3 Reasons Students Don’t Engage (And What to do About it)

Dan Koller
August 12th, 2019

You’ve put countless hours into the lesson plan. You’ve prepped the perfect game that ties into your theme for the night. You’ve found the perfect questions to take students deeper in small groups. Students show up, you teach, and they disengage. They shut down, won’t talk, and their faces let you know they would rather be anywhere else. So what do we do when what we’re doing isn’t working? What do we do when students don’t seem to care? We stop and evaluate. As you evaluate, here are three things to think about that could be the source of your engagement issues (and what you can do about them).

1. Lack of Relationship

I would say that, more than anything else, what I’ve seen is this: When students don’t have relationship with the leader (or leaders), they don’t engage. They don’t care how engaging you think the conversation is or how amazing your object lesson is. If they don’t have relationship with you; they will not engage. So what is the underlying issue? I believe for many, the issue is that we assume one or two hours of ministry at a program develops relationship. It doesn’t. Programs tend to act as a product or service to be used, not as a catalyst for relationship. If actions speak louder than words, youth ministry culture is speaking we value programs over relationship. I have been guilty of this. I will pursue relationship with those who show up for my event. In those moments, what students hear me speaking is, “I’ll care about you if you care about me first.”

What do do:

There are many ways to go about investing relationally, but the starting point must remain constant: Value relationships over programs. We have to commit to relationship building. It is in Christ-centered community that we gauge where students are in their faith and how to best point them to Jesus. While it can be developed many different ways, there are a few constants: 1. Connect outside of gatherings. Text, call, Snapchat, whatever. Just connect. Take them out to lunch. Better yet, invite them over to eat dinner with your family. 2. Take interest in what they are interested in. Find common interest you can share together such as sports, #netflixgoals, or hobbies. 3. Follow up with them. If a student shares their anxiety over an upcoming test at school, find out how it went. If you take prayer requests, follow up on them and remind students you are praying. If students know you care, they will show they care too!

2. Over-informing

We live in an over-informed culture. Students sit in classrooms and listen to lectures, work on school work, and study for half of their young lives. It really isn’t surprising that they don’t want more information. This puts the church in a bad spot because we are structured for information. We think that with enough information, people will sin less and love Jesus more, be less concerned with themselves, and be ready to serve others. But that’s not how it works!

What to do:

It’s simple really. Don’t tell them about Jesus. Show Him to them. Don’t teach them how to pray, model it for them. Invite them to follow you as you follow Christ. Show them what a relationship with the Father looks like. Show them how to love others. Show them how to reconcile a relationship. You’ll find that your students will start to engage more when you learn the value of demonstrating the faith. Demonstration comes before information.

3. There’s no Purpose

This generation isn’t one to sit on the sidelines. They want to get their hands dirty. When our ministries lack a true missional purpose, students will disengage. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to help build, shape, and carry out the mission. If we are honest, most of our ministries have a mission statement, but in reality, we don’t pursue that mission. This generation doesn’t want a slogan to chant, they want a mission to live.

What to do:

First, we need to have a vision for how our declared mission is expressed and pursued in ministry. Two good evaluation questions to ask in order to know if your ministry is an expression of your mission: “Are students gathering in order to be in a community pursuing the mission?” and, “Does my ministry line up with the expressed values we’ve determined to help us reach our mission?” Begin with evaluation, then gather to pursue the mission. Find out how your ministry can have a regular rhythm of expressing and pursuing the mission. Then give students significant chances to get their hands on the ministry. This can happen a number of ways; let students help shape and give input into the mission, teach them how to lead it,  and let them help discover and dream of new expressions of mission. The main thing to remember is that the mission is the most important.

I hope this helps start your evaluation journey. Each ministry is different and each group of students is different. The goal isn’t to find the quick fix. The goal is to put in the work and prayer in order to find out how God wants His kids to be loved and encouraged to step out on mission.

Dan Koller

Dan Koller is the youth pastor at Gun Lake Community Church. Dan enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife (who edits all his content and makes him sound smarter than he actually is) and his two amazing sons. He has a heart for small town ministry and has a passion to help other youth pastors succeed. Dan is also working with Rebuild North America; an organization dedicated to empowering and resourcing children’s, youth, and young adult leaders through coaching, training, and content.

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.