Q&A: Handling students who don’t want to participate in youth activities

Topic / Leadership

Dewaine Cooper emailed me and asked, “How do you handle students who don’t want to participate in youth activities?”

The short answer: generally speaking, I don’t do much. Instead, I focus my energy on those who are excited about where the group is going. However, I always reach out to those who don’t participate just to catch up with them and make sure they know they’re always welcomed and invited. I think it’s important to build a relationship with them, or ask one of the adult volunteers to be intentional about contacting them — comments on their Facebook pictures, txt messages saying you’re praying for them today, etc. But if you’re asking if I have a program in place to do anything more than that, I don’t.

There’s often a variety of reasons why teens might not want to be involved in youth group: relational conflict, they don’t see the value in it, and other things are demanding their time, just to name a few. It’s important to talk through some of those reasons with those teens, not so you can convince them that their reasons are wrong, but just so they feel that their voice is heard and valued. Remember, the point isn’t necessarily to get them to attend your group as much as it is to encourage them spiritually. If they don’t get that encouragement at youth group, do it outside of the normal meeting times.

Two things NOT to do:
1. Don’t guilt them into coming. “So-and-so thinks you’re stuck-up because you won’t come to youth group.” Guilt will never work to your advantage — it’s manipulation. Instead, try, “We miss seeing you on Wednesday nights! I really enjoyed that one time you came.”

2. Don’t pressure them. Just listen, hear them out, and don’t take it personally if they think you and your ministry are lame. If they have some valid points that you could change in the ministry, do it. Better yet, use them to implement the change. But regardless, don’t beg them to come every week. Just listen to them, pray for them, and give them some spiritual attention outside of youth group. Give them open-ended invitations when appropriate.

What input do you have for Dewaine? How do you handle students who don’t want to participate in youth group?


Have a youth ministry question you’d like me and other readers to answer? E-mail it to me! Please keep your question brief and to-the-point. Thanks!

Posted on September 9, 2008

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  • Brit Windel

    Great post man I totally agree will post more when not on my iPhone

  • ohh yes the greatest mystery of youth ministry….how to inspire the ones who do not want to be inspired?

    this problem is not an immediate fix.
    so what do we do?

    1. be extremely sensitive
    2. take some time after youth group and during the week to connect with them. make sure to ask them a lot of questions. you want to get in their head to why they do not want to play. typically they do not want to play because: 1. they do not like the others who are playing. 2. the activity is too rough (that is why you need to plan activities that includes all genders and body types) and 3. the activity sucks.
    3. empower them! ask them directly what activities they want to do? and ask them if they want to help you lead them.
    4. try to program youth group that can include everyone. do not program the rough and tough games so your JOCKS of the group will be stoked.
    5. be sure to be aware of your student clusters in your youth group. granted each student cluster will not like the same thing, but you may need to do a lot of great community building exercises.

    grace and peace.
    remember: be senstive and ask them why they do not want to play.

  • @ jeremy z: That’s great input! Thanks! I learned the hard way that it’s important that games and activities not all geared toward what I like most personally. So now we do drama games, puzzle games, and “craft” games, too.

  • Erica

    I’m just wondering to what extent parents who are member of a church body should be held accountable for their students not attending Sunday school or youth group activities. This is a current debate in our youth ministry, as most of the students of members of our church do not engage in our program and the common answer to conversations with their parents as to why is “I’m not going to force them to come.” Is this what we as youth leaders should respect and accept. If students did not want to attend school would the same logic apply? I’m honestly just looking for feedback on this debate, as I’m not sure where I should stand on this issue.

  • @ Erica: That’s a good issue to bring up. Basically there’s three things I think you need to address:

    1. The spiritual apathy of the parents. Typically the parents who give the response you receive are spiritually apathetic themselves. Addressing that should become your #1 priority because if parents aren’t being the spiritual role models at home that their kids need, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Spiritually apathetic parents almost always mean apathetic kids, which means kids who will drop out of church altogether after high school.

    2. The perceived value of what you’re doing. Do you have a vision for where you’re going with the youth ministry? Are you taking the ministry in a direction that excites people, a vision that they can visualize, take ownership of, and really rally behind? People don’t commit to programs — they commit to movements. You may need to really seek the Lord for that vision and communicate it often, clearly and concisely.

    3. Create a community that kids WANT to be a part of. If kids don’t want to be part of your youth ministry, don’t take it personally, but do take it seriously if it’s the majority of teens in your church. What misconceptions do they have? What is it about the ministry that is unattractive to students? I do know one thing: every student wants to feel unconditionally loved, valued, and safe. If you can create that kind of community with your students, every teenager in your town will want to be a part of it.

