Reconnecting with lost youth: How it works

Jan 9, 2019 7:00:00 AM / by Erik Ullestad


This is the second of a three-part series about starting the year with a fresh start. Our first post explored the theological implications of reaching out to youth who have stopped participating in your church’s ministry.

I took Suzy’s suggestion (more of a demand, really) and reached out to the two Anderson boys. (Reminder: Suzy was a prominent member of the congregation.) I figured I’d start with Barry, the younger and more at-risk of the two brothers.

Suzy told me Barry was learning how to play guitar, which is something he and I had in common. I contacted his mom and invited myself over to their home one day after school to have a jam session in their living room. She was thrilled.

Barry was not.

In fact, I’m not sure he even knew I was coming over.

Undeterred, I put on my Chipper Youth Dude hat and continued with the relational ministry agenda. I asked him to play the songs he liked, which were mostly in the death-metal genre. I attempted to teach him a few chords while weaving in conversations about school, friends, hobbies, and church; none of which were successful.

Barry mumbled and scowled his way through our encounter, utterly disdainful of my every attempt at connection. After 45 minutes (or was it a few hours? Definitely felt like a few hours.), I left his house, much to our mutual relief. Suffice it to say, I did not succeed in winning Barry’s heart for Jesus. In fact, I only saw Barry one other time in my life, several years later at his nephew’s baptism. It was super awkward. 

This interaction wasn’t a total failure. I’ll explain more about that in the third and final installment of this series. My time with Barry caused me to take a closer look at effective ways to reconnect with kids who have been missing from youth group. 

What’s the goal of this outreach?

How is success defined?

Is it worth the time and effort?

At first glance it seems that the goal of reaching out to inactive youth is to make them, well… more active. It seems kind of obvious, right?

If a lost sheep is found, we rejoice. If a lost sheep stays lost, we lament (or, at the very least, we find a scapegoat to blame). But it doesn’t always work that way. Some kids won’t ever come to youth group as a result of your outreach, but that doesn’t mean they forgot you. 

When you send a text message, make a phone call, send a postcard, or stop by their house or school, you are showing them what the church is about. Church is a place of hope and belonging; a place where people aren’t just welcomed but are relentlessly invited. Young people may not be interested in that kind of place during their teen years, but they may come to rely on a community of faith for those things later in life. 

Just because young people don’t immediately come to your fabulous lock-in or game night doesn’t mean they’ll never come to church.

It’s worth mentioning that the rate of return on reaching out to inactive kids is low – way less than 50 percent. Youth workers often have this romantic notion that a perfect combination of their winsome personality, a perfectly worded invitation, and the miraculous in-breaking of the Holy Spirit will bring young people back to church in droves. It doesn’t work that way very often. 

There will be more occasions of young people ignoring you, telling you to leave them alone, or laughing at your overtures. But their parents, siblings, and friends will notice, as will the kids who are coming to youth group. When you connect with inactive youth you aren’t just ministering to them, you’re showing other teens and adults what the kingdom of God looks like. And that’s always worth the investment of your time and energy.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  • Always involve the parents in your attempts to connect with kids who have stopped participating at church. Ask permission to visit their kids. Request their insight for ways you might relate to them. Sure, parents can get frustrated by their children, but they also know a lot about what inspires and motivates them. Lean on these parents for support and encouragement. 
  • Communicate regularly with your supervisor or pastor. Make sure they are okay with you doing this kind of outreach. Additionally, ask if they have ideas for how to invite people to church. You don’t have to do this alone. (In fact, it’s better if you don’t!) 
  • If you’re meeting one-on-one with young people, make sure to do it in a public place. This is a safety precaution for you and the young person. It may also make the conversation less awkward than if you meet in a church office or secluded location.


Come back next week for the last post in this series, where Erik shares ways to give kids a meaningful connection at church once they’ve returned to the fold. Missed the first post? Read it here.

Topics: Youth Ministry

Erik Ullestad

Written by Erik Ullestad

Erik Ullestad is a certified youth minister with 20 years of congregational experience. He's served on a variety of national boards, spoken at youth conferences, and contributed to more than a dozen youth ministry resources. He lives in Iowa with his wife and three teenage children.


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