Some time ago, I was at a park playing with my daughters. In the big grassy area in the center of the park, a group of young boys was playing football. I noticed a boy standing still, off to the side. He wasn’t playing, but he was watching every movement of the game. And then it happened! The ball caromed near him, and in a flash, he sprang into action, scooping up the ball and running through the grass … and across the sidewalk … and around the bushes … and past the bike rack … and up the street … way up the street. The other boys stood in silence, kind of stunned. Just like that, their game had ended. (I remember laughing pretty hysterically. I mean, the image of the little boy running home for all he was worth, with the only ball, was pretty funny.)
Have you ever had a student pull the same disappearing act in your youth ministry?
You know the one I’m talking about: the student who, for no apparent reason, just stops showing up? I’m not talking about students who go on a family vacation. I’m talking about the teenager who is more or less a “regular” who just stops coming.
Over the years, I’ve seen this happen, both in the small groups and Sunday School classes I teach, and in groups taught by others. What I’ve seen is that many times you don’t ever really get an explanation; like the boy with the ball, they just up and leave. But sometimes, if you’re intentional about following up and connecting with a student, you stand a great chance of both identifying the reason he or she left, and bringing them back into your group.
What are some ways you can address the students who just up and disappear?
Don’t Waste Any Time
Don’t wait to connect with a disengaged student. If you wait two or three or four weeks, you miss the window of opportunity that says, “I care about you. I noticed you were gone. You matter to me, so I called you.” If there is a problem, you can ensure that you are quickly addressing it. It should be a habit of yours that if you have a student miss your small group, or Sunday School, you should send him a Facebook message or text the same day he misses. Even if you know the reason. A timely response to a student’s absence says to him or her that they do matter, and that they are missed.
Pick Up the Phone
Texts are great. Facebook messages work (occasionally). But when you are trying to figure out why a student has disengaged from your group because of an issue, or conflict with another student, or family problems, the very least you can do is pick up the phone. If the student can drive, offer to meet her for a coffee or a sandwich after school. If your goal is to get this student back in your “flock,” one of the most important things you can give her is your attention. Text messages just won’t work in this situation.
Address the Problem
If there’s an issue within your group that has caused a student to leave, you must do everything within your power to address it. If it’s a disagreement between students, you have the amazing opportunity to help facilitate the dirty work of reconciliation. Internal group issues are very difficult to address, but they provide great opportunities to teach students that, despite differences, the Body of Christ is to be unified. It’s hard work, but effectively dealing with the interpersonal strife of a small group can increase the strength of the group immensely. Maybe the problem is outside your ability to address it. I know a student who suddenly stopped coming to Sunday School. When a leader looked into it, she found out this girl’s parents’ divorce had been finalized. She had begun to spend the weekends with her Dad who lived in another city. Sometimes the reason for students’ disengagement is out of our hands.
Don’t Give Up
When you reach out to a student who has recently dropped off the map, he may very well tell you he’s done coming to your small group. Don’t take no for an answer … the first time. Be persistent; call back the next time he misses and invite him back. But be persistent within reason. At some point, you have done all you can do. If you let a student know he is wanted, if and when he does decide to come back, the transition will be considerably easier.
Enlist the Help of a Student Leader
Many times, students can see results we can’t. If possible, enlist the help of a student leader to reach out to a disengaged student. If a student feels like her peers miss her and want her back, she stands a greater chance of re-engaging with the group.
As I was pushing my daughter on the swings, I heard familiar sounds behind me. The boys were playing football again. For whatever reason, the boy who had so humorously left with the ball had returned.
Game on …