One Congregation’s Success Story in Reaching Out to Young People
Most churches want a way to reach young people. The congregation I pastor, The Shepherd’s Community Church in South Holland, Illinois, has had some good success in doing that. We have also made mistakes and learned a lot. Let me share some of our story to help you decide what might work for you.
About three years ago a church member, we’ll call him Jim, came to me with a suggestion. Jim had experience with community sports activities and wanted to use our church gymnasium to sponsor a basketball family night. I liked his idea, and that first evening marked the beginning of our teen and family basketball outreach.
We attracted a few very good players, one of whom just stopped by because he saw the light in the gym; Matthew 5:14 in action! We set rules for rotation so everyone could play. Jim’s daughter, plus the presence of the guys, brought in girls. Jim kept a close eye on who came. Most were friends or acquaintances of those already attending, and we asked them to be responsible for their guests’ behavior.
First big mistake
Before long, we decided to separate the girls into a group for games and conversation, which was a big hit with them. We discussed a single scripture or important principle. Next, I accepted a suggestion to give the girls formal lessons on life and etiquette. This required the girls to sit for 40 minutes and had strict rules of behavior. Big mistake!
The girls rebelled! We were expecting these young people to behave as if they were members of our church. I had failed to understand, respect and appreciate the differences. Even worse, we were trying to get them to change in a group situation before they knew we cared about them as individuals.
We ended that program because it was not working. But I still had to deal with the girls’ behavior, which included rude comments, name-calling and threats of violence. This was unacceptable. I asked them not to come back until they could respect the simple rules of conduct established for the activity.
We were all sad that night. I found myself having a pity-party, thinking about how disrespected I felt and how little appreciation the girls had for what we were doing for them. I accepted that we had miscalculated by expecting too much, too soon. But there had to be some rules.
Not all rules are “legalistic.” If people are to work together, they must respect each other, and if we were going to make a difference in their lives, there had to be some reasonable boundaries. But I also realized that we had to be considerate and patient. After all, we were the ones who know Jesus and have the love of God.
The girls returned after a two-week cooling-off period. I never mentioned the incident again and never again tried to manipulate them into change. I got to know all their names and tried to strike up conversations every time I saw them. This seemed to work. It has been well said that people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.
Jim had a sister who he thought could relate to the girls, so we asked her if she would help us. Gas prices had shot up, so we paid her a gas allowance so she could afford to attend. She also was able to pick up some of the girls en route to the activity, which helped her build a relationship with them.
One night while I was visiting the group, I heard her telling them, “This is my pastor and this is a church, you know. You ask me all sorts of Bible questions. Well, the pastor is my teacher, so if you want to learn about the Bible and be with people who care about you, then come to church. If you need a ride, I guess I can pick you up.” That little introduction to church, coming from someone who had credibility because she had proved she cared, made an impact. The group began coming to church. Some of the guys wanted to be where the girls were and to see what our church was like, so they came too.
In church they got to hear the Word, share in the sacraments and experience some of what Jesus wanted for them through interaction with our members. And our congregation learned some valuable lessons about successfully reaching out with the good news of the gospel. We had prayed as a congregation for God to send us people to help. Here was the answer.
Sometimes a few of the members would roll their eyes when the guys talked to the girls during the service or when the baby of one of the teen mothers cried in church. But the guys learned how to respect the service and the members came to love the girl and her baby; the congregation knew this was what they had prayed for.
If we wanted to be like Jesus, this was a small cross to carry. Jesus said he set an example that we should do as he had done, and he served everyone (John 13:12-17). The Spirit changes hearts; we do not. True growth and change takes place at the center of our relationships, where Jesus works with us all. It takes caring and reaching out so Jesus has the fertile ground to do the spiritual work of change in others and in us.
This might mean enduring some discomfort and sacrifice for the sake of those Jesus is trying to reach; sharing food, tutoring, homework, sports, attending activities or going to the mall. Personal interaction is necessary to get to know one another. It must be motivated by a genuine desire to serve and help, and not because the pastor said so or because our latest “outreach” program demands it. We can’t force changes in others. Bill Hybels puts it this way in his book, Just Walk Across the Room:
The highest value in personal evangelism is to be attuned to the movement and prompting of the Holy Spirit and to play only the role you are intended to play in another person’s life. Second to that value (and it’s a close second) is being radically inclusive of where people are when you find them. Not recklessly condoning the sins they confess, but rather accepting them just as they are. (page 88)
If you want older teens to attend church, you have to encourage and support them. We instituted a good grades incentive, which rewards our younger members for As, Bs or Cs on their report cards. The second Sunday in June is Graduate Recognition Day. Our tradition is to honor all graduates from kindergarten to certificate programs to PhDs. We make a big deal out of it with gifts, a meal after services and monogrammed Bibles for our high school graduates.
As a result of this holistic approach, students who had dropped out are now attending school and graduating. What a testimony to what God can do and the small but important part he calls us to play. Through the Mary Bellamy Scholarship Fund, we give monetary gifts to help high school graduates attend college or trade school. Another member just started a college student outreach ministry to encourage the grads and keep the connection between them and the church going while they are away at college.
In their book Unchristian, Kinnaman and Lyons encourage us to rewrite the script for the reputation of Christianity by developing accepting and genuine relationships with “nonbelievers” rather than relationships intent upon criticism and manipulation (page 88). God brings about his desired changes as we interact through loving relationships. This is the example Jesus lived, loving not only Christians, but the whole world. He gave himself for us before we ever made any changes at all (John 3:16-17; 1 John 2:1-2).
Our experience at The Shepherd’s Community Church has shown us that we must change our behavior if we are to become people who attract others. When visitors come, we should welcome them, include them in our lives and connect them to members with similar interests. In time they will want to begin serving, too. This approach works for any outreach effort to any age group.
The bottom line is that we learned that we need to be less concerned about changing people and more concerned about loving and helping them. Veteran church growth professor and consultant Eddie Gibbs once summed it up like this, “Treat people as if they were Christians until they discover that they are not.”
Whew! What a load that takes off our shoulders. We still have a job to do, but now the burden is not so heavy. It’s focused on Jesus and his ministry, and as he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). This is as true of ministry as it is of salvation.
Jesus values every person. He is the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to search for the one that was lost (Luke 15:1-10). No one is lost to God, of course, but they are lost to themselves. They are sheep who have no idea there is a Good Shepherd out there. They have no idea where they can find safety, water and food, but by the grace of God and with his love flowing through us, our churches can be safe havens for them.