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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.

Meaning & Wonder of Youth

The Meaning and Wonder of Youth

Science is important, perhaps more important than ever. We face all kinds of crises that require some diligent scientific discernment and intentional action. But are we, as youth workers, prepared to talk about science with the young people in our churches? Are we interested in answering the questions that young people are actually asking and wondering about?

I think we’ve been assuming way too much about what the real relevant questions are right now, and you know what happens to you and me when we assume….

Meaning & Wonder of Youth

What Questions Are We Answering?

If someone decided to peruse all the available resources that are designed for youth workers trying to facilitate a conversation about science in their youth ministry, it’d be easy for them to conclude that the only question science really addresses is, “How did we get here?” One could easily conclude that science is just a big investigation into the earth’s origins because almost all of the ministry resources out there only seem interested in this one issue when it comes to science.

Our preoccupation with origins—the “how” and “where” questions—has a long history I won’t fully get into here, but they are what several generations have considered to be the real front-line, the “Normandy beach,” in the war between faith and science. The question, in this preoccupation, is about evolution.

Can you believe in evolution, the theory that’s currently accepted in one form or another by 97% of the scientific community, and still be a Christian? That is the question that most youth workers, according to what’s out there, need to be answering. And with this presupposition, the various resources available either say “yes” or “no” to that question—they are there either to divide science from faith or to synchronize them.

What Questions Are Young People Asking?

But in all youth ministry’s preoccupation over the apparent tension between faith and science, it appears, according to Andrew Root’s research at Science for Youth Ministry, that young people aren’t even feeling this tension. There’s no battle. While youth workers are busy answering the “how” and “where” questions, young people are asking, “So what?” and, “Why?”

In the face of real immanent crises in the world, the young people in our churches don’t need answers about how old the earth is or whether or not Darwin was right about anything. Our young people’s questions are much more existential—“What is the meaning of all of this?” “Where in the world is God?”

You would think that youth ministers would be pros at addressing these questions. After all, we’re much more concerned with the actual theological questions about science…. aren’t we? Huh?

But that’s the problem. In our preoccupation with evolution and the origins of the earth, we’ve missed our opportunity to address those questions. In the face of naturalistic descriptions of life and its origins, we’ve just been trying to offer a different and “biblical” description… we’re in a tug-of-war of description. But we don’t need more description. What we need is meaning.

Re-Encountering Wonder

In his post, Blair Bertrand writes about the need for wonder. The question of meaning is all about wonder. It takes a real sense of wonder—seeing beyond description and beyond ourselves—to investigate the question of meaning. As Bertrand writes, “…at the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry should pay attention to this for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.”

But we don’t need more description. What we need is meaning.

The German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, argued for the importance of meaning and wonder in his 1976 theological masterpiece, Theology and the Philosophy of Science. According to Pannenberg, “…description by means of natural laws cannot deal with a particular but essential aspect of the human world, that of the perception of meaning.” Pannenberg recognized that, when it comes to what we’re willing to consider relevant to science, we’ve got a real meaning problem on our hands.

We’re trained to think of the more measurable things in life as more real—and our preoccupation with evolution only aggravates this tendency—but reality includes the immeasurable question of meaning. Reality includes not only the question of “how “and “where,” but the “why” question too. 

For Pannenberg, this “why” question always leads to God. In ignoring the “why” question, in worrying so much about evolution, we’ve actually left God out of the conversation. But just as Augustine said, addressing God, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” In the same way, our minds are restless until our questions open us to encounter God.

In ignoring the “why” question, in worrying so much about evolution, we’ve actually left God out of the conversation.

Meaning Matters

“But hey there!” you might be saying, “If we’re in such a crisis—an environmental crisis or what-have-you—shouldn’t we be helping young people address it directly? Doesn’t description and scientific process matter?” The answer is yes. We do have crises on our hands and we need our young people’s generation to address them (that’s why the education crisis is a crisis too). But if we cannot offer meaning to these descriptions—if we can’t encounter God in all of this—we won’t be properly motivated to address these issues in the first place. We need to know why any of it matters.

So what kinds of conversations have you had about science in your youth ministry? How is science implicitly or explicitly addressed? Do you offer space for young people to address the “why” question? Have you opened a space for young people not only to know about God but to wonder in the face of immeasurable meaning? Or have you foreclosed on the question of meaning by answering the wrong question?

