Seeing teenagers graduate from youth ministry is a bittersweet moment. After spending several years and countless hours pouring into someone’s life, it is hard to let go. Still, there is something even more tragic than seeing teens age out of the youth ministry: seeing them drop out.
When a student stops coming to youth ministry it can feel as if you’re being stabbed in the heart. Not because the student betrayed you, but, because fear begins to swell as you consider his or her spiritual wellbeing without the church (assuming they didn’t just shift their attendance to another group, which we all know happens sometimes).
The immediate temptation is to beat yourself up and ask, “What did I do wrong?” And soon you start to second guess whether you’re actually a Gospel Advancing Ministry, since you’re struggling to keep the students you have.
While there is no secret formula to prevent every student from leaving, there are strategies that help with student retention. And as leaders, we must always fight to keep our teenagers around—even if we know that some may choose to stop coming.
Try This! ❯
Invite a student into a new responsibility at group this week, i.e., arrange ahead of time to have them lead a prayer, run the games, explain the gospel, share a song.
Here are six ways to prevent student drop-off.
1. Create a sense of belonging
Finding a place to belong is so important for teenagers. God made each of us to be in community with others. This can be a dangerous reality if a student finds the wrong social group. That is, teenagers are more than willing to compromise their values in order to feel accepted and a part of a peer group. Creating a culture that invites people in and keeps them connected will help your students choose the church over the world. A simple way to do this is by spending time with your students. For instance, you could make it a goal each year to hangout with every student occasionally in a smaller group of two or three. If you have a larger ministry or a tight schedule, cascade this goal to your youth leaders. Add in social media strategies to help stay connected.
2. Give teens a role
According to the Center for Public Education, the average American student spends anywhere from 900 to 1,000 hours in school…per year. Multiply the number across pre-k to grade 12, sprinkle in after school care and summer camps, and that is a lot of time spent sitting down and listening to someone else’s instruction.
No wonder many students are hungry to actually do something. Let them own a piece of ministry—and I’m not just talking about serving as a greeter. You could have them run the games, lead a prayer group, develop an on-campus Christian club or even deliver a youth group message. Not only will this encourage them to stay involved, it also gives them an action step, which is one way to grab your students’ attention and multiply your youth ministry.
3. Offer positions of leadership
Similar to giving students a role, having a leadership opportunity will encourage a student to take youth ministry seriously. Upperclassmen (who tend to have a higher drop-off rate within youth ministry) are great candidates for youth ministry leadership, as underclassmen already look up to them. This can also give them a natural next step when they leave the youth ministry to continue to serve as an adult leader. After all, they already know the DNA of your youth ministry.
4. Live on mission
Teenagers want to be a part of initiatives that are larger than themselves. This is why teenagers oftentimes find rallies and social media movements appealing. Demonstrate with words and actions the power of the gospel. You want them to experientially know that the gospel is the greatest cause anyone can be a part of. Try programming outreach events, prayer walks, food drives or other faith sharing opportunities for your teens in order to stir their passion for THE Cause. When they see lives transformed by the power of the gospel, it will fan their flame for discipleship multiplication. If you are too busy to plan your own event, consider taking your students to a conference where they will be given an opportunity to participate in an outreach event.Seeing lives transformed by the gospel fans the flame for discipleship multiplication. Click To Tweet
5. Follow up with new students
Whenever a new student visits the ministry, make sure they fill out a new student card. Include important details like a phone number along with a physical address. Then follow up and send a postcard or reach out to them by phone. A warm, welcoming follow up will encourage them to come back.
6. Nurture spiritual pathways
God wants our teens to do more than check a box that says “Christian.” He wants them to mature in their faith. Students need to see a clear spiritual pathway within the ministry for doing this. For instance, setup a plan that takes students from seeker to disciple maker. (Dare 2 Share recommends Sonlife’s four chair model of discipleship.) Include steps like baptism and service. Keep the pathway simple and clear, so that as your students move down it, they can bring other students along the same road. That’s real disciple multiplication!
Keeping teenagers active during those precious years you have with them gives them a firm foundation to live the rest of their lives as disciple makers. And though we may not be able to prevent every student from leaving the youth ministry, we can try—and that’s all that God asks.