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How can churches help their high school graduating seniors to transition from youth group to “big church”?

in College Age/inter-generational ministry/youth ministry by

This year’s graduation season may look more familiar than what we all experienced last year.

Just a year ago our Spring calendars were strangely empty of high school graduations, open houses, and other end-of-the-year events for high school seniors and their families. The COVID crisis had put the brakes on all those activities.

This year appears to be different. Many high schools have figured out how to hold their proms, how to have graduation ceremonies – and parents are anxious to host open houses for their kids graduating from high school. Once again, celebration season seems to be in full swing.

But the Spring and Summer seasons are not always the best of times for many local church youth workers. This year is no exception.

The Dropout Phenomenon

The reported mass departure of graduating high school seniors from church is all too real for countless youth workers and youth pastors. Sadly, many of the young people they invested years into decide to walk away from church once they graduate from high school. It is no exaggeration to assert that for many youth pastors, the time they spend with high school graduates at their open houses may be the last time they will have any type of meaningful interaction with some of their young people.

The statistical percentage of church dropouts ranges from somewhere near 50% to a high of probably near 75%. Whatever the real number is, it still hurts to have kids who have been active in your youth ministries quit going to church once they graduate from high school.

It is safe to say that the mass exodus from church once kids leave youth group is something that grieves most youth workers. However, instead of wringing our hands in despair or blaming the church’s college age or adult ministries, maybe it is time to develop a specific plan to help senior highers transition out of youth group when they graduate from high school so they can easily adjust into the various adult ministries of the church.

Some Suggested Ingredients of a Transition Plan

If you are interested in developing your own strategy to help your church’s graduating high school students transition from youth group to big church, here are some suggested ideas for youth workers to consider. (For more information on this subject, check out my May 10, 2021 podcast with the same title, https://youthministryquestions.podbean.com/.) Of course, wise youth workers will work with the parents of teenagers in their groups to fully implement these ideas.

  • Teach your teenagers about doing the will of God.

This part of your plan must start long before your students finish high school. It is important to teach them the importance of following God’s direction for their lives as they mature through childhood and into adolescence. Life decisions do not get any easier as humans get older. Following God’s will for where to go to college or what to do following high school is not the most important decision your kids will ever face. That is part of the reason why it is essential for them to develop the desire to following God’s leading as they grow up. But the choices our kids make about what they do with their lives following high school can indeed be considered life-altering; and therefore, must be made by carefully considering the importance of following God’s direction found in His Word.

  • Schedule personal meetings each Spring with every graduating senior.

I highly recommend for all pastors and youth pastors to make personal appointments with each graduating senior sometime before they transition out of youth group. Let’s not forget that high school graduation is a very important time in the lives of your students. You could take them out for coffee, or have lunch or dinner together. Do whatever your budget can afford. The important thing is to make it a priority to have a personal conversation with each graduate about what God is leading them to do following high school. You will be amazed at how significant these conversations become to your graduates.

  • Offer vocational resources to parents and teenagers.

This step is another part of your plan that should begin long before your young people graduate from high school. Providing vocational counseling and supplying resources about select career options could prove to be particularly important for both high school students and their parents. I’ve often wondered why churches often let high school guidance counselors do all of the vocational counseling. The Barna Group has an excellent resource that could be a starting point for this aspect of your transition plan, Christians a Work (see https://www.barna.com/vocation-and-work/.)

Each individual local church has incredible resources to offer in the wide variety of other church members and attendees. For example, perhaps one of your young people is thinking about becoming a nurse. Why not connect them with an older person in the church who is already a nurse? Perhaps there are students in your church’s youth group who are interested in vocational ministry. Why not let them spend some time with your church’s pastor in preparation for their potential life’s goal? The possibilities are very real to build growing inter-generational relationships through similar vocational connections.

  • Work hard to develop a “5-to-1 ratio” of adult-to-teenager relationships in your church.

My own personal research and experience tells me that high school graduates are much less likely to quit attending church after high school graduation if they have strong relationships with a number of key adults. The transition into the adult ministries of the church is much easier and seamless for these new young adults if they have developed personal connections with some older adults who are committed and intentional about welcoming them into the culture of your church’s adult ministries.

