They make it look so easy, don’t they?
You see their ministries – you know the ones – on Instagram. They post pictures of all the new students that show up at their church. They share stories about the all the kids getting saved and baptized in their ministries.
You scroll and you double-tap, but you also think to yourself: Why aren’t any new students showing up to my ministry?
The answer might be more sociological and less spiritual than you think.
A Sociologist’s Perspective
Rodney Stark is a sociologist at Baylor University. He’s done extensive research on how Christianity spread in its first 300 years. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, he explains:
“The basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments. Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semiclosed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow. Successful movements discover techniques for remaining open networks” (p. 20).
Did you catch that?
The Christian message spread as far as it did, as fast as it did (in part) because Christians maintained relationships with non-Christians. The first Christians didn’t isolate themselves and cut themselves off from other people. They remained enmeshed in the world, while living different from the world. Could it be that your students don’t invite non-Christian friends because they don’t have any non-Christian friends?
A Pastor’s Perspective
Dan Kimball is a pastor who wrote a book called, They Like Jesus but Not the Church. In that book, he observes:
“The longer we are Christians, the fewer the number of friends we have who are not Christians. Even though Christians often work alongside non-Christians or have non-Christian neighbors or sit next to nonbelieving students in class, we generally tend not to actually befriend them, or pray regularly for them, or get involved with their lives so they trust us” (p. 43).
Then, Kimball asks, “If Jesus sent us on a mission to be his salt and light to others, why is it that we have basically set up our church systems and subcultures to remove maturing people from relationships with people outside the church?” (p. 44).
That’s a good question, and it’s worth thinking about. Do you think that your church’s schedule, systems, and subculture keeps people from forming meaningful relationships with outsiders?
A Different Question
When I consider Stark’s sociological data and Kimball’s pastoral observations, it seems like the question of how to grow your group might not be the right question to start with.
Maybe the better question to start with is: What can you do to keep your group from becoming closed to outsiders?
I have a few ideas about that.
4 Strategies to Stay Open to Outsiders (and Grow Your Youth Group)
1. Encourage your students to pray for their non-Christian friends.
When students pray for their friends, they are more inclined to look for ways that God is working in their friends’ lives. They are also more likely to strike up a spiritual conversation with those friends or invite them to something going on in your ministry that might appeal to them. On the other hand, if your students aren’t actively praying for their non-Christian friends, they are far less likely to invite them to anything your ministry does.
2. Encourage your students to bless their non-Christian friends.
In his book, Surprise the World, Michael Frost lists blessing others as the first habit of missional people. He says, “I’d like you to bless three people each week – at least one of whom is a member of your church and at least one of whom is not. The third can be from either category” (p. 29).
What can your students do to bless their non-Christian friends? I think the easiest thing they can do is offer words of encouragement. These could take the form of notes, texts, or compliments; anything will do. The point is to help them think about being a blessing to people who don’t believe. When their prayers are combined with those acts of blessings, they’ll be primed to take on the next strategy.
3. Encourage your students to invite their non-Christian friends.
You’re probably already doing this. I regularly get emails from youth pastors across the country who tell me that their students don’t invite their friends. My advice is this: First, emphasize the first two strategies before this one. Second, make sure you are doing things in your ministry that make it easy for your students to invite their non-Christians and easy for their non-Christian friends to say yes.
For some reason, some people don’t agree with that last sentence. Those people will continue to wonder why new students (non-Christian students) don’t show up at their ministry. In a post-Christian culture, skepticism about church and religion is high. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to plan something fun for students, just so they can invite their non-Christian friends and those friends can see that Christians know how to have a good time. When they know you and trust you, those friends are more likely to come to something else you’re doing in the future that might have a more spiritual emphasis. Consider it pre-evangelism.
4. Encourage your students to share with their non-Christian friends
I am very interested in equipping students to share their faith, not just extend invitations to church. To that end, one of the best tools that I’ve come across to help them do that is Doug Fields’ Friendship Evangelism cards.
I was introduced to this tool many years ago when Doug came to Liberty University to do a Purpose Driven Youth Ministry seminar, and I’ve used it ever since. It’s not enough to ask your students to invite their friends or share their faith. You have to equip them with a plan and a process. The Friendship Evangelism Card does exactly that.
You want your ministry to grow. You wish your students would invite their non-Christian friends. Not for the sake of numbers, I get it. You want to make a difference. You want to see Jesus show up in as many students’ lives as possible.
For that to happen, you have to be strategic. You have to encourage your students in these four ways:
• Encourage them to pray for their non-Christian friends.
• Encourage them to bless their non-Christian friends.
• Encourage them to invite their non-Christian friends.
• Encourage them to share with non-Christian friends.
That’s how you keep your group open.
And that’s how your group will grow.