The Secret to Retaining Youth in Church


The church’s desire to connect and retain teens is an age-old battle.  However, as the church continues to suffer considerable losses in membership, this problem takes on greater significance.  The church may see youth as the one group that can rescue a bleak future. “If we can just stop the youth from drifting away after High School, then we have a chance to reverse the decline.”  Look around, this is a very different generation.  Their values have shifted.  What matters to them is different than previous generations. What matters to their marginally committed parents has changed.  This post will be based on some research by Barna on the different goals for youth ministry between senior pastors and youth ministers and the parents of those elusive teens.  But just look at the unexpected changes to culture and notice how little time it took for the changes to occur.

Surveys in 1986:

70% of high school grads leave the church, never to return
65% of evangelical teens never read their Bibles
33% believe religion is out of date and out of touch
40% of all teens believe in astrology
30% read astrology column daily
93% know their sign
58% of Protestant teens believe students should have access to contraceptives.
25% of high school students contract some form of V.D.
42% of protestant teens say there are many ways to God.
60% question that miracles are possible
28% feel the content of the Bible are not accurate.

According to surveys in 1990:

65% of all H.S. Christian students are sexually active
75% of all H.S. students cheat regularly
30% of all H.S. students have shoplifted in the past 30 days
45-50% of all teen pregnancies are aborted
3.3 million teens are alcoholics
1,000 teens try to commit suicide daily
10% of H.S. students have experimented with or are involved in a homosexual lifestyle.

-Bruce Wilkinson, 7 Laws of the Learner.

Imagine what the survey would discover today.  As church leaders what are you trying to accomplish with young people today?  When I asked this question of a young couple one striking observation was shared with me.  “After High School, the church had nothing for us to do.  We weren’t a part of their planning and strategy.  There was no space nor place for us or our friends.  So, we just drifted away.”  Church, what is your plan to reach post-High School students? Do you have a ministry plan for the youth you claim you desire desperately to engage? If you are not intentionally planning and preparing to connect with youth and their parents, it probably will not happen.

It is my prayer that this post and the ones that follow will give you encouragement and direction.

One of the questions the Barna researchers asked was: “What are the goals of the pastoral leadership team?”

The goals of the pastor and youth leadership team?

The Barna researchers found that senior pastors and youth leaders were fairly united with the goals they were seeking to accomplish.  Barna’s research discovered this:

  • The top two goals of youth ministry for a substantial majority of church leaders were: “discipleship and spiritual instruction.” Also, seven in 10 senior pastors (71%) and three-quarters of youth pastors (75%) say this is one of their top goals.
  • “Building relationships with students” is a primary objective for about half of youth pastors (48%) and two in five senior pastors (40%), while “evangelism and outreach to youth” is selected by roughly one-quarter of each group (29% senior pastors, 24% youth pastors). “Evangelism to the parents of teens,” on the other hand, does not appear to be as important (7% senior pastors, 4% among youth pastors).
  • Even if most church leaders don’t prioritize reaching out to parents, many express a hope that parents will reach in. One in six senior pastors believes “getting parents involved with spiritual formation” is a top goal of youth ministry (18%). And youth pastors are even more likely to say so: One-quarter identifies this as a priority for their ministry (23%).[1]

One of the shocking revelations is that most pastors and youth do not rank evangelism to the parents as a high priority.  This may explain why youth groups have become a safe house ministry more than an outreach opportunity.

Two other interesting facts came out of the research involving engaging youth in community outreach.

  • Similar percentages of senior pastors (12%) and youth pastors (10%) feel that providing a “safe and nurturing environment” is an important goal—which, as we will see, is a much higher priority among parents.
  • Senior pastors (17%) are more likely than youth pastors (10%) to emphasize “serving the community”— but “serving the church body” is at the bottom of both groups’ lists (6% senior pastors and 4% youth pastors).

Church, you are missing the boat if you ignore involving youth in service outside their church.  Studies also show that teens are flocking to churches that are involved in the community.

 One bright spot in the research is that teenagers are flocking to the local church when they feel the urge to volunteer. The desire to be a part of a community that is making a difference in the world is our doorway.  What are the most common forms of service for teens?

