By Rhys Ferguson

It is that time of the year.

The five advent candles have been lit and put out, the presents under the tree have been unwrapped, the trips to far off places (and places just around the corner) have been made, and the clean first page of a new calendar adorns your wall.

It is with a unique and rare mixture of lingering Christmas spirit, fresh New Year’s hope, and yes, a few holiday naps, that you, a leader of students, are ready to open the doors of the ministry wide once again.

There are also students and families in your community that are likely experiencing a similar combination of emotions that you are. This may lead them to decide that they are ready to come back through those open doors and give church (and the youth ministry) another go.

While this opportunity could be just on the horizon for your ministry, planning a grand group of gatherings doesn’t guarantee that all of the long-lost students will line back up on the steps of the church, even if the year on the calendar went up a number.

However, there are practices of care, intention, and hospitality that you and your fellow youth leaders can incorporate into the culture of the ministry that can ensure the space that has been created  is ready and prepared to receive and welcome back students old and new, at the beginning of the 2023 and beyond.

Personal Invites Matter

For example, a great way to let students know that they are welcome back at any time is to invite them back first, and the new year provides an excellent time to do so. Whether through a traditional calling (or texting) tree or a handwritten postcard, find a way for you and your team to personally reach out to every individual student on your roster and communicate that they are welcome back at any time.

Intentionally Welcome Each Student

Another way to cultivate a space that is ready to become a community for students is through small alterations to the ministries weekly programming. Let volunteers greet students at the door, expressing their excitement for each one as they walk in. Have students make their own name tag as they walk in, as it allows each youth to be called by name no matter how many times they have shown up to church. Also be sure yourself and your leaders are using inclusive language while speaking to a group of students, which can mean reintroducing who they are, giving full details during announcements regardless of how many times the announcement has been shared, and avoiding using insider words or phrases that could confuse or alienate a student who hasn’t attended in a while.

Go to Them

When a student has shown up to church after a long time of being out, make an intentional effort to connect or have a volunteer connect and be present with that student during the event. Be sure to follow up with that student after they’ve shown up and let them know that you enjoyed seeing them again and that you would love to have them back anytime. If you know that a student is involved in an activity at school, find time in your schedule to show up and support them doing what they are passionate about.

All of these tips may seem simple in concept, but they are typically the things we as youth leaders tend to overlook far too often. When these things are implemented and done well, they can have an immeasurable impact on the lives of your students and the culture of your ministry, especially when done in concert with one another.

So in 2023, don’t just prop open the doors for students who will be there every time you unlock them, but continually make the intention and the effort to reach every student and create a haven to receive them whenever they are ready to be welcomed back.