Graduation season is almost here! All across America, high school seniors are getting excited to finish their education and graduate. Many churches, however, are not too excited, because they fear these students will also graduate from their faith in God. And I’m sure many of you are familiar with the unfortunate statistics for those who walk away from the church and their faith when they leave youth group. So what can we do about this?
When I first learned about these stats several years ago, I made it one of my missions that any ministry I am a part of will strive to change the numbers, at least for the students who were connected to our local ministry. And while I would like to say we had 100% stick with church/faith, we did see a significant change in both ministries. Instead of most stepping away, most were sticking with it, and many were also feeling called to go into ministry, missions, or lead others to Jesus in the corporate world.
With this in mind, here are five steps we can take to help teens not graduate from their faith:
1. Get involved in ministry.
Students don’t just need to go to church, they need to learn what it’s like to be the church. After looking at Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, 1 Peter 4, Ephesians 4, and more, it is clear that God has plans for each of us. He has wired us to be individuals but also to be one. Students need to understand their place in the church and begin to see how their gifts can be used. Once that begins to happen, it won’t just be a thing they have to do, but they will see how they are wanted and needed to help the church become all that God wants it to be. Then after they graduate, not only will most of them want to find a church, but they will want to get involved soon after and continue to be the church, because they know that is what they were designed by God to do. One of my favorite resources in helping students discover more about who God has created them to be is S.H.A.P.E.
2. Make it relevant.
So many students are stepping away because they don’t feel like the church actually connects with the world they live in, especially when it comes to things like injustice. Yes, Christianity is getting older, but we cannot let students believe it’s not relevant anymore. If we let students believe the Bible is just some ancient book with a bunch of dos and don’ts, they will never want to dig in and see God for themselves. If we don’t help them understand God’s heart for people today, not just many years ago, they will just see church as something that helped them learn strong morals but that’s it. So as we teach, lead small groups, and disciple our students, let’s help them see that the Bible, church, and faith are just as relevant today as they have always been. Then when they move to whatever is next, they will take that with them as something they believe and own.
3. Partner with parents.
While many of us began serving in student ministry because we love teenagers and see the potential in them, many organizations like Orange and D6 have taught us (or reminded us) that the true spiritual leaders of the home are the parents. So what are we doing to get to know them, connect with them, and truly partner with them? In my early years of ministry, this was tough, but as I got older, I realized the value, and I began to see amazing fruit from this partnership. Through this partnership, we’ve been able to say the same thing as the parents, and the students begin to see their parents in a different light–not just as the adults who forced church on them, but as mentors and disciplers. And when a family’s faith is not something that just happens at church, it sets students up for a lifelong faith! Not all parents are Christian; but even so, that partnership with them could help lead them to Jesus. And their relationship with their graduates will grow stronger when it is focused on Christ. So we must come alongside parents in their journey.
4. Help them connect with a church/ministry in college.
Most students are very overwhelmed by the experience of graduating, trying to figure out what is next, and all that includes. As they look at colleges, they prioritize location, majors, class size, extracurriculars, and more. And all of those are great, but what if we helped them see church and ministry as another priority? While we loved having them in our youth group, we know they need to continue to be in community after they graduate. It is our role, alongside their parents, to help them find a church and/or ministry that can help them continue to grow and be involved. In fact, if their preferred school is not near a church/ministry, maybe they shouldn’t choose that school. And the same goes for moving for a career, unless God is calling them to be an evangelist or missionary to an unreached people group or culture. (That’s different, of course!) If you need help in this area, I highly recommend checking out everystudentsent.com, which is a great database of campus ministries and churches, but they also have great resources for helping students bring Jesus to their campus. I also recorded a (video) podcast episode with John Decker of Every Student Sent a while ago, so feel free to check that out too!
5. Continue to encourage them.
Graduation is often seen as the finish line. And while that is true in many ways, it is also the starting line. Instead of simply saying congratulations and goodbye, what if we stuck with them as they move into their next chapter? Yes, they are stepping into adulthood, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need help anymore. They could still benefit from someone checking in on them regularly, helping them get connected to a church/ministry, sending them encouraging notes/prayers, shipping an occasional care package, and more. When they see they were not forgotten, they will know the church still cares for them. And through that, most of them will continue to have a good opinion of the church. Similarly, for those who go away, they will be much more excited to come back and visit on school breaks and vacations, because they know their church still cares. But if we act like they have moved on and were forgotten, they could easily fall to the temptation of stepping away from the church and maybe even their faith. This continued investment can take many forms, but the important thing to remember is it can play a vital role in helping students not walk away from church or their faith.
Please know this isn’t a fail-safe plan to ensure all students will stick with their faith after they graduate high school. But what it will do is set students up for a lifelong faith. I have seen it myself in the ministries I’ve been fortunate enough to lead, and I believe we will all see things change if we take the initiative that is needed. Together, with God’s help, we can turn the statistics around and help teens not graduate from their faith!
What have you done in your ministry to help students thrive after high school? What hasn’t worked? Share your thoughts in the comments below.