    But it starts with you. Model it yourself: grow in ways you want the kids to grow, risk the things you want them to risk, ask the questions of your own life that you ask them to ask about theirs. Model the vulnerability you want them to share with you (within reason, of course).

    And most importantly, seek the Lord’s direction for the ministry, become passionate about it so it’s contagious to others, follow His plan for how to get there, put the plan in place, and communicate it with everyone you know.

    • Amen to the above, Tim. We have our ups and downs but have seen some good things happen in our no..w 7 month old ministry…mainly because we put the focus on being "a movement" not just "a program". From 8 in Jan to 21 today. The acceptance, love, and safety issue cannot be emphasized enough. We just had our groups first real "challenge" to cohesiveness, and it comes back to an acceptance/safety issue, that is being addressed, and we will move forward on this.____You have to be the model to the teens, or they will see right through you…most importantly, allow mistakes to happen (even if you are the YP)…and show how to learn and move on when they occur

  • I love the input from everyone, and I really appreciate how you addressed two main points. Don’t quilt them into coming and Don’t pressure them.

  • I needed to hear this. I moved to a new church in January and there are some students who have not been regular attenders. They show up to the church campus, but do not want to participate in the larger group. It’s frustrating and I started to take it personally. What I did is start going to thier schools for lunch. I would meet up with the students who wanted to see me, and they would spot me and join us.

    I now have some of those students showing up for our youth group night.

  • Lori

    What about those that are dropped off at youth group Wednesday nights by their parents, come in to talk with friends, but when time for the worship and lessons start they go out to the parking lot and sit or ride skateboards if they brought them. They refuse to come in. What should be done at that time. Adults have gone and talked with the 2 of them one on one, but that appears to give them reasons to “want to talk” when the time for worship arrives. Is it time to tell the parents they need to at least come inside and join the group or not come at all. They are both professed non-believers.

  • @ Lori: I never expect an unbeliever to act like a believer. What reason would they have to engage in worship if they haven’t even entered into a saving knowledge of Christ yet? That’s like trying to get someone to join a soccer team when they have no interest in soccer. If it’s just 2 kids and they’re both unbelievers, then don’t try to make them conform to what you’re doing. Change what you’re doing to conform to them. Otherwise you’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Don’t force them to engage in worship, like good little church people because they’re not good little church people. I think you’re doing the right thing by just having an adult hang out with them outside instead who will build those relationships and speak God’s Word into their lives until they’re ready to receive His gift of salvation.

  • Kirsty

    Kids don’t have to go to youth group. It’s not in the 10 commandments!
    I never went to our Youth fellowship in my early teens, tho’ I did go to church and Bible class. I was a fairly shy, old-fashioned, unsophisticated teenager, and something for ‘normal’ teenagers didn’t appeal to me. My parents had the sense not to force me (tho’ they’d have been glad if I had gone!). As I got older, I did become involved in the youth activities, but that was my choice.

    Now, if Christian teenagers are not going to church at all, you have a problem. But everybody doesn’t have to fit into the same pattern. Adults are not expected to fit into one-size-fits-all groups after all.

    Tim – you are completely right about not expecting non-believers to behave like believers.

  • Erica

    Kristy-Maybe not outright in the 10 commandments, but Hebrews chapter 10 does suggest we shouldn’t forsake assembling with other believers. God did have our best interest in mind when creating the church body to edify and disciple each other. I think it comes down to how you view the youth meeting, as a church service or as an extracurricular activity. Should we not encourage youth to fellowship? Should we not question the attitude behind not wanting to fellowship?

    • We should absolutely not forsake assembling with other believers. But that doesn’t mean we have to do so in that particular way (e.g. I went to church and Bible class, but not YF)

  • @ Erica: I don’t think you should view the youth meeting as a church service OR an extracurricular activity. And those who go the fellowship route usually mean fellowship just with other teens. In my opinion, all those views can unintentionally miscommunicate what “church” is and a teenager’s role in it.

    Listen to this LIVE Youth Ministry Conversation about “problems with youth group as a minichurch.

