We all know how hard it is to build--and keep--a critical mass of young people in your youth program. Activities compete for their time, enthusiasm waxes and wanes, and the rest of the church may not take a very active role in encouraging youth involvement.
We asked a group of youth leaders for their tips for increasing youth participation.
1. Personal Attention
I am directing a group of about thirty youth right now. I long for the days of two and three members. I have found that I am not capable of meeting the needs of the kids when the ratio of youth to adults gets beyond 8:1. I have also found that steady, consistent growth occurs when the volunteers increase.
My formula is to provide a place where someone can provide care and attention. The more personal attention they get, the more likely youth will pay a return visit, and the more likely we will be able to bring them into the church.
2. Build Up Anticipation
Sometimes the difficulty of holding youth is rooted in long-term programming. When youth begin their involvement with a youth ministry, say in the sixth or seventh grade, we want to give them everything we can to help them know Christ, experience fellowship, work at mission, and more.
We offer them retreats, lock-ins, trips, special activities, in fact, we give them everything we can think of! For many of these kids, by the time they are sixteen they’ve done every game, hit every retreat site, traveled every road, discussed every topic we offer several times.
With the a slim prospect of something new or different, they opt for the liberty of a driver’s license. And they only come back when gas tank is low!
One answer to this is to stagger programs over the full life of the individual’s involvement:
- As a middle school youth, I might only be allowed one overnight experience in a full year of programs. As a senior high, I would have the option of attending many more.
- As a middle school youth, I might be allowed only one-day mission opportunities, where as a 9th or 10th grader I could attend a week-long event within a given geography. As a junior or senior I could help plan and be a part of an outreach opportunity that was a disaster-response program or at an international site.
- Middle schoolers retreat to a local park. The older they get, the more interesting and far away the sites.
You get the drift. Over the years, I’ve found that older teens are put off by always being rolled up with the younger teens. For me, planning experiences and opportunities linked to age, grade, or previous experience has worked very well in keeping kids involved and vital from sixth grade through graduation.
— Mike Selleck
3. Activate Your Volunteers
We have Outreach Ministry Teams with specific jobs:
- Postcard Brigade: We ask one adult to relate to five youth. Usually the brigade members are older adults; many are homebound. They write letters weekly to our youth, saying, "Hi, we missed you," and so on. If I need something special written, I ask them to send that information. This ritual guarantees a weekly contact. And youth LOVE mail! Usually the relationships grow into being pen pals after the youth graduate from high school.
- Taxi Drivers: We call our volunteer drivers Taxi Drivers. They are in charge of picking up youth who have a hard time with transportation. You would be surprised at the number of youth who cannot make it to church on their own.
- Ring-a-Dings: These adults (different from the Postcard Brigade) make phone calls to each of the youth not present at a youth function. They are told they were missed and told about upcoming events.
- Calendar Crew: Up-to-date and timely information is crucial. Youth and parents today are very busy. They need precise information about programs. When we started having a good calendar, we saw an increase in attendance.
- Parents: Make sure the parents are involved and behind the program. We often have Parents Night for parents to see what their son or daughter is doing. After these events, more youth attend because more parents care to get them there.
— Jeffry Bross
4. Three-Time Rule
A good system is having some kind of membership requirement for special activities. This system views the large event as an incentive for attendance, not as the initial event to get youth to come to our regular gatherings. It functions in this way:
If a youth wants to bring a friend to youth group, great! If she or he wants to bring a friend to Sunday school, great! If she or he wants to bring a friend to the mission trip or to the trip to the amusement park, fine—once that friend has attended three regular youth group meetings!
Back when I was a youth and now that I am a youth leader, I think this is a fair rule. It not only increases the commitment of the group, but it protects you as a leader as well. This way, you are not suddenly in charge of a new youth for a day (or even a week) about whom you know nothing. If you have seen him or her three times before, you can spot potential for troublemaking. Also, the three-time attendance rule acquaints that visitor with the behavioral norms of the group so she or he knows what is and is not appropriate behavior.
This system has worked well to maintain attendance and commitment, as long as the membership rule does not become so strict that it is stifling to the group.
— Jenny Williams