Every week this year we are discuss the theme “The People.” This week we explore….

“The People who disappear”

Josh Beeler

Josh Beeler is the Associate Pastor for Youth and College at Central Baptist Church of Fountain City in Knoxville, TN. He is a graduate of Old Dominion University and of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Josh is married to his wonderful wife, Sherry, who he enjoys sharing conversation, adventures, and life with. He is ridiculously playful and works daily to maintain his mischievousness. Josh enjoys playing, singing, reading, questioning and laughing with friends.

Let me play out two scenarios for you. First one: it lasted for two months. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but in the arena of high school (or especially middle school) relationships, it’s actually pretty impressive. A guy from your youth group brings his new girlfriend on Wednesday nights every week that they date, and she actually starts to enjoy herself. She knows some people, pays attention in lessons, and contributes in the game times. However, with the end of the relationship comes the end of this girl’s visits. She drops off the map—all because a relationship went sour. What might make this even more uncomfortable is if both the boy and the girl are/were regular members of your youth group.
Scenario number two: your high school girls small group really seems to be going strong. They are starting to have meaningful conversations and really learning to trust their leaders and one another—until someone makes the team and the other doesn’t. Identity and school status start to fray the relationship, until one of the girls is left on the outskirts. Or until a guy shows interest in one instead of the other. Jealousy creeps in, and again, bonds are severed and one person falls off the map.
Students disappear all the time. So what do we do about it?
I think this is a really important question, because it happens far more often than we’d like for it to. And we can sit back passively, ignore the needs of the outcast student, and hope that so-and-so brings a new friend or dates a new person to fill that slot—or we can do something to bring about restoration and forgiveness. And I truly believe that, to the extent that we are able to help, this is part of our calling as youth ministers. And for me, the things that have been most beneficial for reaching out to outcast or cut off students have been relationships with parents, setting clear relationship goals/parameters for the youth group, and showing concern for my students in times of need.
I feel like I suggest relationships with parents as a building block to almost every problem, but that’s because it’s true. Having a strong connection and rapport with parents allows you to gain information and perspective with (hopefully) the primary faith shaper in the life of a student. In this particular scenario, it allows you to hear one side of the story from someone who is at least a bit removed from the emotional toll. The parent of your student can offer you suggestions on how to reach out to their student, how to invite them back to youth events, and how to make that an easier process for them. If you don’t have contact info for the parents of your students, get it as soon as you can.
Second, having relationship rules for youth gatherings, and going over them regularly with your students, has really helped our group in the past couple of years. And these rules don’t really have the relationship in mind (I’m not wasting my time telling them where they can or cannot touch on their dates), but really the health of our youth group, and their roles in it AFTER (it’s almost inevitable) things come to an end. For your consideration, here are the rules that we work with:

  1. Youth Group is not your alone time.
  2. (Youth Group Space)—this is where you live. (meaning: these are your parameters at our gatherings)
  3. No Youth Group Casualties (we don’t want to lose a student because of a breakup!)
  4. No PDA—Kisses, Hugs, Holding Hands, Laps, etc.
  5. Don’t Shut Out Your Friends (again: we don’t want to lose any students because so-and-so is dating!)
  6. Don’t make us do it…tell your PARENTS!

Finally, when a student goes missing from your youth group gatherings, you need to show genuine concern for their absence. Make sure you have their contact info so that you can reach out to them, let them know that you’ve missed them, and want to know what you can to make them feel welcome again. Get your other leaders (small group leaders) to reach out to students who have been away for a while and let them know that they miss them. Do what you need to in order to make them feel as cared for and missed as possible.
One of the keys to being able to do this is to actually noticing that they’ve been gone. If this is a problem for you (as it has been for me occasionally), I recommend some sort of attendance-keeping system. The one that we are beginning to use is called Youth MinHub, and it’s an iPad/iPhone app available in the App Store (not currently available for Android). It’s a great app that allows you to log students into a picture database, check them into activities and keep up with individual attendance, as well as event attendance trends.