People in ministry are often expected to do ministry on a shoe-string budget and pull their gear out of an empty paper bag. If you feel like that’s you, you’re not alone. However, this post was written with you in mind. When resources are so often limited, how can you still create life-changing experiences? The truth is you can, but it takes work. It takes buy-in and confidence from your lead pastor and your student’s parents. It will take vision casting, and fund-raising. It will require sweat, tears, and maybe even a few broken hearts when teens let you down, but if you feel God has called you to it, then persevere.

here are five ways you can ramp up youth group attendance for this upcoming school year

#1  offer opportunities for relational connection in a new way

Let me tell you how many sermons I remember from my youth group days. One. You read that correctly, one. The one I do remember, I only remember because it had a physical object attached to it. It was a sermon at Youth Camp about how God wipes away your past and the speaker gave every person a roll of film, and we pulled out the film to show how the film was still present, but the images were gone.

You might assume this is because I was some kid who blew off youth group, but I didn’t. I took notes at every sermon and read back over them. I was as bought-in as you could be, but you know what I do remember in grave detail? Story after story after story of experiences with my friends. I had an amazing crew of friends from my youth group, and I can tell you a hundred detailed stories of our times spent together. I can tell you about trips we took and who said what. I can tell you about all the times after youth group that we went to Chilis or Whataburger. I can tell you about times I prayed for them in the parking lot. I can tell you about all the mornings we woke up early and met at our school to pray and walk the campus.

In the 90’s, a relational connection wasn’t the focus or model for successful student ministry, but my experiences show it should have been. When I first started working at a church whose primary Next Gen focus was on small groups, I’m not going to lie; I was a little resistant. I repeatedly thoughts things like, “this isn’t how it was done for me”. Idolizing my own experiences, but the further I’ve come down my ministry path when I’m objective about the past, I realize over and over again, that the only things that stuck from kindergarten on were the relationships I built, and the encounters I had with God. Entire years of church going can be a blur, but the relational stories are always intact.

relationships and small groups are the key

If you want to ramp up your attendance, this fall or even period, one of the main focuses has to be relationships. This model requires so much more work for ministry leaders, but this is the way. This means after every church service; you do go out to eat with interested students. This means you sign students out of school and take them to lunch. This means small group is a focus.

In my opinion, you should have a small group time every single time you meet. If you want to have something on an additional, night that’s fine too, but when students conversations and relationships can often be so shallow and lacking depth built on kiss emojis and instagram likes, it’s crucial that every single time you get together, they get to discuss something deeper than that. Small group times forces vulnerability and ownership of ideas and builds bonds like no other thing. If you want more information on this, you can check out one of our recent podcasts with Elle Campbell, who is the Director of Middle School Strategy at Orange ReThink. Every Next Gen leader should at least consider this idea as a means for growth.

#2 free stuff

Let’s face it; most teenagers are poor. There is no better way to get teenagers to gather than the promise of free stuff. If you say free pizza, free soda, free candy, free iTunes gift cards, free ice cream sundaes, free shirts, free gum, even free homework help, there is a much better chance that teens will show up. I know this can get expensive, but this is where budgeting and planning come in as a ministry leader.

If you know that the weeks you provide free food or free swag that more teens show up, then you should consider making that a regular ministry expense. Those are hard decisions, but would it be better to have one less all-nighter or sponsor a few less kids to student camp and free up several hundred dollars to consistently motivate regular youth group attendance. Maybe that choice is right for some and not for others.

#3 a chill environment

Having an inviting and chill environment is paramount. If you want teens to consistently show up to student ministry, your environment is REALLY important. It should be modern. It should reflect their interests. It should be clean. It should be beautiful. Why might you ask? Because people love going to places, that represent those ideals. This is why people often pay more for Starbucks coffee or take a casual stop at the Apple Store, because it’s inspiring and low-key, but more importantly they provide a place for people to gather.

