they need to go?
Who will be their ‘sticky friend’?
What will they leave with?
Understanding the journey of a newcomer through a night of youth will help your team create an open and welcoming group.
Communicate what your group is about
Newcomers need to be publicly welcomed. They also need to hear what your group is about. A clear, bold, personal vision/purpose statement for your group is invaluable in communicating why your group exists. For example, “We are a group who seek to love Jesus, His Church and His world”.
Communicate this statement every week. Pray for it every week. Help your youth to know it off by heart. Then let it shape what happens each week at youth.
Say ‘Hi’ to newcomer parents
Parents play a significant role in whether a newcomer will come back.
Trust needs to be built between the Church and them. This trust grows as our leaders seek to meet every newcomer’s parent/s. Boldly share what your group is about, what you do each week and who the leaders are. Trust also grows as Church parents take the effort to meet newcomer parents. Encourage your keen parents to look out for newcomer parents each week.
Engage your youth to welcome new youth
Jeanne Mayo in Thriving Youth Groups argues that after Jesus, nothing affects the growth of youth group like the climate of friendship.
A culture of contagious friendship is the key to becoming a welcoming group. The best welcomers are our own youth. We want them to own the responsibility for making every newcomer feel like a valued guest and potential friend. As leaders, our role is not to do the welcoming. It is to engage and train a few (or many) of our youth to build a contagious friendship culture for the whole group.
So, gather a few keen youth together into a team. Share the dream and then call them to action. Help them greet everyone who comes, connect with people at supper, serve in the program, stay at the welcome table, reach out to the lonely. Build a welcoming culture through contagious friendship.
Follow up newcomers through your youth
We want every newcomer to leave their first night of youth feeling wanted, accepted and connected. We want them to come back and explore who Jesus is and what it looks like to follow him. Whilst the accomplishment of this goal is highly dependent on what happened when they visited, we can do things to confirm our interest in them.
A personal follow up postcard or letter is an easy and simple way to invite a second visit. A personal follow up connection (online/live) from one of your youth is even more effective. Finally, take the time to personally encourage every youth who invites a friend and then prayerfully call them to invite them back.
Praise God for the courage and passion of our youth to see their friends meet and follow Christ. May our youth groups be communities where their friends can meet Christ and see Christ in action.