My friend, Dr. Chap Clark has reinforced this idea with his “5-to-1 ratio[1]”. Chap’s much reported statistic encourages church leaders to help each high school student develop growing personal relationships with 5 influential adults in the church – other than the church’s youth workers or their parents. In fact, Chap believes that it will be much more difficult for any high school graduate to stay in church unless they have developed those 5 strong relationships.

  • Help your teenagers build “sweat equity” in big church.

Another key way to help your church’s high school graduates transition into “big church” is to help them develop “sweat equity” in the church as a whole long before they graduate from high school. It is really important for youth workers to work with parents (if they are present, and actively involved in the church themselves), to help teenagers get actively involved in the church in a variety of specific and practical ways as they mature through the church’s children’s ministries and youth ministry. This could include personal effort (like being involved in church workdays), actively serving and learning to use their spiritual gifts and God-given talents and abilities for the Lord in and through the local church, tithing and giving through the church, and by becoming active in church business.

  • Plan a “rite-of-passage” event to help your students transition into big church.

This is something I’ve seen several churches utilize with great success. They plan a specific “rite-of-passage” activity for their graduating seniors to do WITH some of the church’s young adults or older adults – with the specific purpose of the event or activity being to celebrate the young person’s gradation, but also to help them transition into the adult ministries of the church through their personal involvement in a specific event or activity. I know of churches that plan wilderness or camping trips, others that host a special dinner or banquet, and others that take their graduating seniors and some of their young adults on a combined missions trip for this expressed purpose.

  • Give the students positive exposure to your church’s young adult or adult ministries.

It has been my experiences that many churches are weak in helping their people transition from one aspect of their ministries to another. This may be especially true with the transition from youth group into “big church.” One way to break out of this scenario is to give your church’s maturing high school students practical and positive exposure to some of the various adult ministries of the church – like small groups, service opportunities, church business meetings, connections with other pastoral staff members, inter-generational prayer times, and the adult educational or equipping ministries of the church.

Readers, you may want to listen to my May 10, 2021 podcast on this same subject at: https://youthministryquestions.podbean.com/.


[1] Chap Clark’s “5-to-1 ratio” was originally published here: https://decisionmagazine.com/in-spite-of-how-they-act/. Readers are encouraged to do an internet search of what Chap and others are saying about this important statistic.

Conversations with Young Adults Who Stayed in The Church: Why They Didn’t Walk Away

in College Age/Going On For God/Parents/youth ministry by

Over the last several years I’ve had the opportunity to interview dozens of young adults who have not abandoned their faith and who have not walked away from church.

I have been one of those authors and speakers that has talked at length about the phenomenon of high school graduates who have left the church following their active years in youth ministry. To be clear, I am certainly not one to blame youth pastors for this departure. In fact, I champion church leaders who are trying to emulate the many positive aspects of youth ministry and who are trying to build those characteristics into the fabric of their churches as a whole. (For more on this topic, see my book Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for The Church, Chapter 7 beginning on page 71.)

The statistics seem overwhelming. The majority of young adults who were once active participants in youth groups are leaving the church in droves once they become adults. Plus, the majority of today’s Millennial generation feel no loyalty for any particular church polity or denominational structure. Let’s face it – our kids are leaving the church and are expressing no real allegiance or commitment to church once they reach adulthood. These trends are real; but they don’t include everyone. Not every young adult has walked away from church. So, I intentionally spent some time over the past several months identifying and interviewing Christian young adults who remain active in church to try to pinpoint the common denominators of why they stayed.

I talked with scores of young adults, including my own 3 children, who are now actively involved in church ministries – and I asked them why they didn’t walk away. Here’s what I found:

  • Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if their parents demonstrated a genuine love for the Lord.

The majority of young adults I talked to described the consistent Christian testimony of their parents as the most important role model in their lives. If their parents’ faith is real, the kids know it, and they are much more likely to want a genuine faith of their own.

I did talk with some young adults that are now very active in church, but grew up in non-Christian or incredibly dysfunctional families. These individuals each spoke of a clear message of God’s grace that overcame human sinfulness and weaknesses.

The take-away here was 2-fold: Christian young adults are much more likely to remain plugged in to church themselves if their parents were genuine, Godly role models. Yes, there were exceptions to that general rule; but in those cases God’s matchless and amazing grace did something miraculous that overruled the missteps of the parents. 

  • Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if their parents were consistent about their own personal and family commitment to the local church.

