One of the many challenges of student ministry is the eventual "exodus" of upperclassmen (people?) as they reach their junior and senior year of high school. Licenses are obtained, cars of varying varieties are procured, and the stellar, most important 9th grade student leader you had is now sporadically seen at best.
As someone working in a mainline (Methodist) church, this is an ongoing problem for many church youth groups.
However, my wife recently made a good point regarding her own youth group experience as she got older in high school. Her attendance also declined the older
she became, and yet her love for her church and her youth group remained strong.
As an adult, this notion seemed like a oxymoron: you do what's important to you. If they aren't showing up anymore, then they must not care.
Many youth ministers could be reminded that though they don't always attend, their love and appreciation for church is still strong.
But what to do about spotty junior and senior attendance? If the statistics are to be believed (and I believe they are), that over 70% of youth graduated youth group kids practice their faith in college/young adulthood, what to do? If we are tasked to help seniors and their families graduate well, then this statistic must be changed.
For one, I believe that whatever system you have in place is getting you the results you are currently seeing.Change the system, change the results.
Five years ago, this maxim shook my current ministry system to the core. I had the traditional Sunday evening youth group meeting time, with little uppclassmen involvement. Instead of wringing my hands or blaming them or their busy schedules, I decided to do something different.
I decided to tap into their belief that they are already grown up.
Its true. Juniors and seniors think they are adults. <sarcasm> Its shocking, I know. </sarcasm>
In working with this notion, I created a separate junior/senior fellowship/Bible study at my home on Monday nights in which they were told we would discuss grown up issues. No worksheets, no hand holding, no explaining everything. Real, life on life, no heavy programming. We might talk about college fears, struggles at home, or even read through CS Lewis (I recommend the Great Divorce).
The results over these past nearly five years have been astounding. Our retention of this age group went from 20% to nearly 90%. We gave them their own space, let their voices be heard, and they have attended. Likewise, they attend many other events and retreats throughout the year as well. All it took was a shift of schedule. Now many of our rising 9th and 10th graders look forward to joining this experience as well.
This postmodern generation responds to a more a la carte (many options) approach, as opposed to the "y'all come to the one youth group meeting each week" approach that my generation (class of 1997) responded to so well. This has also caused me to expand my notion of "what is youth group?" into a much larger umbrella and what therein necessitates involvement. All upperclassmen might not attend, but they do want to feel grown up. They do still care about their relationship with God. The do want to feel that they are arriving into young adulthood, and that we are intentional about helping.
Give them that space to do so. Empower this age group. Work with your people, not against them. We want them to graduate well. God bless.
Clark Chilton is a student ministries pastor from Clemmons NC.