I have never met a group of individuals who were more “space-less” than teens. Seriously, just reflect on it for about thirty seconds and you will come to complete agreeance that teens are always being kicked out of spaces. Even when I was on staff at a church, almost every space was off limits for teens; and teens aren’t old enough or mature enough to have their own spaces.

As a kid, your parents are often micro-managing your entire schedule, but as you become a hormonal teen, parents are much more likely to shoo their children out of the house, telling them to find some place to go. They might frequent a friend’s house or even a coffee shop, a skate park, movie theater or arcade, but how awesome would it be if your student ministry provided a chill environment for teens on the regular. 

If you want to grow your youth group, consider opening your already impressive space at specific times every day for teens to come and hang out.

#4 offer something at non-traditional times

In my teen years, some of the people in my crew did something they called ‘Midnight Madness’ where our friends gathered to play basketball at or near midnight. This didn’t happen once or twice; it happened hundreds of times. There was a circuit of churches and courts that they knew still had the lights on late at night, and we would go play. A lot of times it was mostly guys, but a lot of girls played too, and tons of other friends came to hang out and participate in the fun. This wasn’t orchestrated by an adult. This wasn’t hosted by some group. This was teens wanting to get together at a time when teens actually like to hang out. Luckily, we were good kids, and we were amped on fun and Jesus, but this type of gathering points to the fact that non-traditional times might work better with teens.

While in ministry, I was a part of many passionate and aggressive conversations about teens that attended and served at our church that didn’t partake in youth group. Whether because of practices, sports, homework or lack of interest this was a real issue that was often up for discussion. There was always a lot of pressure on students to choose youth group over sports or something similar, but when there’s a problem without a solution. Change the scene and the problem goes away.

non-traditional times might work better with teens

I know some people will say this is crazy talk, but offer your High School environment at 10pm on a Friday and invite students to come sweaty if they just got done with a game. The only conflict with an event on a Friday at 10pm is a “house party” which you definitely don’t want your students at anyway. I consider this a double win. The same thought applies to the weekend. Consider a Saturday night service option or perhaps only offer Student Ministry at your last service on Sunday at 11 am or later. Students might be more inclined to attend if they got to sleep in.

This idea could be replicated for student ministries to gather at other non-traditional times like big SAT weekends or Final’s week. Provide a super comfortable and quiet environment for students to study, with a lobby that’s monitored where students can take 10-minute breaks every hour. Engage students in non-traditional places and watch your ministry flourish.

#5 expect an experience with god

There is no group of people looking for a place to be fully accepted, fully loved, and fully known more than teens. This is something they can find in Christ. If “week in and week out” you authentically tell the story of a God who loves them and accepts them unconditionally, the ramifications will be life changing.

Create a culture where teens expect to come and have an experience with God, and they will show up. This doesn’t just happen for five minutes at the altar at the end. It should happen from the moment they walk in your door, where they feel loved and safe and like there’s a place for them, no matter what they are facing in their personal life.

A God experience should happen amongst the relationships they build at your youth group too, because the friends they find are encouraging them instead of tearing them down. This should easily happen through the games, art, music and worship that’s provided too. Every step of the way kids should be drawn to your place because it represents hope and love. They should expect God to speak to them through your message, and they should expect the Holy Spirit to speak to their hearts. If your student environment is the most compelling place they go to, then they will unashamedly tell their friends, and you will do so much more than just increase your attendance this fall.

Start with one tweak and don’t stop until there is a group of students who not only passionately belong to your youth group, but represent one more person in the body of Christ.

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Stacia Stall

Stacia Stall

Chief Creative Officer

Stacia has over a decade of ministry experience, with the majority of that time leading next generation change. She has experience leading almost one hundred volunteers, and developing curriculum for kids and students. Stacia has a B.S. in Church Ministries and Biblical Studies, as well as experience educating in an elementary public school environment. She is also immensely creative and accomplished in teaching children about the wonder of God.