Again, the majority of emerging adults I spoke to mentioned the commitment their parents had made to the church during their own formative years. Several shared anecdotes of parents that “never missed a service” or who “made us go to Sunday School and youth group”. Some spoke about not being allowed to take part-time jobs or get involved in sports if that interfered with church activities. It was clear, if the parents made church a priority – the kids most often grew up making church a priority too.

  • Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if they have experienced the church working in collaboration with their parents for the spiritual growth of the young person.

Every one of the young adults I interviewed spoke highly about a significant adult, often several adults, who took a personal interest in them during their days growing up in church. My own personal interest in youth ministry was stirred when I heard so many speak about the youth pastors or lay youth workers who played an active role in their lives. They each identified various Godly adults who cared enough to build a personal relationship with them during their maturing years. My conclusion following these conversations was obvious – the positive relationships they had with Godly adults was a key factor in their long term spiritual growth.

  • Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if they have been actively involved in specific ministry and service initiatives throughout their lives as children and teenagers.

Another conclusion was also clear – if the church entertained kids, once they became adults they would most likely walk away. The converse is also true, if the church (and youth ministry) was intentional and missional about involving young people in specific ministry and service projects, the participants were more likely to stay involved in those things into adulthood.

Again, the take-away here was clear: youth programs don’t work – youth ministry does work, and it lasts!

  • Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if they see the relevance and importance of Biblical truth and if they can vividly see how God’s Word applies to their current lives.

My final observation seemed to jump out of every single conversation. Young adults who see God’s Word as relevant and life related are the ones who also see The Church as vitally important. They realize that The Church has been designed by God to help people come to Christ and grow in Him into spiritual maturity. These young adults participate in church to worship Him and to hear God’s Word taught.

I absolutely loved talking to these young adults. They each craved the opportunity to be a part of an inter-generational community of Christ-followers who gathered together often to open the Scriptures together because they knew they needed to grow closer to Him.

THE CHURCH GOES TO COLLEGE: Ministering to College-Age Young Adults in Your Church

in College Age by

My observation from visiting almost 30 churches per year for the last 30-plus years has revealed that ministering to college age, young adults may be the weakest area of ministry in many, many local churches.

We need to change that trend!

I am convinced that any church can and should minister to the young adults in your area by implementing a few proactive and simple strategies. However, before I list those ideas, I must emphasize the fact that a ministry to this age group requires a commitment to do it. Many churches see high school kids leave the church following high school without tracking them to see where they are going to church or if they are even going on for God. We must close this gap and reinvest in this “missing generation” in our church. A ministry to this strategic age group begins with an investment of people resources. In other words, churches must decide to make college-age young adult ministry a priority.

Here are some ideas on how your church can minister to this large and needy people group:

  1. Start by developing an opportunity to teach them God’s Word!

This really is a simple place to start. Does your church have a class or Bible study for college-age young adults? If not, why not start one right away? Even your recent high school graduates need a place to study God’s Word following their involvement in the youth group. Recruit significant, Godly adults in your church to lead this new ministry – and remember that this current generation is not looking for a revision of what they got in youth ministry. College-age students want to be treated as adults; in fact, many of them many be enrolled in high-academic college or university majors. It doesn’t make sense for the church to give “fluff” to this age group when they are craving serious and important truth! If your church does not have the resources for a traditional Sunday School class, you could develop a regular time of Bible study for them instead. This age group needs Biblical answers that counter the various secular world views they are hearing in college. So, a teaching ministry is the place to start!

  1. Provide Godly older mentors to build growing, personal relationships with this age group.

This age group needs older people! The church can and should provide Godly older mentors for this generation of emerging young adults. So many college-age para-church organizations tend to separate young adults from the church by gathering groups of peers together on college or university campuses. Friends, this is a mistake. This demographic cohort desperately needs the church. The church can provide the human resources of a “family” of older adults who are willing to develop growing relationships and connections with college-age young adults. Encourage and teach your church’s older adults to take the time to build personal relationships with younger adults.

  1. Supply opportunities for this age group to have fellowship.

Friends are the lifeline for this age group. That is another reason why churches should “do something” for young adults. The church can and should provide real fellowship – with other members of this age group and with other ages. It is a shame, in some ways, that college and university students tend to develop their friends outside of the church. This generation is not looking for a series of “youth group games” or activities. A ministry to college-age young adults should look differently than that. Fellowship for this age group will probably feature hanging out around a cup of coffee instead of taking the members to the nearest amusement park.

