3 Well-Meaning Youth Outreach Strategies that Fail
Youth outreach is complicated. What works and what doesn’t work seems to be constantly in flux, and youth leaders struggle to find new ways to connect with their students. Though well-intentioned, many of these outreach strategies end up failing. Youth groups dwindle in size and youth pastors get burned out trying to increase engagement. There are a few strategies, though, that have proven to be ultimately ineffective across the board, even though the leadership behind them genuinely want to reach youth for Christ:
- Numerous flashy programs and events. Especially with young people, it can be tempting to try to attract them with the newest, coolest things. Or even long tenured events like lock-ins and ski trips. There’s nothing wrong with gathering youth together to have fun, but when programs and events become the primary vehicle for attracting and keeping youth involved, we’ve missed the mark. Even if the youth group doubles in size, if there are no real relationships being formed or spiritual growth happening, none of it matters when it comes to the ultimate goal of leading youth toward Christ. True discipleship and spiritual development comes through relationships. By streamlining programs and events and instead focusing on strategies that build community and provide opportunities to genuinely connect, we will be much more effective in reaching youth and helping them develop a deeper relationship with Christ.
- Preaching “at” youth or trying to relate using buzzwords. Though the rationales behind both of these approaches are understandable, one thing teens are great at is seeing through a façade. By attempting to utilize slang or buzzwords, trying to emulate their trends or otherwise trying to be relevant in an inauthentic way, you instead create distance between yourself and them. On the flip side, preaching “at” them with cliches or lecturing them rather than engaging them in real conversation is just as ineffective and distancing. Youth ministry is not a business of behavior modification. It’s about shaping hearts and creating space for youth to grow closer to Christ. By asking them questions about what they think, what their experiences are like, what they struggle with — we invite them into relationship rather than keeping them at arm’s length. We walk alongside them instead of dragging them behind us. Authenticity is key to strong relationships, and relationships are most important when it comes to discipling youth.
- Involving only young adults in leadership positions. On its face, it may seem most appropriate to exclusively place younger adults in charge of youth ministry for the sake of relevancy, and to be honest, the “cool” factor. But older adults, even if they are older than many of the students’ parents, bring with them a wisdom and trustworthiness youth often appreciate. Effectiveness in youth ministry is often less about “relevancy” and more about building trust, regardless of the age distance between the youth and leadership. Older adults — even if they are volunteers — can also be great assets and mentors for younger youth pastors, who may be relatively new to the job.
Ultimately, the most important thing to keep in mind when engaging youth is building authentic relationships. It’s only through trusted relationships that true discipleship can occur, allowing us to explore the Word of God more deeply, walk through challenges together and build one another up, drawing us closer to Jesus.