One of my favorite bands is NEEDTOBREATHE.

The end of one of the choruses for their song “The Outsiders” goes like this:

And through everything we’ve learned
We’ve finally come to terms
We are the outsiders,
Oh we are the outsiders

Imagine you’re a teen who has stepped into your youth program for the first time. They’re feeling this chorus. They don’t know anyone. They don’t know you, your team, or your church. How would you feel? I know that we’d all agree that we want our youth ministries to embrace the students who are outsiders. However, do our ministry philosophies, strategies and programatic structures reflect that passion?

Here are four strategies that will help us evaluate whether our youth ministries are effectively structured to reach the teens who are outside our ministries, stepping in to our program for the first time.

1.  Be sensitive to each students spiritual development and process.

Every students’ spiritual process is unique.  The adolescent spiritual growth is not sequential progress. Rather the spiritual process for new unchurched kids is very intermittent and disruptive.  Here are a few ways to support the uniqueness of each student’s spiritual process:

– Overestimate the power of the gospel and Jesus. Even though it may seem like Jesus isn’t present in this outsider’s life, HE is. Every student is made in the image of God.

– Be committed and consistent through their ups and downs. Don’t be discouraged when students fall. The teenage brain is like a Ferrari without brakes. So give some grace.

– Most growth happens when a student does hands on ministry. Giving students ways to serve will amplify their faith. Give them opportunities for God to use them and work through them. Giving them ministry opportunities is way more effective them preaching at them.

– Become a conversationalist and a not lecturer. Learn how to ask questions. It’s important to get students talking rather than the leader talking. Using the 80/20 principle. 80% listening, 20% talking. Listening will gain you influence.

– Discipleship starts with a student’s heart and not with their actions and behaviors. Don’t worry about the exterior behaviors of the outsiders. Start with their belief.

– Pray that the Holy Spirit will spark an awe for God in the teenager.

2.  Put yourself in their shoes.

Start with where they are at, not with where you are at. To know where kids are at you have to become a participant observer of youth culture and student clusters that populate your community. Learn what it is like being a kid today. Today kids are longing to belong, to be taken serious, feel like they matter and be supported in a warm and safe environment.  The aim is to see and experience life as a 21st century teen so you can comfortably connect with the unchurched kid so you are not surprised by what they know, say and do.

How do you do that?

– Watch them. Go where they are, don’t seek to evangelize, just seek to learn. Watch how they interact, observe how they dress and where they shop.

– Listen to them. We often wander school lunch rooms because we want to share about an event. What if instead we wandered the lunch room and just listened to their conversations. Sit at a table and listen, don’t feel the need to be the smart adult.

– Invite a teen to mentor you in youth culture. You’ve got student leaders in your church who would be willing to help you learn their values and culture. Learn from them.

3. Think about your life before Christ.

Remember what life was like NOT trusting and following Jesus.  We cannot presume students automatically know what it is like following Jesus.  It is very easy to forget the Bible. Church and Jesus means absolutely nothing to these unchurched students.  These students haven’t spent years being “sanctified.”  So it is okay if they are a bit “unholy.”

AND don’t get too upset when these unchurched students:
– Break something in the youth room
– Ask too many inappropriate questions during the sex talk
– Make fun of and swear at the homeschool kids
– Bring no $ for the youth group outing
– Become disruptive during your polished youth group sermon
– Share a very raw-honest-open (and rated R ) prayer request
– Dominate all the youth group games by being aggressive
– Openly talk about how bad the “worship music” is
– Keep their eyes open during “prayer time”

4. I am open to outsider’s feedback?

The most valuable feedback comes from influential students who are new to our environment. Best feedback come from the most influential students. Here are three easy questions you can ask any new students:

– Why did you show up?

– Did you have fun?

– Would you ever bring your friends here?

The goal is to get the outsider to feel that they belong before they have to believe. Getting feedback will be helpful as you begin to figure out how your youth ministry can reach those outside.

In any given youth group always be understanding, demonstrate compassion (always err on grace) and establish boundaries for any unchurched student that walks through the church doors (and by all means, don’t disciple them about something they don’t understand). Just be thrilled they are there and will be exposed to Jesus’ teachings and love.

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