Make space in your youth group for the “why” question this year. Don’t just investigate facts, like the “what,” the “how”, or the “where”—inject meaning into them by offering the “so what” and the “why.” Set an example for your young people, and show them the need for meaning and wonder, since through wonder, they will encounter the living God.


The WonderFull God

To read more on this topic, check out Blair Bertrand’s recent post: The Wonder-Full God: Science, Faith, and Wonder in Youth Ministry.

 

Science for Youth MinistryAlso, want faith and science in conversation? Join the conversations—between scientists, authors, pastors, theologians, and philosophers with Science for Youth Ministry.  Visit scienceym.org for some great resources.

 


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

How Should We Think About Young People? - Wes Ellis

Video: How Should We Think About Young People?

In this video, Zach Gurick of Kindred talks with Wes Ellis about how we as youth pastors should think about young people.

Transcript

Zach Gurick: Alright so we’re here with Wes Ellis, just finished up the Flagler youth ministry forum, we have these amazing people all gathered together, so we had to take the opportunity to hear from Wes who is somewhat of an expert of bringing together youth ministry and theology, studying for your Ph.D. at Aberdeen right now. Maybe you could tell us a little about, how should we as youth workers think about young people? We call them youth, kids, teens, adolescents; tell us about that because you’re one of the leading experts on this.

Wes Ellis: Haha well thank (you). First of all I don’t know if I’m a leading expert but yeah there is… there has been, always been this debate about, what should be call kids? Obviously a bias right there, but how should we think about young people, what we call them and does that matter. I think it matters because I think there’s a sort of an impulse in youth ministry to think about young people as sort of potential adults, and that’s sort of what adolescence is all about, what adolescence means.

How Should We Think About Young People? - Wes EllisThat has been, kind of the running theme and the strongest paradigm in how to think about young people in youth ministry, and it’s been helpful to us in so many ways, but I also think that when youth ministry is about developing young people, developing adolescents, into mature Christian adults, what tends to happen, is we as youth workers feel like we failed when our young people in our churches aren’t developing the way we think they should. Also, we tend to leave behind those young people who aren’t developing the way we think they should.

So we elevate the kids who fit our paradigm, the kids who model those things in the present that we look like what we want to exist in the future. And, as youth workers with limited time having to choose where to invest that time, we tend to leave some kids behind.young people - kindred youth ministry - 1

And I think it would be powerful for us to begin to think about young people not as adolescents in a stage of development toward adulthood, but actually to think about them as human beings who are engaging in a practice, in a social practice of youth, and teaching the church some things about the way God is working in their lives. The fact is, the God who’s working in the lives of young people is not a junior Holy Spirit, this is not… this is the same God who is working in you and me, is working in 13 and 15 year olds, and we have some profound things to learn from that.

So youth ministers can think of young people as people, as human beings, and expect to find not just a ball of clay to be molded into an adult, but someone who can actually reveal to us something that God is doing in the church.

Zach: That is a fantastic paradigm shift for us, and I think that as you are talking I’m thinking about kids in my mind that I have learned so much from by doing this and I’m getting just as much out of it as I’m giving to them.

Wes: Yeah it’s a two way street like we are…

Zach: … God is revealing to us through them as well and us.

Wes: Absolutely, we always sort of co-mentoring each other. And the church, we can think about all the ways youth people can transform and give energy, we don’t even know all the potential for what they can teach us because I think we’ve been so set on what the path of development should look like. So maybe let’s just get out of this… let’s stop thinking about a path of development and start thinking about ministry. And I think there is a difference.

young people - kindred youth ministry - 2

Zach: Yeah. That’s fantastic, I think that’s an amazing overview of who you are and what you’re working on and I can’t wait for more to come.

Wes: Cool. Thank You.

How should we think about young people in youth ministry?


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Two Corinthians

In the 2016 presidential primary race Donald Trump bungled the name of a book of the Bible. I heard the story over the radio in my car. It began with the quote “Two Corinthians 3:17…that’s the whole ball game…” I was alone and I laughed out loud. The follow-up to the story was an explanation of why evangelical voters would notice the gaffe. The commentator did not assume his audience would hear the difference between “second” and “two.” He laid it all out. We should be more like him.

