How to Talk to Students Who Don’t Show Up to Youth Group

A few weeks ago, our 12th grade small group was having lunch together.

But one student told me he couldn’t make it. Homework and scholarship applications were due.

I tried to convince him to come. That’s my job, right?

My guilt trip wasn’t necessarily excessive …

… and when I enrolled other students to engage in positive peer pressure, it was genius.

There was just one problem.

That student was clearly overwhelmed and stressed out, and I was just making it worse.

Here was the net result of all that practiced persuasion. The student still didn’t come to the event, only now he didn’t feel encouraged by me but like he’d disappointed me.

My guess is that I’m not the only one who spends energy trying to persuade students into attending events, and while that is generally the kind of the thing that we really should be doing, this time it was wrong.
I messed up and then I apologized.
There’s a right way to talk to students who don’t come to your events. There’s a wrong way too.

There’s something much deeper that happened when I was trying (too hard) to persuade that student to show up for our event.

If I would have asked him about his scholarship application, he would have told me that it was a $20,000 application, due the next day, that was likely the difference between his ability to attend the Christian school he’d been shooting for …

… and not.

If I would have asked him about his homework, he would have told me that he was still way behind after spending much of the previous week with food poisoning.

But I didn’t do those things. I had 10 minutes with a student and I made it about the event instead of making it about him, or even about God.

I had, in front of me, a student who needed—more than anything else—prayer and encouragement. Instead of offering those things now, I spent my energy trying to convince him to come back later …

… so that I could offer him prayer and encouragement at our event.

If you’re blessed to spend five minutes with a student, you’ll both be better served if you use that time for ministry now instead of trying to persuade them to show up for ministry later.

You’ll notice that Jesus could have tried to convince the woman at the well to come listen to him teach at the temple, but instead he engaged her in the moment they had.

I’m convinced that that’s an example worth following.
What actually happens when we get too persuasive?

Here’s a practical idea that you can start using today, and it starts with an idea so simple that I can’t believe it never occurred to me before.

You probably have a student who you see on Sunday mornings, at football games or at the grocery store, but who very rarely comes to youth group. You might have a bunch of those students.

Like any good youth pastor, you see them, say hello, tell them you’ve missed them and encourage them to attend your next event, whatever it is.

Because you’re a better youth pastor than me, you probably refrain from laying it on too thick.

But let’s get into the head of that student for a second, because there’s something happening here that we need to be aware of.

Would YOU want to hang out with someone who, every time you saw them, was trying to add something to your schedule?

That student is going to associate your ministry and your events with their experience of your personality, and in this case, that’s maybe not a good thing.

The (much) better way to talk to students who don’t show up

Here’s the step that you can take to minister to your students in the middle of their busy lives, and maybe even make them more likely to participate in your ministry.

Every time you talk to a student, that exact moment is your opportunity to speak the Good News into their lives. That’s your opportunity to pray for them.

Can’t make it to youth group tonight? Bummer. Let me pray for you right now.

If I could have a do-over on my well-intentioned but misguided guilt trip, this is what I’d do differently—the RIGHT way to talk to that student.

I’d ask him what he had going on and I’d really listen to what he had to say. I’d commiserate with his stress, and I’d be sure to remind him to find ways to lean on Jesus through this tough time, even if he can’t do it in the context of our youth event today.

I’d leave him with a Bible verse to spend some time with, even if it was just for a minute or two between applications and research papers.

Then I’d gather up the other students—the ones that I used for positive peer pressure—and we’d pray over our friend together.

That has the distinct flavor of impactful ministry, but there’s this other thing happening too, and I believe that it’s the thing that might even make it more likely for students to be a part of your events.

Would you rather hang out with someone who was always positive, encouraging and prayerful toward you?

I know I would, and I don’t think my students are all that different from me.

So, was I wrong to lay down the guilt trip? What would YOU have done differently? I’d love for you to share your wisdom in the comments.  

Previous articleThanksgiving, Thanksfeeling and the Glory of God
Next articlePaul Tripp: New Morning Mercies
Aaron Helman
Aaron Helman is on a mission to help end the epidemic of youth worker burnout. He writes at Smarter Youth Ministry to help youth workers with their biggest frustrations – things like leading volunteers, managing money, and communicating effectively. He is also the youth minister at Firehouse Youth Ministries in South Bend, Indiana.