  • Each month, we set aside one of our meeting nights to have a fellowship night, a worship night, a mission night, and a discussion night (real original…I know). I love worship and games. If I had it my way, we would play a few games and then worship every night…in fact, we did just that for a while after I first arrived at this church. But many of our youth don’t like playing games (I’ll never understand that…it’s just in my nature to play and love games), so our rotation schedule keeps me from concentrating on the things that I want to do. Also, I feel that the rotation allows me longer to brainstorm, dream, and get creative since I have a whole month to prepare for the next discussion or mission project. There are youth that don’t come because they don’t like whatever we’re doing: game-haters don’t come on fellowship nights…there’s always a group that doesn’t “want to do that.” But this way, there’s a good balance of study, worship, fellowship, and service on our meeting nights. I would agree that it doesn’t need to be one or the other…even on our worship nights, we worship for an hour (maybe 1:15 if I get carried away) and then have 20-30 minutes of fellowship time.

  • I view my Wednesday night student program as a lot of things. It is geared toward students and it has alot of the elements that have been mentioned here. We mix it up a good bit. We try to include games regularly. We always have a worship time (though it doesn’t always include 2 fast and 1 slow ;-)) Some weeks we do small group interaction for the sole purpose of fellowship. You get the idea.

    I understand the frustration of students not wanting to be involved, parents not making them, etc. My suggestion is consistent, genuine care and interest in them. If you only show them attention to get them in the room to make your numbers better, they’ll realize that, and get right back out. But if you are sincerely interested in investing in their lives (which I’m sure you are), just figure out a way to accomplish Mark 3:14 and just “be with” them.

    Just my O.


  • Jeremy touched on a great question- why do we want them to come? Are we looking for bigger numbers, or are we genuinely concerned about the youth and their families? The times I get most concerned about numbers are when I feel like I’m being graded on numbers, or when a parent expresses concern over their child not wanting to go. I was completely uninterested in youth through 6th, 7th, and most of my 8th grade year. I became great at coming up with excuses, and my mom wouldn’t let me out that easily…the breakthrough came one night when a girl in the youth group tole me she was happy to see me and that they had missed me…I was hooked. So if you’re really concerned about the youth, make sure the ones you’ve got- the ones that are always there, are concerned about other youth…especially the ones outside of their close group of friends…teach them how to care for other teens, create a welcoming committee that is diverse…multiply yourself!

  • Erica

    Just to clarify a few things: My definition of fellowship is not spending time in the same room as others, neither is it time spent playing games and raw “fun” type activities. Rather, it is time invested in relationship with other believers for the effect it can have in strengthening my own and the other person(s) walk with Christ AND time invested in serving as a living witness and sharing the gospel of Christ with those we encounter who are not believers. My definition of church is not the building, neither is it the agenda of things done while there. Rather, it is the community of believers.
    And, my concern does not come from any need to increase numbers for activities or roll calls, or such. I am concerned a the student’s apathy for desiring opportunities for spiritual growth and for reaching others for Christ. What concerns me about parents (and again, I’m talking about believers, even members of my church), is their non-concern about this apathy.

    I will certainly check out the reference to more information. Thanks much for the insight from all.

  • Roy

    Don’t you just love these conversations. I struggle weekly with students who aren’t made to come to church by their parents. Many parents are taking the easy road out because they don’t want to fight with their students, but how many other activities/programs/events do they make their students go to. We have many struggling parents have bought into the idea that kids need to be involved in every sport they can get into, being out 6 nights a week and then complaining that the youth service is on Sunday night and that is their only night at home.

    We have begun to open dialogue with parents and students about the importance of church (ours or someone else’s) to the development of their students. My heart hurts when I talk to parents of 6th graders who tell me their kids don’t want to come and they don’t want to make them. I am pretty sure their kids don’t want to go to school each day but they are forced to, how much more important is their spiritual development.

    The other side of the coin is, I don’t want kids to be in my group who don’t want to be there. I would rather not have the possibility of interruption to those who do want to be there. We have done our best to put a program (used loosely) together that students will want to be a part of.

    In answer to the question about kids coming and hanging out with their friends then going to the parking lot once worship started, that is also a question of liability. Who watches the student while they are out there? What happens if they get hurt and the parents find out their wasn’t an adult out there to help? Probably not good news for the youth pastor. If they are church kids, I would talk to the parents and let them know your concern and they can make the decision of whether they want their kids to hang out in the parking lot. Or you can meet the kids where they are. Invest in some skate ramps, rails or something they are interested in and try to reach them that way.

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  • allen

    question. we have a gym time as part of our youth group and students are "forced" to play, like a PE class. thoughts?

    • Personally, I don't force them to play. Why would you? Have youth leaders who will sit along the sidelines and engage with kids there. Also be sure that not all the games you play cater to athletic kids. Play games that non-athletic kids and insecure kids can play, too.

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