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Preaching Was Easy in My Day!

I once heard a preacher at a Pentecostal revival explain how it was so easy to lead people to Christ when he was younger. He talked about how they already knew the Bible and had a sense of how to live, they were just running from their “default-Christian position.” He went on to about how now when someone comes to Christ their lives are a wreck and they have no sense of who God is or how to have relationship with God. That was in 1997, you can only imagine how that guy feels now.

You are ministering to a generation raised by parents who started our monumental cultural shift away from a default-Christian faith. How exciting is that? You have the opportunity to reach students who aren’t burdened with all of the complex and morally murky trappings of cultural Christianity.

I hear him, I get what he was trying to say. But I also doubt its veracity.  I mean, really, I’ve seen Mad Men…they weren’t all that holy. Just how Christian we were in the past, or what it means for a whole culture or country to be Christian—these are ideas worth exploring. But one thing is for sure: if American culture was ever Christian, it is no longer. Newsweek told us about it, The Washington Post agreed and National Geographic affirmed that the rise of “No Religion” is a world wide trend. The Christian press began wringing their hands and dreaming of new strategies in light of the stats. No one is arguing this fact, it’s just true: America is in a post-Christian age.

1) The Harvest Is Plentiful

You have to have a strategy for evangelism. You can’t just open the doors to the church and read the Bible. You are ministering to a generation raised by parents who started our monumental cultural shift away from a default-Christian faith. How exciting is that? You have the opportunity to reach students who aren’t burdened with all of the complex and morally murky trappings of cultural Christianity.

If you are doing ministry with teenagers, You are a missionary. Even if you’re in the South. Even if your kids have parents who come to church every week. Especially if you live in a city. You are surrounded by kids who have no concept of relationship with God, kids whom God loves deeply, kids who are being drawn in by the power of the Spirit, kids who have no language to talk about faith and no sense of their place in the grand biblical story. That is exciting!

2) Watch Your Language

Back to “Two Corinthians.” You would do well to shake loose the technical and loaded language the church has grown so accustomed to. You’ll need to work a little harder, but if you do you’ll communicate more clearly. Grace, Redemption, Sin, Fellowship, Accountability—these words are important to us, but you’re speaking to a generation who has been raised without ever hearing them. Explain the concepts clearly, and they’ll pay attention. Although they may not understand the words, they’ll recognize the concepts.

Quick Case Study:

If you step up in front of kids and say, “Turn to 1 John 4:16” then you are about to talk about a really great and beautiful passage. But if you immediately read the passage you have invariably lost some kids in your group. While it might sound like a silly question, ask yourself: is anyone turning? Or are they all holding phones? If they are turning, are you helping them get there?

While it may seem cumbersome, adding some simple instructions (e.g., “1 John is near the very end of the Bible, page 1,335 in this Blue Bible we are using,” or, “If you are using a smartphone just search ‘First John,’ then go to chapter 4.”) can really help young people to track with you.

3) Don’t ASSume

We shouldn’t assume kids share our common language of “Christian-ese.” We also shouldn’t count on them knowing Bible stories or theological concepts if we don’t help bring them along. When I write talks for students, I only use one or two Scripture references and I refer back to them repeatedly through the talk. This isn’t because I don’t love the Bible, but because I don’t think students keep pace the way mature Christians do. For those of us who have heard most Scriptures hundreds of times, we can hear a reference, plug it in, and keep moving. “Post-Christian” teenagers will need some time and work to get there. So go deep, using fewer stories and references.

4) Rise To the Occasion!

It’s not a value judgment to recognize that our teens are living in a post-Christian culture. It’s just a statement of fact. We have the opportunity to teach theological ideas, from the ground up. If it’s true that kids are mostly unfamiliar with the Bible, we have the opportunity to make them familiar. We are at the front lines with brilliant students, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

That Pentecostal preacher in 1997 was a fool to complain about his lot in ministry. He should have been celebrating the opportunity to live and preach the Gospel to a generation who does not take it for granted. That is our lot, let’s celebrate and get to work!


About the Author: Tyler Fuller

tyler fuller

The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doing Young Life and church Youth Ministry. I am now the Missions Pastor at a mega church in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)