We believe Billy Joel said it best:
“Get it right the first time, 'cause that's the main thing
You can't afford to let it pass. Get it right the next time, that's not the same thing
Gotta make the first time last.
La la la”
Now we're pretty sure Billy didn't have youth ministry in mind when he wrote the song (and we've never quite understood the WOs and LAs), but this much is true: you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. What happens during the first 60 minutes a student spends at the first youth meeting he or she attends is crucial in determining if there'll ever be a second 60 minutes. What can you do?
Most youth pastors are hyper-extroverts in need of substantial amounts of Ritalin. Most people aren't, and the very act of walking into a room full of strangers is enough to cause many of them to hit tilt. How can you help? Make sure they never walk into the room alone. Post a couple of greeters at every door. If someone is new and alone (something that probably won't happen often), have one greeter leave his post and escort the person inside. He can make some quick introductions and then casually hand the newbie off to someone who's not only naturally warm but who understands her assignment: to sit with the person, answer her questions, and make sure she feels welcome. You can recruit relatively new students to serve as greeters; actually, it's a great way to get them involved. But you need to exercise care in selecting the people to whom newcomers are handed.
“What is his name? Scott? Steve? I can't ask him again because I already asked last week. Maybe if I sit over here he won't see me.” Admit it. You've avoided people because you couldn't remember their names. And yet it's a problem easily solved—make name tags a part of your culture. If everyone wears one, including you, it's not hard to get guests to pin one on as well.
“Who Likes Chunky Monkey?”
At some point early in the meeting announce: “Okay, everyone has two minutes to greet a new person and find out:
- What his favorite flavor of ice cream is;
- Her favorite Star Wars movie;
- The worst grade he's ever gotten on a math test.”
Ask different questions every week, and train your leaders to use this time to meet anyone new and make sure no one is sitting alone.
Prepare the Room
It should be clean and relatively clutterfree. Pictures from recent events (the fall retreat of '96 doesn't count) should be posted around the walls so newcomers have something to look at and help them get excited about future events. Signs pointing to the bathrooms and exits should be prominently displayed.
Avoid Inside Jokes
There are few things more embarrassing than spending an evening listening to other people laugh at jokes you don't understand. Because you as the youth pastor are the quintessential insider, you may not realize just how out of the loop most people are. So ask the entire leadership team to be sensitive to this trap.
Send Out Follow-Up Letters
There are several ways to obtain a new student's address: you can offer a free Bible, youth group pen, or T-shirt to any first time visitor who turns in a visitor's card; you can hand out paper and ask everyone in the group to write a brief critique of your talk, including their names and addresses so you can respond if need be. Hey, you can even say, “If you give me your address I'll send you a letter.” But whatever method you use, you must send first time guests a letter— not an e-mail—the following week. Thank them for coming, ask them to come back, and invite them or their parents to call if they have any questions or concerns. Be sure to include your phone number and e-mail address. And be sure to personalize the note any way you can. You'd be surprised what a big difference that can make.
Explain What's Happening
Take 60 seconds right now and think through your next meeting. What part of the time is likely to surprise or confuse the non-church student who's walking through the doors for the first time? If you're a liturgical church, is it clear when they should stand and when they should kneel? If you all repeat the Lord's Prayer or Apostle's Creed, are they available in print? If your group has an extended time of worship, will they be thrown off by people raising their hands? By an extended time of silence? You can avoid the confusion by offering brief explanations throughout the meeting.
“We're going to have a time of worship now. This is a chance to sing songs of thankfulness to God. The words are displayed up here on the overhead. You are free to participate in as much or as little as you care to. You'll probably see some of your classmates raising their hands or closing their eyes, which you may not have ever seen before. These are outward signs of their love for God. We'll start standing, but if you want to sit, that's fine. The only thing we ask is that you don't talk, because this is a very important time for a lot of people here.”
We're not suggesting that these ideas will help you close the back door completely. After all, you could be such a gracious host that even Martha Stewart would start taking notes, and some people will still be offended by the Gospel. But it's worth spending the time to make certain that they're not dropping out because your youth ministry has become a clique that's hard to break into.
Who knew Billy Joel had so much to offer youth ministers?
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.