  1. Give them leadership opportunities in the group and in your church as a whole.

One of the most effective ways to offer something for this age group is to give them some specific leadership responsibilities within the group – and within the greater structure of the entire church. In other words, give them something to do. This generation can lead Bible studies and will have influence on their peers. They are no longer teenagers – they are emerging adults. Give them leadership opportunities and work to train them for future positions of leadership in the church.

  1. Offer resources to help this age group become involved.

A very effective way to minister to this age group is for the church to supply resources for this generation that is in so much transition. Mentoring is one way to do that, but there is a vast variety of ways that a church could minister to college-agers. One church (located near a major university) hosts a meal for college students every Sunday afternoon. Another church provides transportation to and from the nearby college campuses. My home church recruited a team of families to host college-age students in their homes on Sunday afternoons. The point is that every local church has a supply of resources that could be utilized to minister to this age group. Ideas abound.

These simple ideas do not do justice to this important aspect of church programming. However, it is a shame for churches to do nothing – especially when the number one time people walk away from church is immediately following high school.

It’s time to change this trend.

Ministering to Your Church’s Kids Who Are Now in College

in College Age/Going On For God/Young Adults by
  • college.jpg?time=1633802099

I live in a college town. A few weeks ago, I met a young girl who will be attending college here this fall, so I asked her if anyone from her home church recommended a good church to her while she completes her studies. To my amazement she replied that no one from her home church, including her parents or pastors, had said anything to her about finding a good church in the town where she is attending college. Of course, I suggested that she should try our church; but that conversation left me wondering.

Are pastors and youth pastors talking to their church’s graduating high school seniors about getting plugged in to a good church while they are away from home attending college?

Here are 5 practical suggestions for ministering to your church’s college students who are away from your church while they are in college.

  • Encourage your church’s college students to find a good church immediately when they arrive on campus!

 

If nothing else, take the time to talk to the college students from your church who are away from home about finding a good, Bible-preaching church in the town where they are attending school. You might also want to take the time to investigate the churches in the area where your students are living to make informed recommendations to them. This will not take a long time with the wealth of information available on the Internet. Make sure your young adults are plugged in to a good church nearby the college or university they are attending. Believe me; this is also important if your students are attending a Christian college or even a Bible college. Experts on this age group are saying that college-age habits are usually formed within the first 2 weeks they are away from home; so this suggestion is very, very important for their spiritual growth and development while they are away in college. 

  • Stay in touch with your church’s college students encouraging them in their walk with God.

 

Your church’s college-age young adults are leaving home sometime during the next couple of weeks to begin this year’s academic schedule. Make sure you know their mailing address, e-mail address, and cell phone number so that you can stay in touch with them while they are away in college. Put it on your personal schedule to send them an e-mail or a text message just to find out how they are doing in college and to let them know that people from their home church are praying regularly for them.  

  • Send them a “love gift” from home within 2 weeks of when they arrive on campus.

 

Make sure your church sends them a care package (home-made chocolate chip cookies are a must for college students!) in a couple of weeks. You might also want to send them a gift card for a free pizza. Why don’t you recruit a team of church people to handle this important project? There’s nothing like the encouragement from receiving a love gift from people back at home. 

  • Suggest ways they can stay connected with their home church while they are away at college.

 

College students often feel out-of-touch while they are away from their home church. Perhaps it would be a good idea to send each of them your church’s weekly church bulletin and prayer request list. Put this simple practice on a tickler file as a reminder to send them this information on a regular basis.

  • Recruit a team of people in your church to pray specifically for those students while they are in college.

 

I can’t tell you how important it is for today’s college students to know that caring people back home are praying regularly for them while they are away at school. Put together a complete list of all of the young adults from your church who are away in college (and in the military, for that matter) and add them to your church’s prayer list. Then make sure you remind your church people to pray for them regularly and faithfully. This simple act of prayer will be a real source of encouragement to your church’s students who are studying away from home.

Please don’t forget that these students are still your church’s young people. Your church has invested so much in their lives during their formative years as children and youth. Don’t drop the ball on them while they are away in college!

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