A few years ago, when I was a youth pastor, our family ministries director asked me a challenging question.
“What percentage of our graduated students are plugged into a church?”
I was like,
“Uh…I don’t know…hopefully a lot of them?”
I literally didn’t know. Then he said something that totally changed my approach to student ministry.
“That’s not good enough!”
He was right. It’s not good enough to not know if our students grow into young adults who stay connected with church.
Let’s be blunt. What good is a student ministry if the students graduate high school and leave church?
Of course, we know from research that many young adults are walking away from church, at least until they get married and have kids, but with extended adolescence, that’s often not until they’re in their 30s. An entire decade of discipleship and church community lost. I think this is a problem!
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, there are churches that do a great job of retaining young adults. How does this happen? In my experience, there are three key elements.
I serve at a church with a great student ministry. The teachers are compelling. The worship is amazing. We have great spaces with an inviting atmosphere and our student ministry staff is incredibly fun. They put together engaging programs.
All that is great, but none of these are what keeps students involved in our ministry. The stickiness of our ministry comes down to adult mentors.
Wait…seriously? Mentors? Yes, I’m serious. Most teenagers are missing something crucial to their well-being and development—adults in their life who care about them and are investing in them. This gift is increasingly rare in our culture.
Because of this, your church can offer something that a student will rarely find anywhere else, and that is adults who care about students and have committed themselves to mentor a handful of them.
Nothing keeps students involved in church more than adults who care about them. My advice would be to build your church’s student ministry around small groups and adult mentors.
We’ve found that students who are connected to a caring adult mentor are much more likely to stay engaged with church after graduating from high school.
We have also found that the more a student is engaged in the overall life of the church, rather than just the student ministry, the more likely they are to stay engaged with church after graduating from high school.
For this reason, one of our primary focuses for our teenagers is serving within our church, particularly in our children’s ministry. I think this is powerful for a couple of reasons.
First, students who are serving discover that they are gifted and have a role in the church right now—not when they are grown up, but right now.
Secondly, students who serve in our church at large, rather than our student ministry spend more time around adults and therefore feel like they are part of the church rather than just the student ministry.
Thirdly, teenagers can be a catalyst of energy and passion. Let’s be real.
The older adults get, the more set in their ways they become, and they can get stuck in comfortability. Teenagers and young adults bring energy and passion. I think God designed teenagers and young adults to help keep the church on mission.
Students who graduate from high school who have been serving in the church as a whole feel like they are part of the church as a whole and are much more likely to stay engaged after leaving the student ministry.
In my experience, and according to the research I’ve read, one of the biggest factors in retaining students after they graduate is attending adult worship services. In other words, students who attend student worship services but not adult worship services are FAR more likely to drop out of church. Why?
Well, the main reason is that they have been identifying with the student ministry but not the church. They feel like they belong with their fellow students and student pastor but like a foreigner in the adult services, and so they bail.
Here’s the challenging truth that I’ve come to: We should do whatever needs to be done so that our high school students engage with the adult worship services. This might mean changing a few elements in the worship services. It might mean inviting high school students to serve in the adult services, even on the stage.
And, here’s a challenging thought: If you have a worship service for students that runs at the same time as your adult service, you might need to get rid of that student service. Otherwise, they’ll never have an opportunity to engage with the adult service.
For many students, moving from youth group to a big church feels like jumping over a canyon. It’s just so different. In order to keep students engaged, we have to bridge that gap and help students belong to the church as a whole long before they are forced to choose it.
In my experience, there are three key elements to helping students grow into young adults who are still connected to your church or a church. Those three elements are adult mentors, serving in the wider church, and engagement in the adult worship service.
There is great research around this topic. If you want to dig deeper, I recommend Growing Young by Kara Powell and the Fuller Youth Institute.