How to respond to the open chairs

One of the most difficult parts of college and young adult ministry for me is the open chairs. I don’t just mean when attendance is less than I hoped it would be for a weekly meeting.  I mean the people that aren’t there.

Open chairs exist for a variety of reasons. I can think of individuals in my life right now that would fill those chairs that are:

1. Avoiding God because of youthful rebellion

2. Struggling with doubt to the point of apathy around their faith

3. Experiencing schedule conflicts that exist for a season

4. Living away at school

5. Wracked with guilt about lifestyle choices

6. Have left our church to join another one

7. Broke-up with someone and left our church as a result

I would estimate that during my six years at Grace, there are probably 300 young adults that were on my radar in some meaningful way as potential members of either the college or young adult group (and to be honest, that number may be low). Of those, about 40 are currently around in a given week. Whether my batting average is higher or lower than other pastors, I don’t know, but here are some things I’ve found to be helpful.

1. Don’t assume that I know why the chair is open – It might be that my sermon stunk last week, but it’s probably one of 20 other things. If you are going to ask them why, give them space to be honest and expect to get involved in their real life, not just reprimand them for their “absence.”

2. Be open to their absence as God’s will – It is not possible or good for every young adult to be a part of our church. In fact, some of the students who have grown up here would probably benefit from leaving our church as a part of healthy differentiation and development.

3. Guilt isn’t Christian – Don’t give a guilt trip to the students and young adults about not being there the week before.  They don’t owe me their presence at a Bible study. And even if they did, guilt is unhelpful and unnecessary in light of the gospel.

4. Enjoy pastoring the people that are there – Would a college brag about their large class sizes? Of course not! If you have the chance to mentor a group of 4-6 students, think about what a better teacher of the Scriptures you can be!

5.Practice church membership – Call it something else if you like (stakeholder, owner, co-laborer, etc), but having some idea of which of these people are “yours” and which are just passing through helps a great deal.

6. Expect pastoring to have an element of burden – At the end of the day, though, I’m the pastor of these people, and I love them, so it hurts when they fade away, get burned, neglect God, or have a relational fall out.

3 Comments

  1. Bob,

    The (very) small group I was a part of low those many years ago is in no small part responsible for my walk with God today. Thank you for your dedication to Grace no matter how small the circle of chairs.

    –Jesse

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