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The Kid Who Never Came Back

The Kid Who Never Came Back:
Handling Youth Group Dropouts

What happens when an active teen suddenly drops out of youth group?

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;”
Proverbs 3:5-7a (NRSV)

The Kid Who Never Came Back

When Young People Go Missing

“I just don’t understand why they never came back.”

This is a statement many in a congregation made after a family with five teenagers suddenly stopped showing up.

For months, they were active. Their presence was energizing. Their absence was confusing, then painful, then frustrating.

As fast as they jumped into our ministries, they were gone.

Five kids who never came back.

I had little to offer the congregation, until I remembered…

I was the kid who never came back.

Catching the Fire

FLASHBACK: Middle school was a big time for me.

I started playing the saxophone.

I had my first big crush.

And I began to ask some big questions about Jesus.

Here’s the point: a kid might show up to your youth group ONCE. They might come for YEARS. And just like that, they’re gone… You’re called to do the ministry anyway.

After a transformative summer that included a commitment to follow Jesus, a baptism in a river, and my first ministry leadership opportunity as a teacher for a large Vacation Bible School program, I returned to school in September “on fire for God.”

Equipped with my WWJD bracelet, a Bible in my backpack, and an AIM screen name that included the words “Jesus Freak,” I found a large non-denominational church that welcomed me warmly. A middle school youth minister became my hero. She really cared about what I had to say—especially questions about faith. She and the other youth leaders poured into me and quickly gave me additional roles, service opportunities, and responsibilities. Before I knew it, I was on the Leadership Team, the Welcome Team, the Worship Team… name a team that would involve me being at the church, I was on it.

After almost three years of intense involvement, I dropped off the face of youth ministry.

And I never said goodbye.

Transitions and Loss

Over-scheduled achievement-seeking and a difficult transition into the high school youth group turned me into an excuse-making machine. Theologically and spiritually shallow small group experiences left me hungry for something different—something more.

They tried to reach out.

First, there were phone calls. I ignored them.

Then, emails. I sometimes responded.

Eventually, I cut my ties. After a few months, the youth team gave me space.

I would see them occasionally at musicals, games, and other events.

I felt embarrassed for leaving, and I avoided them at all costs.

When I received a “candy gram” from my old middle school youth minister during intermission of one of our high school musicals, I felt seen, remembered, and loved—but I still wouldn’t go back.

I still prayed, sought spiritual conversation partners, and asked big questions.

I went to college, and tried some campus ministry groups, many of which involved thirty-year-olds talking to me in Christian-bro-speak. It felt too familiar.

My faith still shaped me—informing my worldview, vocational discernment, and relationship decisions.

Coming Back

Then it happened.

A summer children’s ministry summer internship led to a youth ministry position.

I reached out to my middle school youth minister for advice. We got coffee. We reminisced. She gave me books that shaped her early on in her ministry career. And yet again, she changed my life.

Though she hadn’t seen me for years, and I certainly couldn’t have been included in her attendance count, she was one of the most influential people in my faith formation, my journey with God, and my call to ministry.

Here’s the point: a kid might show up to your youth group ONCE. They might come for YEARS. And just like that, they’re gone.

Caring for One-and-Dones

Here’s what you can do about it:

  1. Reach out to them in a low pressure way. It might bring them back.
  2. If it doesn’t, they may want to avoid you. Say hi, but don’t guilt them.
  3. Pray for them.
  4. Remind yourself, even though you’re emotionally invested in your ministry—it probably wasn’t about you.
  5. Trust the LORD. Remember—you

Every now and then you’ll re-connect and learn that those conversations, silly games, and tears were worth it after all. Hang onto those moments.

Most of the time, you’ll probably never know the impact that you’ve had on the life of a teenager.

You’re called to do the ministry anyway.

So care for them, even when they’re the kids who never come back.


About the Author: Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten is a third year M. Div student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a co-pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Mount Holly, New Jersey. He has served as a minister to children, youth, and adults in American Baptist, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations.

