Connecting With Unchurched Students
Posted on January 14 2010
By Todd Szymczak Recently our senior high ministry held an event that was targeting unchurched students. We hosted a concert of local high school bands to benefit Hurricane Katrina victims. Several bands from around our area were invited to play, and they brought their “fans”. Students who were part of our ministry helped spread the word, invited friends, and helped out with set-up and clean-up. In my mind the end result was successful. We had almost 300 students show up (about 80% had never been to our church), we built relational bridges with some new students, and almost $3000 was raised to help Katrina victims. In the evaluation process though, I had a leader who had a hard time with the event. This leader had concerns about the fact that we let non-Christian bands play in our church, and feared we ruined our witness to those who were watching us that night.
We are still working through some of the lessons of that event. Part of my job as a leader is to continually communicate the vision of our ministry. Part of our purpose statement reads; “We introduce non-believing students to Christ.” More often than I wish to admit, I'm guilty of assuming that everyone knows and understands our vision, but in particular in assuming they understand the principles behind the vision.
There are many ways to connect with the unchurched and hurting students that may or may not work in multiple ministry settings, but there are some principles to connecting with unchurched and hurting students that are transferable between geography, denominations and theology. Here are a few key principles in connecting with the unchurched that I believe are important.
Outreach programs will look different than any other program
The programs you create to fulfill other biblical purposes (Fellowship, Discipleship, Worship and Ministry) are geared towards the life development of a believer. They might have a different goal, but they will look and feel very similar to each other. The programs used to fulfill the purpose of Evangelism are geared towards the spiritual transformation of a nonbeliever. It will look and feel different because an unchurched student is different than a believer. They have different needs, believe different things, listen to different music, dress different, behave different, talk different, and most importantly, look at the church differently. If a nonbeliever has never been to church, they may have false assumptions of church. If they have been hurt or rejected by the church in the past, there will be certain hurdles they need to overcome before they are able to hear God's message.
The truth is, an unchurched student will not be spiritually ready to hear God's message until they are culturally aware. Outreach programs need to be able to relate to the people you are trying to target. This does not suggest we sell-out, or water down what we believe, but it does mean that we accept unchurched and hurting students where they are if we want to really reach out. We cannot demand that a first-time visitor engage in a Bible study, or sing their hearts out to the latest praise and worship songs. There must be an environment that is created that a first-time visitor can relate to. We can allow secular culture to influence the style of our programs, so long as it does not compromise the message we are trying to communicate.
Connect with the unchurched by building relational bridges and influence
I'm not a program guy, I'm a relational guy. I don't want the programs to be the end result, I want to build relational bridges with those who need to hear God's message. While an outreach program creates a comfortable environment, a relational bridge creates the trust factor in which a student can ask questions, hear honest answers, wrestle with where they are with God, and allow someone to invest in their life. I have noticed that our committed students do a much better job at inviting their friends to an event like the one we had recently than they do at inviting them to church. Why? It's not because they don't want to invite their friends to church, but it is an event that their friends can relate more to! I have heard many stories of our students who created a relational bridge with students by inviting them to an outreach event. Those events created an avenue for our student's friends to say “your church is cool, I want to come back!”
Too many times in church work we try to protect our students from the very people that God calls us to reach out to. I'm not saying you should tell your core students to go to the next keg party, but I am saying that each student in your ministry has a sphere of influence around them wherever they go. They have the opportunity to either be influenced by those around them, or become an influencing person within that group. Naturally, we want our students to make wise choices when it comes to friendships, and the people they hang out with. However I think we can go overboard, perhaps missing the point of the Great Commission when we alienate ourselves from hurting and unchurched students. When we build a relational bridge through an outreach event we have the opportunity be an influence in that person's life. Relational bridges create influence.
Make sure your outreach efforts fulfill the needs of unchurched and hurting students
As human beings, we need other people. When our outreach efforts fulfill the needs of people who are in need, it creates an attractive environment that students will want to be a part of. Some might think “That is too simple”, or “We need to indoctrinate these kids with theology so they can turn from their wicked ways”. The truth is people won't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Thankfully, we can look at the methods of Jesus' ministry in the New Testament. Jesus was the master at meeting people's needs, and creating an avenue in which to converse with them spiritually, relationally and theologically. First he cared, and then he shared!
The goal of outreach is a process to move students from where they are, to a deeper commitment with Jesus.
Outreach is not a one-time event or a program, it is a process. If we think that the end result of outreach is just meant to get more students into our programs, students will feel used and won't last. They will look at the event as another thing on their social calendar. More than that, if we make the program the end result, we will get discouraged and tired trying to keep up with just pulling off events and programs. It is vital to the health of your ministry not to leave students where they are. We can meet students in the bowels of life, but we have a biblical responsibility to not leave them there.
Knowing that outreach is a process helps from getting discouraged when our attempts fail, both programmatically or relationally. If a program fails, we can learn from the mistakes, and change things up so the next time it will be more successful. If a relationship breaks down, you have the opportunity to model humility or forgiveness to students.
While these are practical principles to think through, here are some practical steps in creating a process in which to connect with unchurched and hurting students.
Plan simple events that create win-win, not win-lose
If your outreach events create a win-lose situation, you might have to clean up from some conflict. While I like to be risky, and live by the motto “It's better to seek forgiveness than permission”, I don't want to create a win-lose situation, especially if I'm trying to create momentum in my church. If you have to go all the way to your denomination's headquarters for permission to do something, don't kill yourself. Most of our outreach events are simple. We might have a bonfire at the beach, or take kids camping for the weekend, or go to a Switchfoot concert. Again, you are not out to create “Shock and Awe”, you are trying to create events that build bridges relationally. A win-win event will have fulfilled the purpose of outreach while you gain support (and a raise).
Create a follow up system
Build a database of students who attend. We have students fill out an information card, and enter them into a giveaway sometime during the event. That information is added to our database where we will send a letter thanking them for coming. If you have a few bucks, get a copy of SnapShot, a product by Simply Youth Ministry, and create a CD-ROM of your ministry to hand out.
Be praying for those you are reaching, before and after
Be in prayer over your ministry. Ask God to give you a vision for unchurched and hurting students. Allow God to put the burden on your heart, and your church's heart for those who need to be connected the most. Be praying that God will soften the hearts of those you meet that they will want to come back and experience more.
Invest in your leaders
As you reach more students, you will not have the time to invest in each student. Divide up you ministry by age, grade, or gender, and then invest most of your time into your leaders. Give them the training they need to be effective in creating those relational bridges.
Spend some time thinking through how you are connecting with unchurched and hurting students. Your church may be the only glimpse of Jesus they ever see.