When was the last time you set foot into a Christian youth group for the first time?
As a youth ministry advisor, I do this every week. It can be a little daunting as you enter an unknown context, with a group of people who are 99% unknown to you and who are already settled in their social dynamic. Often there’s that awkward moment where you recognise someone but you’re not sure they know you, so you don’t say anything because you don’t want to come across as a weirdo. Then there are those moments when everyone starts doing something that’s obviously normal to them but comes completely out of left field for you. Even if you’ve been invited by a good friend, it doesn’t change the fact that in this group—you’re an outsider.
For me, being the newcomer in a church usually works out just fine. But then again, I’m a confident, Christian minister with the social ability to interact easily enough, and who has a built-in sense of unity with other Christians regardless of whether I know them personally. But imagine if I was a self-conscious 14-year-old girl who walked into a youth group for the first time and had no idea of what to expect? Or a 17-year-old boy struggling with anxiety, heightened by being in a foreign environment with people I don’t know and no clue about what was happening next? I don’t think I’d be so confident that it’ll all “work out just fine.”
The things Christians say and do as a group have great potential to encourage, unify and build us up. But that new girl currently lives in an increasingly post-Christian world, which means a lot of the things we do are utterly foreign to her. She doesn’t know what a teaspoon prayer (thank you, sorry, please) is. She doesn’t usually sing praises to someone she’s never met and can’t see. She’s never even held a Bible, let alone allowed it to shape her life! So, if new kids are going to have any chance of moving from ‘outsider’ to being comfortable to engage, we need to make it easier. Here are some ways that we can help them.
Have a plan for welcoming new kids
Something that will really help is having a plan to follow every time someone new comes along. This will avoid all sorts of awkwardness both for the new kid and the leaders. At the very least, this plan should include some leaders saying hi and getting basic information from them (at least some contact details and a parent’s phone number in case of emergency), as well as making sure a leader stays with them until it’s obvious they are comfortable in the group—without cramping their style, of course! You may also consider creating a welcome pack that you can send them home with that includes some basic explanatory info, an enrolment form and lollies— everyone is always happier with lollies.
Give brief, clear explanations of what you’re doing and why
The person who is leading up the front has a responsibility to help new people feel comfortable and connect in with what is going on. All it requires is acknowledging that they are there and putting a little thought into the words you use to explain what’s happening.
For example, if you sing at youth group, don’t just say:
“Okay everyone, let’s stand because we’re going to sing…”
Instead try giving a brief, clear explanation:
“You know, all through the ages Christians have expressed their joy about what God has done for them by singing praises to him, so we’re going to stand and sing our praises to God together.”
It helps the new person understand why on earth a group of young people would sing a song together that isn’t the national anthem. As you introduce each section, always think:
How can I help the new person understand and connect with this?
It also really helps if at the start of the night you provide everyone with a framework to understand what’s happening by saying something like:
“We’re here together not only because we love hanging out with each other, but because we want to get to know Jesus better. So tonight, we’re going to do that by learning together from the Bible...”
Think through your prayer times
Building a culture of prayer at youth group is vital. But we often blunder through prayer times in a way that leaves new people feeling alienated. For a self-conscious teenager (or adult!) praying aloud in a group of people can be on par with being forced to do public speaking in front of your class with no preparation— some will take it in their stride, but for most, it’s scary stuff.
We need to approach prayer times with careful consideration of the various stages of faith the youth are at. This will mean clearly explaining each week why we pray and how we are going to do it— don’t assume everyone will already understand. It will mean thanking and encouraging those who do pray aloud, especially when it’s obvious they are self-conscious about it. And while we ought to always give people the opportunity to pray, we must never communicate the expectation that everyone should pray— always give permission to pass. After all, it’s always better when a culture is caught, rather than enforced.
Most of us don’t alienate newcomers deliberately, we just assume too much. We assume that they understand more than they actually do, or that someone else is “on it” and taking initiative to make them feel welcome. We must never assume. We need to actively build a culture that encourages everyone to take initiative to welcome and help new people fit in at youth group and understand what we do and why. After all, even if someone else is “on it”, surely, it’s better they feel embraced by everyone!