Finding Your Lost Sheep Without Becoming Netflix
I used to have a subscription to Netflix. I was in college one semester with a low course load so watching the entire “Lost” television series for only $7.99 a month seemed like a great deal. Later my course load picked up and I wanted to save some money so I cancelled my subscription–then the emails from Netflix to their lost sheep began. “Dear Robert, we miss you! Come back to Netflix and your first month is free!”
We have lost sheep.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15 is a passage of belonging, love and care. Further, this passage speaks much more of the shepherd pursuing the sheep, even though the sheep is unaware or uncaring that it has become lost from the family. If one of our students begins to fade away, I believe Jesus is calling us to pursue that student with extraordinary love, the same way Jesus pursues us.
That isn’t exactly what we have been doing. As we began seeing some of our students slip through the cracks and out the “back door,” we tried a program we call “M.I.A.” This ministry intentionally reaches out to students who were once active in our student ministry, but haven’t been around lately. A student is considered “active” if they have participated in at least one ministry activity every two weeks, but becomes “M.I.A.” if he or she discontinues ministry activities for more than two weeks. After eight weeks of contact, we assume that this student is needing space from our student ministry so we stop direct contact. This is one of the hardest parts of the program–letting the student go–and one that I wrestle with theologically.
What would Jesus say about M.I.A.? Is that what he meant by the Lost sheep? Part of me cannot imagine what a parent would think if I told them, “Your student hasn’t attended youth in two months so we won’t be connecting with him/her any longer” as if this is some type of membership program or club. Another part of me thinks, “we did all we can do and at the end of the day, it is up to the student and family to determine their priorities… if I’m overly focused on him/her, I won’t have enough time with the students who are faithful to the youth ministry.”
Neither of these, I’m convinced, are the types of practical theology we are to implement in our ministry. We need to go back to being ministers who seek out the lost sheep instead of functioning like a subscription based company like Netflix. We cannot continue to simply throw out gimmicky slogans as a supplement to true relationships built on Christ nor can we “let students go” when these slogans fail us.
Dr. Andrew Zirschky discusses in his dissertation, the “moth myth” which he describes as “…the assumption that teenagers, like moths, are attracted to things that plug-in and light up.”  This has been true of our student care ministry at Trinity UMC (the M.I.A. program) in our sending of silly puns and candy bars to those students who have fallen away; we are wishing to get them caught up in the flashy things we send with the hopes that they will then “resubscribe.” Again, the candy bar itself is harmless. However when we completely replace the shepherd who seeks after the lost that we find in Luke 15 with a mere candy bar, it is no wonder students do not fully grasp the deep love and grace of Christ that we wish to express through our ministry.
How do we do it?
The reality is that this will take significantly more work. It is not easy or quick. But we are not called to the easy path. We are called to display the grace and love of Jesus Christ to our students- this means pursuit. We are not called to be Netflix or an eight week telemarketer, we are called to embody Christ.
Below is how our new student care ministry plan will take shape in the coming school year: (The weeks indicate the amount of time a student has been away from our ministry).
- Two Weeks: A “We Miss You!” handwritten postcard is sent to a student from the youth ministry team.
- Four Weeks: Grade Level/Small Group Adult Leader Contact – via Phone Call
- Six Weeks: Youth Resident/Intern contacts student via letter sent to home
- Eight Weeks: Youth Pastor calls family to check in on student and family.
- Semester Contact: At the beginning of each semester, those students who have been contacted over the eight weeks prior will be called by their grade-level youth pastor expressing their hopes for the student to re-engage with the ministry as well as a time to meet within the next two weeks to discuss ways in which the student could get plugged back in.
I don’t know what this type of new student care ministry will look like in your context. Maybe it is simply making more of a priority to be in relationship with your students or maybe it is making a detailed strategic plan. In fact, I’d love for us to talk and learn from one another. If you are interested in seeing more specifics on how we are implementing this ministry this year, feel free to contact me.
It is time to start back at the beginning, to remember back at that moment when we first encountered Jesus picking us up and putting us on his shoulders when we were lost. To remember what it felt like to experience radical love gathering us up out of the wilderness. Hershey bars and one-month free subscriptions did not call us back into the arms of Christ. It was the arms of Christ that brought us home. May we now seek to internalize that same radical love to all those we are blessed to serve.