The Kid Who Never Came Back

The Kid Who Never Came Back

What happens when an active teen suddenly drops out of youth group?

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;”
Proverbs 3:5-7a (NRSV)

Kid Who Never Came Back

When Young People Go Missing

“I just don’t understand why they never came back.”

This is a statement many in a congregation made after a family with five teenagers suddenly stopped showing up.

For months, they were active. Their presence was energizing. Their absence was confusing, then painful, then frustrating.

As fast as they jumped into our ministries, they were gone.

Five kids who never came back.

I had little to offer the congregation, until I remembered…

I was the kid who never came back.

Catching the Fire

FLASHBACK: Middle school was a big time for me.

I started playing the saxophone.

I had my first big crush.

And I began to ask some big questions about Jesus.

Here’s the point: a kid might show up to your youth group ONCE. They might come for YEARS. And just like that, they’re gone… You’re called to do the ministry anyway.

After a transformative summer that included a commitment to follow Jesus, a baptism in a river, and my first ministry leadership opportunity as a teacher for a large Vacation Bible School program, I returned to school in September “on fire for God.”

Equipped with my WWJD bracelet, a Bible in my backpack, and an AIM screen name that included the words “Jesus Freak,” I found a large non-denominational church that welcomed me warmly. A middle school youth minister became my hero. She really cared about what I had to say—especially questions about faith. She and the other youth leaders poured into me and quickly gave me additional roles, service opportunities, and responsibilities. Before I knew it, I was on the Leadership Team, the Welcome Team, the Worship Team… name a team that would involve me being at the church, I was on it.

After almost three years of intense involvement, I dropped off the face of youth ministry.

And I never said goodbye.

Transitions and Loss

Over-scheduled achievement-seeking and a difficult transition into the high school youth group turned me into an excuse-making machine. Theologically and spiritually shallow small group experiences left me hungry for something different—something more.

They tried to reach out.

First, there were phone calls. I ignored them.

Then, emails. I sometimes responded.

Eventually, I cut my ties. After a few months, the youth team gave me space.

I would see them occasionally at musicals, games, and other events.

I felt embarrassed for leaving, and I avoided them at all costs.

When I received a “candy gram” from my old middle school youth minister during intermission of one of our high school musicals, I felt seen, remembered, and loved—but I still wouldn’t go back.

I still prayed, sought spiritual conversation partners, and asked big questions.

I went to college, and tried some campus ministry groups, many of which involved thirty-year-olds talking to me in Christian-bro-speak. It felt too familiar.

My faith still shaped me—informing my worldview, vocational discernment, and relationship decisions.

Coming Back

Then it happened.

A summer children’s ministry summer internship led to a youth ministry position.

I reached out to my middle school youth minister for advice. We got coffee. We reminisced. She gave me books that shaped her early on in her ministry career. And yet again, she changed my life.

Though she hadn’t seen me for years, and I certainly couldn’t have been included in her attendance count, she was one of the most influential people in my faith formation, my journey with God, and my call to ministry.

Here’s the point: a kid might show up to your youth group ONCE. They might come for YEARS. And just like that, they’re gone.

Caring for One-and-Dones

Here’s what you can do about it:

  1. Reach out to them in a low pressure way. It might bring them back.
  2. If it doesn’t, they may want to avoid you. Say hi, but don’t guilt them.
  3. Pray for them.
  4. Remind yourself, even though you’re emotionally invested in your ministry—it probably wasn’t about you.
  5. Trust the LORD. Remember—you

Every now and then you’ll re-connect and learn that those conversations, silly games, and tears were worth it after all. Hang onto those moments.

Most of the time, you’ll probably never know the impact that you’ve had on the life of a teenager.

You’re called to do the ministry anyway.

So care for them, even when they’re the kids who never come back.


About the Author: Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten is a third year M. Div student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a co-pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Mount Holly, New Jersey. He has served as a minister to children, youth, and adults in American Baptist, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations.