I recently went to a youth ministry event at a local, well-known Christian college. I arrived at the event on-time only to remember too late that youth workers seldom arrive on-time to anything. The school's greeters directed me to the event space and a meager array of bagels and vanilla yogurt.
I went through the line slowly. As an introvert, I was panicking about what I'd do once I finished the food line. Upon grabbing my food, I noticed all the school's greeters talking amongst themselves.
So I boldly walked up to a group of youth workers, introduced myself, and asked if I could join them. We small-talked for a few minutes. I found out everyone in the group was from the same church, which I was familiar with. So I asked about some mutual acquaintances and got one word answers in response. I then asked about the group's ministry. Still nothing. Meanwhile, I noticed their eyes scanning the room. Before long, another youth worker walked up and gave them a big hug. As they talked animatedly with her, their circle began to close in on itself. Soon, I was literally left on the outside looking in.
So I made my way over to another group. The same story unfolded for the next 45-minutes.
Had I had the option to engage with female youth workers, I would have. But the event was largely dominated by males. I looked around and saw no one like me.
As I've continued to reflect on this moment since, I've become aware of how much it resembles many of our youth ministries. From the outside, they look great. There's food, trained greeters, good programming, and even better speakers. And yet, as my experience shows, sometimes that's not enough. Truly welcoming people requires more than that.
Knowing that, here are seven ways you can help people feel welcome in your ministry:
1. Eliminate too much unstructured time. Free time is AGONY for introverts... And newcomers who don't yet know anyone... And teens on the margins of your ministry. So get to your program quickly. Doing something helps everyone feel welcome. If you want to have free time, put a short amount at the end of your event. Then people can connect over the experience they've just shared.