The Cycle of Welcome: 5 Reasons Students Attend Youth Group

Jacob Eckeberger
September 1st, 2016

Ask any youth leader anywhere why students attend youth group and you’ll generally get the same answer: Friends. I’d like to think it’s my perfectly delivered messages or the strong programs we have each week. But, I know for a fact if I had the Apostle Paul himself coming to lead the program this week, my youth would be texting each other Sunday afternoon: “U goin?”

Certainly friends are a huge part of why teens attend your youth group, but can their motivation go deeper than that? Are there students in your group who would be there even if their friends weren’t? Yes. There is more to why teens attend a youth group than just having their friends there. In fact, these teens are there now.

As a longtime youth worker, I grew curious about what motivated my students to come to our youth group. I’ve seen studies on why youth attend church and what cultivates their belief structure, but I haven’t seen many studies on what motivated youth to attend youth group.

I began by surveying 120 students from four different youth groups in various parts of the country. These students were given a list of reasons they attended youth group, but were asked to choose only the one, main reason they attended. After compiling the results of those surveys, I interviewed three local youth groups, asking them to comment on the survey results. From those group interviews, I chose 8 individuals who had made comments I deemed required some follow-up. After compiling and coding all the data, I found five reasons youth attend youth group meetings.

Teenagers attend youth group because

  1. Their friends are there.
  2. They have a desire to grow closer to God.
  3. They have a desire to learn about the teachings of Jesus.
  4. They are seeking opportunities to make their faith relevant in the world.
  5. They desire close friendships within a fellowship of believers.
  1. Because their Friends are There

Before you skip over this obvious motivation, you need to know it is structured differently that we might think. What I found is church friends can exist in a different friends ”category” than other friends teens have. Many youth have church friends they consider different than school friends or neighborhood friends. Church friends have a special bond not found in other friendships. There is a close tie to church friends, something I found to be stronger in groups that have students from several different high schools.

In one group interview, Andy, a student at a large suburban church, said, “It’s really hard to walk with Christ alone, but when you have all your brothers and sisters around you encouraging you, that’s a huge thing.” Many students said youth group had a different “feel” about it, that it was more than just getting together with friends. Scooter, a high school senior from the same church, said, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that every time I came to church friends weren’t part of my thinking. But it’s definitely getting closer to God, I think fellowship with other believers is also part of that.”

So, yes, one reason youth attend your group is because they have friends there, but they are special friends. So what makes those friends so special? What is it that brings two or more youth together as prayer partners or accountability partners? What I found was a bond students were describing that was found only among church friends. That bond is described in our second reason:

  1. A Desire to grow closer to God

Again, no big surprise, but, again, but it’s deeper than it appears. I had a friend in college who was so in love with God, I wanted to hang out with him just to see if some of that love would rub off on me. I thought I was a pretty good Christian, but this guy was like St. Peter! I wanted to know what he had. I saw something in him I wanted for myself.

Our students are the same way; they look to each other to find God. When one student can see the faith of another student, he or she has a desire to grow closer to God. That desire can manifest itself in many ways, but basically, faith is contagious. When a student can see God in a friend, that student has a desire, whether consciously or subconsciously, to know more about that God.

  1. A Desire to Grow Closer to Jesus

I’m aware God and Jesus are essentially the same person, but the results of this study show a differentiation between the two that really merits separating them.

Learning about God is about learning about the love of the Creator, and the grace and forgiveness which come with that love. Once the students in this study learn about God, there emerged a desire to grow closer to Jesus; how to treat others and live among them.

The students in the study seemed intrigued by how Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, or how he hung out with the undesirables of the world. Students spoke over and over about a desire to put feet on their faith. Alex, a 17 year old who attends a mid-sized suburban church, spoke of having prayer partners on a mission trip. On the last night of the trip, each youth receives a letter from his or her prayer partner back home.”I mean, people are grabbing tissues…it’s awesome!” Not only are the students on the trip putting their faith to work, but so are the adults back home who are praying for them. Putting hands and feet on their faith helps students realize their faith applies to the weird kid at school, as well as the bully in the locker room. Several students indicated their faith wasn’t something you talk about as much as it is something you do.

  1. Opportunities to Make Faith Relevant in the World

There seems to be a point in a teenager’s faith when he or she wants to be a better person, wants to participate in mission opportunities and wants to work toward justice and peace in the world. Students in this study had a desire to participate in mission and service opportunities. Students reported focusing less on themselves and more on others; several reported getting along better with their parents and siblings, and helping more around the house.

