If you’ve been in youth ministry any length of time then you’ve wondered, “How do we get our teens to stay connected after they graduate high school?” If you’re not asking that question, let me encourage you - start asking it.
Teens are leaving the church after graduation. Some never to return. And others to return after a “hiatus” as some researchers are calling it. Regardless, graduation day comes; we attend the parties and give our students their parting gift, which is usually a brand new Bible with their name engraved in gold in the front. Most of them head off to further their studies or to join the military and we are lucky if we see them when they’re back in town for holidays; those brand new Bibles getting dusty on the bookshelf.
We make sure to text them a few times while they’re away letting them know we’re praying for them as they enter into a new season in life. They tell us things are going well, and we sneak in a “Found a church to attend on Sundays?”
“Well, I’ve been meaning to, but things have just been so busy. I’m drowning in homework.”
Insert the excuses you’ve heard. I won’t deny it - I’ve used them myself. After attending Bible school, and working in full time ministry for a few years I decided to go back to college to get my Bachelor Degree. Even after growing up in the church, I found myself sleeping in on Sundays and not making it a priority to find a church home and get connected in that body.
So, what was my problem? Well, it goes back to the phrase “I grew up in church.” Up until that point in my life, I could count the amount of times I missed church. In my house, unless you were on the brink of death, you were going to be in church. Then, I went to a Bible school that (as it should) had daily chapel services. One day I added up the amount of services I sat through during those three years. Afterwards, I joked with my friends that we could miss church for ten years and still have banked Church time to spare. Apparently, we’ve got time cards in Heaven that track that sorta thing.
All of that time spent in church or in services over the years meant that I had seen a lot of things. Before I go on, I want to let you know that I’m not here to bash church, or youth ministry or Christians, but I do think there needs to be a serious shift on how we relate to one another and with our teens. I believe it plays a part in why some teens aren’t returning to church and for some walking away from Jesus. That’s a big deal to me and I know it is for you, too. We don’t dedicate our lives to Jesus and the ministry He’s called us to without caring about people and their spiritual well being.
Why are there teens leaving and not returning? I think it has to do with authentic relationships and this includes relationships with other people in the church besides the Youth Pastor.
We learn early on that there are questions or topics we shouldn’t discuss at church. Somehow having questions has morphed into a “sin” and people start adding our names to the weekly prayer chain. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always up for more prayer, but I don’t want to be judged because I’m having some doubts or if I’m going through a hard time and wonder what in the world God is doing.
Yet, when we go to college, questions are not just tolerated but celebrated. We explore and experience things we haven’t before all the while being encouraged to listen to other’s beliefs and opinions even if we disagree. Some Christians really worry about that stuff though. Doesn’t it mean we are compromising our beliefs? Have we lost all conviction? Are we luke warm?!
No. It means we are being a kind human being.
We struggle. We have good days. We have victories. We have defeats. There are days we can’t muster a smile, and others we can’t wipe the smile off our faces. That’s life. Real life. Somehow along the way church became the place where we felt like we had to have it all together. We hid ourselves in fear that if those in the pews next to us saw who we really were they might not like us. Or they’d be disappointed.
A few weeks ago, I stopped by a couple’s house who attend my church to help them with a small task and afterward we got to chatting about my singleness and their marriage. They’ve been married a long time and had a lot of wisdom to share. They told me what they’ve learned about communication and about love and they shared their fights and the low points. It was real and honest and messy. It was refreshing to know they didn’t have it all together and it made me long for more interactions like I had with that couple in their living room.
I asked them if they’d ever teach a class or lead a small group about marriage - so others could be encouraged. Their response? “People would think we’re nuts.”
Actually, I think people would just find them relatable and down to Earth, but I understood all too well what they meant. I had received my own fair share of concerned looks and cocked heads from people when I went out on a limb and tried to be transparent about something.
That’s what our teens need to see and hear though. They need to see our lives without the filter. Don’t photoshop the hard stuff out, but use those raw moments to teach them what it means to have an actual relationship with Jesus. Let them know it’s ok to have questions and to voice them without feeling judged or branded a heretic.
There’s no Bible study to purchase. No 12-step program to fix this issue. It just takes some courage to be honest - with yourself, with your teens and with each other. Then, instead of looking forward to “getting out” on their own, teens will have a better understanding of community and the benefits of that Godly community. I’ve come to find in my own life, relationships are built when we feel we can trust the other person with our hearts and our thoughts. When those connections are made, it is much more difficult to just walk away.
Let’s make it hard to leave.