I’ve heard similar stories from many young youth ministers: “The youth just won’t come. Their parents won’t bring them back for youth group. They are so busy with soccer, band, and the play.” Young youth ministers can feel real or imagined pressure from church leadership to grow their youth ministries. Some begin to even wonder if the church should pay them full-time to work with only 12 kids (and the answer is no).
But aren’t young people desperate for caring adults who love them as they are? Don’t they need a place where they can be themselves among a community of peers? Our youth ministries have all these things, so why don’t they come?
Growing your youth ministry is not rocket science; it’s about relationships. The more young people who a relationship with your ministry, the more young people will come. It really is that simple. You can have the coolest youth room, the best lessons, and even really awesome volunteers, but if you don’t have relationships with the youth themselves then they won’t come.
I believe our job is to reach youth with the Good News of Jesus Christ, to walk with them as they begin their journeys of faith, and to teach them how to live as disciples of Christ. But to do any of these things, our ministries must have relationships with young people.
So whether you are trying to reach the youth on your roll who don’t attend, or are trying to reach the youth in your community who need a church home, the following keys will help you reach more youth:

1. Decide that reaching more youth is important.

If you don’t believe it, then you will not do it. It is going to take time, effort, and energy. So count the cost before you start, because trying this halfheartedly won’t work.

2. Make a Plan

The key to my youth ministry’s growth is our contact work plan. It helps us answer the following questions, and gives us direction and a system.
Who is in your flock?
Deciding which youth are currently in your flock is essential. You need to create an active roll to work from so that you will know when your flock has grown. Taking attendance is a must to growing your youth ministry. You need to know who was there and who was not there on a given night. Then you will know when someone who has been active has gone MIA so that you can follow up with him or her. There is a direct correlation to a youth’s attendance and the personal contact they receive from the church. Youth typically don’t disappear if someone is building a strong personal relationship with them. They will go MIA when someone is not.
How wide will you cast your net?
Who are you going fishing for? All the youth on your church roll? All the youth in your city? All the youth at a certain high school? I recently had a youth minister tell me he was fishing for “every youth he meets.” I think defining the boundaries of how wide we will intentionally go fishing for people is essential. Granted, I hope that we “catch” or build a relationship with all the youth we come in contact with, but to prevent that from being just a random occurrence, I suggest defining your ministry boundaries.
Choose the high schools that are within a 10 mile radius (five miles if you live in a city) of the church. This could be as few as one high school or as in my case as many as six. To get an idea of your area youth population, you can follow this simple formula. Add together the high schools’ graduating classes and multiple that by six for 7th through 12th grades (or by seven if 6th graders are a part of your ministry). For example, City X has two high schools, one with a graduating class of 50 and the other with a graduating class of 150. First Church’s area youth population is 200 x 6 or 1200 students. You can look up your county’s un-churched percentage in a Google search which will help you realize how many kids in your area do not have a church home. Your net becomes the high schools and those schools’ feeder middle schools.
I’m always asked, “But what about the kid who goes to the high school in another county?” Your net should always include the people who come through your door, but you will have to decide whether the time and energy to fish in another county is worth it. When we defined our area, we eliminated a high school where we had three youth attending. We made a conscience decision to be in relationship with those kids, but knew that the distance from our church to that high school was such that fishing at that school would not be as effective.
You may choose to make your net smaller. But it is essential to know where you are going fishing.
What’s your process?
You must develop a process for growing relationship, which we call our contact work plan. We have to be in personal contact with the youth if we are going to grow our relationships. What is personal contact? CYMT defines personal contact as anything that is specific and intentionally relational to a specific youth or family, e.g., an email blast is not personal, but a personal email about something going on in a student’s life that gets a response is. Posting something on someone’s Facebook wall is not personal, but having a messaging conversation is. Here are some questions that will help you develop your plan.

  1. How often should I or someone from our team be in contact with the youth in our ministry?
  2. What will constitute personal contact for our team?
  3. How will we track who we have personal contact with?
  4. How will we follow up with visitors to our ministry?
  5. When does someone move from being a visitor to being inside the fold?
  6. How will we track who is active in our ministry programs?
  7. What will we do when someone becomes inactive?

3. Involve Others

How many youth can you have personal contact with outside your ministry in a given week? 10, 20, 50? This number varies for each youth minister. Too many youth ministers leave all of the contact work to themselves. One of the keys to reaching more youth is involving your volunteer team. They can go to football games (some of them already do). They can go to plays. They can text or write encouraging notes to youth. You simply need to make it a part of the expectations of being a volunteer in your youth ministry. They will not be able to give the time and energy that you will, but if each volunteer followed up with one kid a week, how many more youth would feel connected to your ministry? One trick is to take them with you to a school lunch or football game. You grow your relationship with the volunteer and the two of you can talk to more people at the game.

Tips and Tricks: Contact work

  1. Do face-to-face visits with more than one youth.
  2. Have youth meet you at the events of other youth. You can get some get face-to-face time with some kids while cheering on others.
  3. Move around at events. Just because they are friends at church does not mean they hang out at school. Be sure to talk to the band and the soccer team, and don’t forget the parents.
  4. Do I have to stay the whole time? No. I like to catch the end second half of the JV or girls game and the first half of the varsity or boys game. A simple note, text, or Facebook post will let them know you were there cheering them on.
  5. Go to games where two of your kids’ schools are represented. Spend the first half on one side of the field and the second half on the other. Be sure to wear neutral colors.
  6. Call kids when traveling long distances. Have your call list ready or programmed in the phone and pass the time faster by giving them a ring. Late night trips are a great time to call college students.
  7. Send kids pictures from your most recent trip via snail mail, Facebook, or email as a mile marker of God’s faithfulness.
  8. Visit the lunch room. The lunch room is a great place to briefly say “hi” to kids who are not as active. Don’t be scared to say “hi.” They may not want to talk long or really at all, so don’t push it, but they will notice if you know who they are and don’t talk to them.
  9. Go to where they are. Sonic during Happy Hour is a hopping place for my youth. Where are your kids?
  10. Use the contact sheet. You will talk to some kids three times a week, but without the sheet you won’t know which ones you haven’t talked to in a month and those are the kids who are in danger of falling through the cracks.