Every youth pastor would like more friends to show up to their youth group. Most have valid reasons for the desire. They want youth to experience God. Anyone who has devoted their life to ministry would agree, more people hearing about Jesus is a good thing.
The challenge is how to get more students in the door. Youth ministries have tried everything from the grandiose (iPad giveaways and all-night parties) to the organic (hashtags and social media campaigns), with mixed results. So in the end, what will lure teens to your youth ministry? What’s the secret sauce for attracting new folks? It turns out there’s one very simple approach.
So, how do you get students to invite their friends to youth group?
No matter what you do, no matter how impressive an event your put together, if the end goal of your night is just to get more people through the door, it will fail.
Teenagers want substance.
Most advertising dollars go towards grabbing the attention of adolescent eyes. They are constantly being persuaded that their life will be better if they just buy this product or try this experience, and subsequently disappointed when that product or experience brings little change at all. It’s not enough to simply get them through the door, they have to find something when they get there. That is what will make them stay.
What gets them there is what keeps them there. If they came for the iPad, they’ll stop coming when you stop giving out iPads. If they came for the crazy games, they’ll leave when the games are replaced by a lesson about living for God. So no matter what you do, there is no special event or killer approach you can take to instantly ensure teens will show up. And that’s really good news.
It’s good news because now we can quit trying to get people to come and start doing the one thing that will actually bring them to a meeting. In my experience, the best thing you can do to help teenagers invite their friends to youth group is build a culture of community and love.
I know… we sound like hippies.
Here’s the deal, though, that’s the one thing most teenagers, most people, are running short on. In a world where community is defined by conformity and love is often incomplete or conditional, everyone is hungry for a place where they truly belong. Student ministries are perfectly placed to satisfy that hunger by introducing youth to the source of love. Once they experience it, they will want to help others do the same, like a group of thirsty wanderers who chance upon a spring. There is plenty to go around, and there is joy in helping other thirsty people take a refreshing gulp.
I asked some of my students why they invite friends to our youth group. Here is what they said:
“[I invite them] so more people can have the experience. It’s a very cool thing to see other peoples eyes change what they see about God, mostly when its someone you care about.”
“I invite my friends because it’s a positive environment that is full of amazing people, and if you’re going through a hard time or just want to talk to someone, there are so many people willing to just sit down and talk to you without judgement or anything. It’s a really good way to be introduced to God because it’s not intimidating, there’s no pressure put on anyone. Believing in God is a choice, and I think [our youth group] reflects that.”
“[I invite them for] the community and the love that you feel after walking through the front door the first time… God shows himself to people in many different ways. When people come they’re not just experiencing love from people they’re experiencing love through people from God.”
“A lot of my friends want a place where they feel welcome and [youth group] gives them that. It’s a group that puts God at the center, and I want other people to experience what that’s like, like I have.”
Every student I asked echoed more or less the same thing, they invite friends to belong. It is impossible to create belonging through temporary things like giveaways and large events. Invitational events have their place if they are intentionally used, but in the end students don’t need another entertainment option. They need relationship. Teenagers need love and purpose. Fortunately, you know the infinite source of both. Stop thinking about how to get new students through the doors and focus on what will make the experience worthwhile for anyone who shows up. If you do, I bet you will start to see more and more new faces.
The old Field of Dreams adage rings true here, “If you build it, they will come.” Free yourself from worrying about getting new students to join you, build something beautiful with the students you have. If it is worthwhile to them, you won’t be able to stop them inviting their friends.