Newcomers are made to feel welcome by youth and leaders alike and quickly gain a sense of belonging and involvement.
I was a stranger, and you invited me in... when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ (Matthew 25:35b,40b)
The culture Jesus lived in placed a high value on hospitality and the welcoming of strangers. To turn away a stranger in need was unacceptable. Jesus took this even further when He said that when we welcomed a stranger it was as if we were welcoming Him (Matt. 25:31-36).
With this in mind, greeting the newcomer and making them feel welcome is not just a strategy for effectiveness. It is something God expects of us.
It is no exaggeration to say that the most important person at your youth group next week is the person who is there for the first time. Truly grasping this and believing it, is the first step in effectively welcoming newcomers and integrating them into your youth group. All other strategies flow from this foundational conviction.
I recall taking my youngest daughter to youth group for the first time at a church where I was once the youth pastor. In the car on the way I explained to her all the things we would do to make new people welcome. Nervously she said, “I hope they still do that!”.
When we pulled up in the car outside the church she hesitated and looked at me.
“Would you like me to come in with you?”, I asked.
She nodded and walked together to the front door where a leader, standing outside, welcomed us in. Before long the leader was introducing her to other girls and making her feel welcome. When I had the chance I asked my daughter if she would like me to stay a little longer she quickly shook her head and so off I went.
When I arrived to pick her up later that night at the agreed time she was having much to good a time to even notice I had arrived as she talked and ate ice cream at a table with some new friends.
I later reflected on what a good job that leader and that youth group had done. They turned a nervous first attender into someone who attended regularly by greeting them personally and then helping them to meet other people.
There are other strategies for welcoming newcomers. I remember visiting a large youth group, in which those who had brought a friend for the first time were given a drink bottle to pass on to their friend. The drink bottle had the youth group’s logo emblazoned on it and contained further information on the ministry and what they believed. The youth pastor would circulate after the programme, looking for young people with the drink bottle and then would them walk up to them and personally greet them.
Once you’ve made a young person feel welcome, and provided them with some basic information about your youth ministry, the next step is to develop a low key strategy that enables you to invite them back if appropriate. At some point, ask if this is their first time at a youth group. If they say that they normally go to the youth group down the road, welcome them as a visitor but don’t invite them back (yes you read that right!). It is not appropriate to do anything to encourage young people to leave another youth group and come to yours, especially if their youth group as at a church the rest of their family attends.
If they start to come regularly you can initiate a conversation around why they are coming to your youth group regularly and not their other one (unless they are going to both). Ask how their parents feel about it and if necessary talk to their parents before adding them to any contact databases.
If a young person is not involved elsewhere ask them if they would like you to keep in touch with them via texting or social media. Don’t push it. Some are reluctant to provide any contact details on their first visit. Just let them know you are glad they came and pray for them throughout the week, asking God to draw them back.
Wait until they have been a few times and ask again. They are likely to feel more at ease about providing details once they get to know you and are enjoying coming. Record whatever contact details of the young people and their parents/guardians that you deem necessary. A welcome card system works well. Ask them to fill it in and then transfer their details onto your contact database.
Having welcomed a newcomer and recorded their contact details, it’s important to actually contact them! Tell them you’re pleased they came or are coming to your youth group and invite them back the following week. At this stage don’t simply include them in a mass text. You need to adopt a personal approach for them to feel valued. Again, in your message, introduce yourself and address them by name.
If the person at your youth group for the first time is the most important person each week, the person who is there for the second time is the second most important person! Greet them by name (you may need to have written it down after the previous programme in order to jog your memory). Using their name lets them know they are more than just a face in a crowd – they already belong!
A young person who had attended our youth ministry years ago, wrote to me. She had become a youth pastor in her own church and had some questions to ask me about youth ministry. At the end of her note, she said, “There is one thing I’ve often thought about. On my second week at youth group you came up to me and greeted me by name. I’ve always wondered how you remembered my name.”
It’s a little bizarre to think that, years later, this was her main memory from her time in youth group, but it illustrates a point. Being made to feel valued is memorable!
My experience with this girl and a host of other experiences I’ve had convince me that when young people come to our programmes their priority is not necessarily to know Jesus, but to be known by the people there and to know that they are valued.
Once someone has started to come regularly and is beginning to develop friendships, look for ways they can get involved. The aim is to turn a “consumer” into a “participant” by having them contribute in some way. Make a list of ways young people can be involved in the ministry, such as through leadership or service. The scope of these opportunities can be great or small.
Make this list available often, without putting pressure on anyone. When a young person finds their niche by serving, they feel important and appreciated and that turns them from a newcomer into a committed regular member of the youth ministry.
CHECKLIST: TEN CHARACTERISTICS OF A YOUTH MINISTRY THAT INTEGRATES NEWCOMERS WELL
- They act as though the most important person each week is the person there for the first time.
- When a newcomer arrives a leader quickly notices and engages them in conversation.
- Leaders work hard to remember and use newcomer’s names
- A deliberate strategy to turn newcomers into participants exists and is followed.
- They don’t try to lure young people away from their own youth ministry or family’s church.
- Newcomers are made to feel welcome and are introduced to others such as a small group leader or young people their own age or one with similar interests.
- A system such as a contact card is used to collect contact information for the young person and their parents/guardians.
- When a young person gives their contact information they are personally contacted within a week with a message that invites them to the next programme and leaves them feeling valued.
- When a young person comes to the youth group for the second time at least one leader will greet them by name and make them feel welcome and valued.
- A list of ways young people can actively participate in the youth ministry exists and young people are regularly given opportunities to take on roles of service or leadership.
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.