Finding Your Lost Sheep Without Becoming Netflix

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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.” [1] 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?

not-netflixThe 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.


1. Zirschky, Andrew “COMMUNION BEYOND CONNECTION: YOUTH, SOCIAL MEDIA AND CHRISTIAN KOINONIA IN AN AGE OF NETWORKS.” Diss. Princeton Theological Seminary. 2014. Print. 15.

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Robert is the High School Youth Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Birmingham, AL. Robert has been working with students for over seven years; four of which at Trinity UMC. Robert grew up in Birmingham and graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 2012 with a degree in religious studies. Currently, he is working on his masters in Youth Ministry at the Center for Youth Ministry Training. He and his wife Brittany love great coffee, hiking, bon-fires, tacos, CrossFit and N*Sync. You can follow him on Twitter at @robertsturdi.

18 COMMENTS

  1. I am the mother of a Methodist minister and of a son who quit youth group at age 16 because he felt ignored and that he was “just there” and nobody cared. Surprise! The youth leaders who were in my Sunday School class didn’t notice he was gone for 10 weeks. God bless you for your efforts. This should never happen and I know some kids slip through the cracks.

    • Barbara, thank you for sharing this! It is an especially hard thing sometimes to truly recognize the importance of simply, human connection. Hopefully this system will help bridge this gap and “close the back door” in ours and others student ministry.

  2. Great piece. I like the way you have tried to systemize it but still making personal contact the center of the journey. I would love to hear how students and their families still disengage. It has to still happen to some degree.

    • Hey Jason,

      Yes it is definitely going to be an interesting semester. I’m sure both full of joys and regrets. However, looking forward to the ways in which God is going to continue to connect students and families into the church.

  3. Great article, but personally, I think you have your two, four, six, and eight weeks action items, a little off, or at least backwards. Still very Netflix’ish. A kid has to be gone a entire month before an adult leader MAY do personal contact (unless chooses SM option), and then 2 full months before a definite phone call? You view these kids as part of your family right? Would you wait 8 weeks before making personal contact with an absent family member?

    I love where you are going and what you are trying to accomplish, but how about at the beginning of each action item add, “Personal contact is attempted either by phone or in person by the ministry leader with the most touch points with student, AND….” (then what ever you have for each of the weeks.).

    In this day and age, the life of the average youth moves and changes way to fast to wait 8 weeks before personal contact is made. After 8 weeks of no personal contact, your church is old news to them. Like the excellent comment Barbara made about her 16 year old son. He felt like he was “just there”. Make personal contact and connection with these kids, and you will keep them interested! If they are not there, let them know they were missed, and your desire for them to return. Kids want to go where they are wanted. Don’t shy away from letting them know they are wanted!

    • Hey Scott!

      You bring up an excellent point. The 2,4,6,8 week order has actually moved around a lot over the summer because of this very reason. I’m interested to see what kind of impact it will (or will not) make and I think you bring a great critique of an edit we could make, especially if we feel we are still playing the same game. Thanks!

      • Good Luck, and do not give up the fight as they say. I suspect perserverance in this can and will be frustrating. But I am confident you will reach and recover some of these kids, and that is what matters!

  4. Curious what your thoughts/comments are about a youth ministry leader who tells teens they shouldn’t be hanging out with the kids who don’t go to church. How do you address them?

  5. I came across your article while doing research for a dissertation I am writing on this very subject of restoring “lost sheep”. There are many who have “wandered away” from God’s “fold” like sheep who get lost. Jesus’parable of the lost sheep helps us to understand God’s heart towards those who go astray. He doesn’t wait for them to come back on their own but actively pursues them to restore them. May The Lord bless your efforts.

  6. Robert–

    I wanted to check in to see how this has worked? I read this article when you first published it and have been thinking about implementing something similar… wanted to see what results you’ve had.

    • Hey Michael! If I’m being honest, there have been some major glitches (in terms of turn around time on “timely” contact to students). All this to say, it overall has been good but over Christmas Break we have done an overhaul. Later this spring I plan to release our new plan after it has been field-tested. If you’d like, I can send you our new structure as of now. Just shoot me an email. Thanks!

      • Yeah Robert, that would be awesome– thanks! I can’t find your email, but would love to have your plan whenever it gets fleshed out. Thanks brother!

  7. We all worry about those that “drop out” of our youth ministries. As I read this I am thinking of one of our group in particular…though of course others come to mind as well. So my thoughts are along those lines. Something I think affects youth returning, or not returning and dropping out, are the other youth. My youth that I’m thinking of is sort of an outcast to many of our other youth. (Not your normal outcast due to physical features, or even attitude tbh, just sort of an outcast). One thing I think that’s missing is that our other youth are not reaching out to her and inviting her to return, or asking why she’s not there. Therefore she may feel she doesn’t matter to the rest of the group. She’s got a great relationship with my wife, and I would believe she knows that we other adults love and care about her, yet she rarely comes around. And of course I’m aware that she is straying down the “typical teen activity) path.
    So, in self reflection here, I think we’ve failed her by not making it important to our other youth to reach out to missing members. Of course there’s been much written on “appreciating those that there vs. the missing” and by questioning the missing you are negating the present, but we need to put some kind of emphasis on the “missing family member” and encourage those other teens to reach out to them, whether they are part of their “clique” or not.

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