Attendance at programmes is monitored and leaders follow up absentees letting them know that they were missed.
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? (Luke 15:4)
One of my favourite parables is the parable of the lost sheep in which the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one that was lost. (Luke 15:4) The underlying message of the parable is that every person is important to God and when we stray He seeks us out and calls us back.
When I was a teenager I missed one week of our youth programme. A young adult had been teaching our group and called me on the phone that week to ask if he could call round and cover what I had missed. I no doubt mumbled a “yes” and to this day, while I don’t recall what he said, I recall seeing him coming up our front path to knock on our door. His presence told me I was important, and I’ve never forgotten!
A youth ministry with a relational focus notices when a young person is absent and contacts them to find out why and to let them know they were missed.
Let me ask you a question. If a young person stopped coming to your youth programme, how long would it be until someone contacted them to find out why? If it is more than two or three weeks, it may be too late. They will have already got the message that no one cares.
The first step in following up an absentee is to monitor attendance. Don’t rely on your memory to recall over time who is coming regularly and who is not. Either utilise a sign-in system sheet or spreadsheet to record attendance or do this yourself immediately after the programme ends. Notice when a young person’s attendance starts to slip.
The next step is to have a strategy for how you will deal with absentees – one that values the young person without making them feel like you are in some way showing disappointment or disapproval.
Whenever I saw a young person at church who had missed our Friday night programme I would say, “Hey we missed you on Friday night!” Often they would look a little embarrassed and start to apologise as they began to explain why. Quickly I would reassure them: “That’s fine! I’m just letting you know we care about you and you were missed!” You would see them visibly relax and smile.
The lesson is, we don’t follow up absentees to shame them. We follow them up because we want them to know we care.
Depending on the size and leadership structure of the youth ministry, following up absentees may be the role of the youth pastor, key leader and/or their small group leader. In groups I have led, it was primarily the small group leader’s responsibility with me as a backup.
Interestingly, the most effective people to do follow up on absentees are the young people themselves. One of my daughters had missed a couple of weeks of youth group and was deciding whether or not to return that night. We talked about it and she was thinking she would simply stay home. Imagine my surprise when a couple of hours later she came out of her bedroom all dressed and ready to leave! It turned out one of her friends had called her after we had spoken and encouraged her to go.
When you notice someone has stopped coming. encourage those in their small group to take some responsibility for contacting them and inviting them back. Knowing that their peers care about them and miss them is often a more effective way to get them back than if we contact them, but don’t let this be a substitute for leaders doing their own follow-up.
Of course, there are many ways of doing this. Depending on the person and your relationship with them this might be anything from a low-key but caring text or social media message, through to a handwritten card or a even a phone call.
Ideally, aim to follow up absentees every week. Two consecutive weeks should be the maximum a young person could miss before they would expect to receive some personal contact. Even if you know the reason for their absence it is still good to make contact with them, just to let them know they were missed. They may not know that you know the reason for their absence, and by not remarking on it they may interpret this as not caring.
The fourth step concerns what we do about persistent absentees. Our response will depend on the reasons why they are not attending. They may have another short term commitment arise on youth group nights. If so keep in touch so that it’s easy for them to return when that commitment is over.
It may be however that they no longer wish to attend at all and they let you know. While our initial reaction might be disappointment or even hurt, our aim is to let that young person know they are still loved and valued. Express sorrow that they no longer wish to come but reassure them that you’d love to see them again if they ever change their mind. If they are going to another youth group wish them well, but again let them know they are welcome to visit or return anytime.
If they are not going to any youth group, continue to pray for them and ask God’s Spirit to prompt you in making occasional contact. Who knows the outcome of a caring message at just the right moment?
You might even ask if you can still keep in touch. One of our leaders had led a boys’ group since they were thirteen. There was one boy who, in his final year of high school, stopped coming. His leader, however, due to the strong relationship he had built with this boy, continued to keep in touch with him for the whole year. Each week he would call him and they would talk. That boy was not attending our weekly programme and never came back, but thanks to his leader, he was still very much a part of our youth ministry.
Another young person, on turning sixteen, decided that our discipleship programme wasn’t for her and so she joined her friends in attending parties on the weekend. Within six months she realised true friendship and acceptance was to be found back in her small group who welcomed her in again. If the message she had received on leaving had been critical or judgemental it is unlikely she would have returned. Instead she knew she would be accepted back.
Finally, don’t stop contacting a young person from your church without first talking to their parents. They can advise you regarding the value or otherwise of ongoing contact. Talking with them will also prevent them from thinking that your lack of contact contributed to their teen no longer coming.
CHECKLIST: TEN CHARACTERISTICS OF A YOUTH MINISTRY THAT CARES FOR ABSENTEES
- A weekly record of attendance is kept, with absentees noted.
- There is a clearly understood strategy for who follows up absentees and when.
- It’s not possible for someone to miss two consecutive weeks and not have someone notice their absence
- Absentees are followed up in a way that leaves them feeling valued – not criticised or condemned.
- Absentees are followed up, even when a good reason for their absence is known.
- Young people are encouraged to take responsibility for each other, following up any friends who are absent.
- When someone stops coming and no longer wishes to be contacted, leaders respect their wishes but still pray for them, asking God to prompt them anytime a caring message may have a positive impact at just the right moment.
- Leaders intentionally make it as easy as possible for an absent young person to change their mind and start coming again.
- When a young person chooses to attend another youth group, leaders are careful not to convey any disapproval or even hurt that might be felt. Instead, the young person is wished well, making it easy for them to return.
- When a young person from a church family is persistently absent, a leader contacts the parents to ascertain the best response.
CCCNZ Youth offers a coaching programme for key youth leaders and youth pastors who would like help in implementing these principles as well as learning leadership skills. Contact us if you are interested.