Tired of losing kids out the backdoor?

back_door As spring is fully upon us, and I reflect on our ministry and the students that have come through the doors this school year, I have realized that there are quite a large number of students who have come and gone and no longer part of our youth ministry community.  I get that sports, school, schedules, etc are the cause for a lot of this drop off.  But most of the reasons that initially caused students to drop off or fade away are no longer part of their reality.  They are now simply out of the habit.  So, the real question is, how do we get these students back in the habit of being part of our community?  Here is what I do:

Put all my students into boxes:

I know, I know, it is awful to put anyone into a box and make a complex being into a two dimensional box filler.  But for this exercise, you have to die to this sensitivity.  Once you get over that, take a sheet of paper and list out all of your students.  I list them out by grade.  I start with every student I can think of and write away.  It doesn't matter if they are committed or I have met them once, or even if they have actually never made it to youth group.  It simply matters if I am connected to them.  (If you are part of a large student ministry, this exercise can be done with your small group leaders for the same effect)

Once I have every student I know listed on a sheet of paper, I then place them into boxes.  These boxes have nothing to do with spiritual maturity or how much I like them.  These boxes have 100% to do with how committed they are to our youth group community.  For those who are invested, I just look at their names and smile.  Then I circle the names of students who are very loosely connected.  I like to call them fringe, you call them whatever you want.  Some of these "fringe" students come pretty regularly, but they are not committed.  Then I put an asterisk next to students who have dropped off completely, those who I have not seen for at least a month.

Leave the 99:

When I look at my calendar, I realize that almost all of my time is invested into relationships and students who are already 100% committed to our student ministry.  They love me, our church, and most even love Jesus. And while I should make space for these students, and I do, doesn't it make sense to carve out some time for those students who have or are about to walk away?

Even Jesus left the 99 in search for the 1.  So, I think there is some merit to do the same.  The invested kids will be invested, it is the lost kids who need our time and effort.  Step one is simple, carve out some time.

For me, I spend an hour on Mondays reaching out to and connecting with the the fringe kids and the lost kids.  I remind them that I see them and hope that they are ok.  I invite them to come back to youth group and how their presence is missed.  I send funny post cards or facebook notes.  Whatever it takes to get a "touch."

Then I will make sure I have several slots throughout the week to connect meet up.  With fringe students and those who have dropped off, I almost never meet up alone.  A) Because it is horribly awkward, and B) If I can connect with them and their friends, then their is a much better chance that we have a good time and feel comfortable.

Over the next few months, I am looking forward to re-connecting with the students who have gone out the back door.  And when I have done this before, I am always surprised how effective, old skool, intentional contact work can be.

New kids will come, worry more about those who don't come back:

Most youth workers, including myself are always scheming on finding ways to get new students to come to youth group.  But the reality is that most youth groups will attract new kids all the time.  The reality is that most new kids don't stick around.  Think about what would happen if you relaxed and worried less about what new kids will show up, and simply leverage your relational chops to reach out to those who have already come and simply faded away?

There is an incredible book called Sticky Church, which talks about this specific strategy.  I highly recommend it, and have written a review here.

This is what my plan is to track down students who have gone out the back door.  What is yours?

close the back door: a helpful take away from sticky church

I recently read Larry Osborne's book, Sticky Church.  While this book is written as a big church strategy book, I found it totally compelling and relevant for those working in student ministry.  Osborne's church, North Coast Church have one main strategy for church growth, and one main strategy for discipleship, and both of these can easily be incorporated into a youth ministry context. Close The Back Door:

So many churches, and therefore so many student ministries spend a significant amount of time, money, planning, and anxiety trying to figure out how to get new people into the door.  And even if we are successful in attracting many new people to our event, the special event isn't really a representation of who we are as a ministry.  It is the classic Bait and Switch.

Osborne says that in this sort of exciting event, attractional model of ministry that out of every 10 new people that show up, maybe 3 will stick around.  To significantly grow a group, you have to get a large number of students through the door with the hopes that some will stick around.

If all that time and effort was refocused on retaining new people, you will grow your ministry in a healthy way.  Think of all the students that come through your doors throughout a typical school year.  Many kids come once with a friend and that is it, and if we are lucky, they might stick around for a month or so.  Instead of dreaming up the next big thing, spend your resources and effort in connecting with these students, make them feel cared for and seen, and chances are they will come back.

The author argues that by word of mouth new people will show up.  Every body has a circle of friends and if they enjoy it will share that with their peeps.  What is so freeing about this idea of closing the back door, is that we are not fishing aimlessly in this gigantic ocean, we are simply caring for real and specific students that God has allowed us to come in contact with.

Sermon Based Small Groups:

After their strategy for numerical growth is simply closing the back door, their strategy for spiritual growth is in a sermon based small group model.  While this may seem irrelevant to student ministry, I think that this is a concept that will dramatically impact the spiritual growth of our students as well as sharpen us as communicators.

Everyone is too busy and fragmented.  So, to expect that people, especially students, to have the bandwidth for sunday school, youth group, small groups, special events, etc is an unrealistic expectation.  Instead of giving them a wide verity of information to chew on, the author challenges the reader to develop a lecture lab format.  Whatever is communicated at church is the point of conversation and study for the small group.

This model translates nicely to a youth ministry context.  Instead of having the youth talk be the pinnacle of the youth group experience, make the talk the launching pad for small group discussion.  This allows all small groups to be on the same page with what they are talking about, encourages students to pay attention during the talk because they are going to have to talk about it later, and takes the burden of being the lone voice to speak into students lives off you.

We have done this model for the last year and it has dramatically changed the feel of our student ministry.  By making the small group discussion the ending point of the youth group experience, students have a real opportunity for connection and discipleship.  It is a different challenge to come up with a lesson that doesn't end with a simple amen, but is rather a launching pad for conversation.  It is also freeing to not have the pressure that an emotional home run youth talk has to happen every week, because even the best youth talk is simply a launching pad for small group discussion.

Osborne says that by closing the back door and getting people, and in our case students, to participate in sermon based small groups, that for every 10 new people that show up, 7 now stick around and are part of their community.  I like those numbers much better.

Overall, this was a really fast, encouraging, and helpful read.  I have some real take aways and am already thinking about better ways to close that back door.  Have you read this book?  What did you think?  How do you close the back door to your ministry?