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