  • The most requested form of service is feeding the hungry/helping the homeless (35%)
  • Second are educational opportunities (31%)
  • Then environmental/cleanup (28%)
  • Less popular are volunteering with animals (20%), service trips (18%), social advocacy/political (11%), or medical or healthcare (10%).[2]

Retaining young people today is not low hanging fruit.  It will require the church working hard to find a way to connect with them and their families by creating a community that engages their passion to serve outside the walls of the church.  What a tremendous opportunity.  Here is your assignment:  Do you have youth ministry as a priority in your church?  If so, what are you doing to connect with them and their families?  If you don’t what will you need to change to make youth a priority?   Let’s start a discussion of what is working.



14 Comments on “The Secret to Retaining Youth in Church

  1. Good stuff Keith. We have a pretty vibrant church. Lot’s of folks my age, and a large youth group. But, when we look out, we see a huge gap…that being the age group of the parents. It was pretty startling to realize that. So, now evangelism and outreach is the priority of those who go visit regularly. The problem is that as of now that consists of me and another fellow. Of course, the pastor is hard at it, and the youth leaders are constantly looking for more youngsters. Pray that more come on board, as you have exactly nailed the solution.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Keith! These are great thoughts. I also recently posted about the importance of providing service opportunities for students. I think getting students involved is key to helping them gain a faith of their own, which I believe can help in keeping students in church after graduation. What do you think the church can do better so that students “have something to do” after graduation?

    This is a struggle many churches are having today. Thanks for posting this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Andy. What I discovered talking to a couple is that typically churches have no ministry opportunities for young people post graduation. It’s like we expect them to be gone and somehow magically reappear once they grow up and have children. Having ministries that focus on serving the community has proven to be the most effective.


  3. Hi Steve.

    I do actually get these emails as well. However, I very much appreciate that you sent this. It is always good to know that others take in interest in youth ministry and what is happening.

    How to retain our youth? This question has been a popular topic for a LOOOOOONG time. Some churches address it, and others are oblivious to it (and don’t want to focus much effort on it). Unfortunately. I struggle with it often, and if anything could keep me awake at night. . .this would be it!

    I would have to add that the “disappearance” occurs even before high school graduation–and that 1990 is already 28 years ago–SCARY! Much has changed!!!

    A great read (if you are interested) is the book* Hurt* by Chap Clark. It offers some good insight into the pressures that today’s youth face compared to those that we faced.

    All of that being said, if you or anyone in your circles EVER has any constructive thoughts on the topic, I am always willing to listen.

    Over the years, I have gotten better about reaching out to parents and trying to include them. . .rather than just focusing on their kids. I have tried to have a more open communication and have tried to share things that I have read with them.

    Pastor Ryden’s approach to DISCIPLESHIP is a good one. However, it will probably take some time before we might see the fruits of this approach. And. . .unfortunately, some just don’t follow along too willingly. He requests/requires that parents come in for the first 5-10 minutes of Youth Discipleship Class to pray with their kids. I am shocked by how many feel free to skip this part. (He has a better response with the 7th & 8th graders than I have with the 6th graders–probably because he is the PASTOR. However, I don’t think that it is even 100% successful with his class.)

    Sometimes I think that we should spend more time in prayer and seeking God’s Will because looking for the answer can be akin to a dog chasing its tail. In the meantime, I try to keep on working with relationships with the youth and their families. Some let me in, and some do not.

    If you have any other thoughts or responses to this, please feel free to share them.

    Again, I LOVE that you read this and passed it on. Please continue to do so. I will admit that he made me read it “right away” as opposed to taking a look later.

    You ROCK!!!

    🙂 Kari

    __________________________ Youth Minister Hope Lutheran Church 305 East Black Rd. Shorewood, IL 60404 815-741-2428

    On Tue, Jan 9, 2018 at 6:02 AM, The Light Breaks Through wrote:

    > Keith Haney posted: ” The church’s desire to connect and retain teens is > an age-old battle. However, as the church continues to suffer considerable > losses in membership, this problem takes on greater significance. The > church may see youth as the one group that can ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Youth Retention: Can We Return to the Glory Days? – The Light Breaks Through

  5. This is a great reminder about the importance of discipling youth and involving them in their faith and not just pressing at them. What I found most interesting is the lack of emphasis on sharing the Gospel with the parents of youth. That is a rarely visited frontier of youth ministry!


  6. I think tons of the problem of retention of faith is that, comparatively, kids have only a little time with Church friends and teaching. We started keeping an “all day” sabbath, and t seems like its allowed more time for the coin to drop. We don’t do tons of religious activity, mostly restful, joyful, and just being around each other. Thanks!


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