Students reported a desire to treat others differently based on a deepening relationship with Jesus. Students also reported deeper relationships with friends, seeking strong relationships with Christian brothers and sisters to assist in their own faith walk.

  1. Having a Fellowship of Believers

As students seek opportunities to make their faith relevant in the world, many of the students also spoke of a realization that we, as Christians, are all in this together. Although having friends In the youth group is important, having really deep Christian friends was a common theme in this study. Scooter tells of a youth group friend who honed in on the fact he was struggling with worry. His friend always made it a point to ask him about his worry and to remind him he was praying for him. One day, Scooter’s friend said he felt God was calling him to take Scooter to the top of a mountain and prayer with him. So, on a rainy spring day, they went. Scooter said he’d never felt so strong a bond with a friend.

There emerged from this study a realization that true Christian friends have your back no matter what. Church friends seemed to be on a different plane than school or neighborhood friends.

The Cycle of Welcome

These stages do not appear in a straight line, but in a circle or a cycle. I call this The Cycle of Welcome because each stage in the cycle is an entry point into the church. There really is no starting point; any stage can be a starting point.

For instance, one of the girls I interviewed for the study had been homeless; she and her mother were living in their car when they were directed to a church which had a free Wednesday night meal. The church also had a program through which they could get food and housing. The girl’s entry point into the church was a fascination with people who wanted to help her; she had never experienced that before, and she wanted to know what it was about these Christians that made them want to help her and her mom. So, her entry point into the church was making her faith relevant in the world. She quickly realized she didn’t know much about Jesus, but certainly wanted to. She began to make friends in the church, and moved into the Having a Fellowship of Believers stage.

One guy, Carl, from a downtown church, played in the youth group band. “I come here definitely for the friendships…God’s in there too, so it’s important” So, although Carl’s entry point was friends, he quickly learned he could find God through those friends. As a result, he waned to learn about God too. His entry point was friends, but he moved quickly to the Learn more about God stage.

Although most of the students in this study entered at the Because my Friends are There stage, many have moved into the Learn more about God and Learn more about Jesus stages. Others have already moved into the Making my Faith Relevant stage, and have come fully around the Cycle to Having a Fellowship of Believers.

Most youth in the study seemed to enter the Cycle at the Fellowship of Believers stage or the Because Their Friends are There stage, but a student can enter at any point. There seems to be no set time to spend at a certain level and, according to the study data, it seems possible to be in more than one level at a time. It also seems possible (although unfortunate) to never move from your level of entry; several students seem to have continued at a level for some time. All of the students in this study who moved from stage to stage moved to each stage in the order listed. No one indicated jumping across the Cycle.

Finally, several students reported coming full circle in the Cycle and going around again, only at a deeper level.  One can assume there is no limit to the number of times one can go through the Cycle. However, with each trip around the Cycle, their study of Jesus is a little deeper, their desire to make their faith relevant may be more drastic, their friendships within the church might be more intense, etc.

So, what does this mean for Youth Ministry?

The Cycle of Welcome is really a unique way to see ministry to students. Too often, we have Bible studies, Sunday School classes, mission opportunities, ski trips, and service projects that stand alone. When we program these activities with The Cycle of Welcome in mind, we can begin to see how each of these seemingly stand-alone programs works in concert with each other. A Bible study is a way to teach students not just about Jesus, but also how to be like Jesus. It’s a way to get students to put feet, hands and a voice to their faith. A ski trip is not just a fun activity, it’s a way for students to grow closer together; to treat each other as Jesus would have them treat each other (only in a different setting from the church.)

The Cycle of Welcome can help you program your ministry with more purpose; realizing each level in the cycle helps students move to the next level, and each “trip” around the Cycle will develop a deeper faith within them.

It is my hope this Cycle of Welcome not only makes sense to you, but also assists you in re-thinking how you program student and church ministry. The full study will be available soon.

scottSCOTT GILLENWATERS has been in youth ministry since 1986, and currently serves as Director of Student Ministries at First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He’s married to his best friend, Kathy, and has two college age sons. He sings, plays piano, runs, reads political history and loves to dabble in local politics. Follow Scott on Twitter @SGILLENWATERS.

This article was written and edited with the help of Terry Linhart

Jacob Eckeberger

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.