Outreach Notebook: The Little Things
group magazine: January-February, 2006
by Dave Rahn
When my two kids were moving through their early teen years, my wife and I were concerned that they were more inclined to hang out at a friend’s house than to bring others home with them. Was there anything we could do to help make Rancho Rahn a more attractive place—short of putting in a swimming pool, buying a 72-inch TV, or securing a fleet of ATVs for racing around the cul-de-sac?
Our goal was to make our home more invite-able to our kids. We could have made the same mistake that many youth ministers do when they concentrate on inspirational and motivational messages targeted toward the Christians in the group. If I had used pump-up speeches with my kids—C’mon, you guys, our house is clean, we’ve got lots of games, Mom has baked cookies…You can do it tonight…just bring your friends home with you—their eyes would have rolled back in their heads so fast I would have had to call 911.
As it turned out, we actually did succeed in making our place a regular destination for Jason, Alison, and their friends. How? By employing two stealth strategies I learned from outreach specialists who know how to populate their events with non-Christian young people.
1. Lower the stakes. Teenagers can smell desperation a mile away. The first question that runs through their socially hyper-conscious minds whenever adults keep pushing an activity is Why doesn’t anybody want to do this? They leap to this conclusion because they know that truly cool happenings have a natural buzz about them. On the way to figuring out how to help this word-of-mouth noise grow, we realized that a casual invitation was more appealing than a desperate one. I watch my friend RJ do this masterfully with unchurched guys all the time: “Hey, a bunch of us go to the buffalo wings place on all-you-can-eat Wednesdays…You’re welcome to join us if you want.” Our kids started inviting their friends to our home when it became an attractive and available option rather than a parental expectation.
2. Be seen, be positive, be gone. What could we do to make our home more appealing to Jason and Alison’s friends? We figured it would be okay to use public arenas to legitimately bump into our youngsters and their crowd. Sporting events, movies, variety shows, and concerts were totally safe. Teen-infested food places were a little more risky. In both settings we knew we needed hit-and-run tactics.
Imagine going for ice cream after a movie, and in the center of a room packed with middle schoolers you see your daughter, fighting like everyone else her age to get some attention and respect from classmates. Parents who enter that space receive an unmistakable telepathic message from their child: Please don’t mess this up for me. Youth workers who are hot-wired to their young people catch similar vibes all the time. The best of them go far beyond not messing up; without ever lingering they manage to move quickly in and out of the hot zone, leaving only the slightest feel-good trace in their wake.
The goal in such settings is never to become the life of the party, the coolest youth worker on the block, or to pass out fliers for your upcoming hayride. It’s simply to be seen, be encouraging, and be gone with a net gain of +1 on the Positive Impression Scale. Tim, another youth pastor I know, does this as well as anyone I’ve seen, noticing the smallest things about a young person and making her feel as special as she really is to the Lord.
The goal of such short plunges is to make it a little easier for your students to invite their friends to anything with which you’re associated. Outreach-savvy youth workers know that leaving even the smallest residue of unconditional love, like a mustard seed, will bear fruit.
Dave Rahn is a longtime youth pastor and youth ministry professor at Huntington University. He also serves as vice president of Youth For Christ and is author of Contagious Faith (Group Publishing, Inc.) He lives in Indiana. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.