Parenting, Youth Ministry

Youth Retention: Can We Return to the Glory Days?



Take a journey with me back into time.  Now for some of you, this trip will take a lot longer.  Think back to the day after your high school graduation.  Once all the parties had ended, you and your classmates then began the process of discovery.  Questions abounded about the next chapter in our lives.?

Why Did You Abandon Me?

For some who had already made a decision as to which college, if any, was selected, their arrangements for that transition were in full swing.  For others, life would be filled with uncertainty and desert wanderings.  At some point, many of us, over time, would find our way, discover our path, and settle into a career.  Many would start a family and build a new community.  But those years after high school where difficult.  The post-high school years were filled with much change and loss.  There were lost friends, loss of community, and loss to some degree of innocence.   It was a shock to the system to leave the relative safety of high school to find yourself thrust into the world now labeled as a young adult.

Imagine that same feeling but after eighth-grade.  You have finished your spiritual journey, or so it seems.  Youth experience a sense of loss after confirmation.  When I asked some people who work with youth, what is the most significant challenge they face in youth ministry.  Here are some of their responses.

  • “The biggest challenge I think we are facing is that students see confirmation, and here at St. Mark’s, communion, as the carrot at the end of the stick. It’s that “graduation type” thing that they have to do, and once it’s done, they think the engagement with the church is over. We’ve been working hard on finding a way to build relationships between our confirmation age students and that post-confirmation to help those younger students see a reason to keep engaged. That reason simply being an authentic Christ-centered community with their friends and peers.”
  • “The primary challenge is meeting the individual’s value for long-term faith development. Parents are a factor in the long-term development. There has been a perception of confirmation equating to spiritual achievement. Many parents, who experienced the process, buy into the need for their child to make this rite of passage. However, for the student and the parent alike, I believe confirmation has failed to instill the value of individual long-term faith development. Our congregations are perpetuating the value of cheap grace through its inability to step away from the programs and focus the programs on personal, individual faith development.”
  • “Post confirmation, even pre-confirmation in a small rural town here, a smaller congregation – we have about ten middle-school age youth from a variety of schools, and this is a struggle. Parents are somewhat engaged, but the youth are disconnected.   Some seem tired from their schedules with school/sports; we have spent a couple of years now studying this and considering how to keep them. We are looking at engaging them in the whole church instead of separate activities,

preparing them for larger events such as servant events or youth gatherings by connecting youth to adults for longer relationships; exploring and planning how to start mentoring relationships. And exploring how they build relationships through confirmation.”

What the church is experiencing with youth today is the same way I felt after confirmation over 40-years ago.   What I missed during my most challenging time of transition was, my church.  My church, after confirmation, abandoned me.  There was no room for my friends and me.  There were no programs for us, and I just assumed after the instruction that I was a mature disciple ready now to take on a leadership role in God’s kingdom, the problem was there was no position nor opportunities to lead.  No one showed us how to refine, develop and use our God-given gifts to serve God and His kingdom. The church sent an unmistakable message, “You are the future. It is our time now!  Your time will come. Come back, when you are all grown up.”  Sadly, one by one my confirmation class attendees dropped out.  Some I have not seen since eighth-grade.  I get the sense from when I visit churches that this feeling was not my reality alone.

We Need a Shift from Ministry as Usual.

If you have followed my blog long enough, you know that I can’t leave you feeling all of this is hopeless.  What needs to happen is a shift from ministry as usual. We need to see confirmation as a process, not a singular time anomaly. What is the way forward?  How we view youth and their role in the kingdom now, will determine how we can stop the backdoor losses.  Here are some titanic shifts in thinking my readers have suggested.

  • “Post High school groups: Many of the groups I have developed and facilitated always seemed to miss the mark. The groups would feel forced, unoriginal, and not authentic. With that said, there was a strong personal commitment to make the group more than what really it was proving to be. This age group was found to be more engaged in doing. Many of my best volunteers have come from this age group. This age has a desire to experience a lived-out faith rather than a talked about faith. In this age group, I have also found some of the deeper conversations about how faith is applied to our daily walk. This has happened in a relational way that is limited by group process.”
  • “At Lord of Life, we confirm young adults when they were ready and not in a large group of eighth-graders. My last Sunday there I “confirmed” two high school students who shared their testimonies. Doing it this way meant we had “confirmation” on an ongoing basis through the year.  It is a great witness to members! By doing confirmation as a group (eighth-grade), we often make an assumption that all are ready and that this is a terminal point in their Christian life when in reality it is only the beginning! Specific ministries are always necessary since discipleship is a life-long process.”


It’s all about relationships.  What keeps youth and their parents engaged in the life and ministry of the church is authentic, meaning relationships, first with their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and then with His saints.  We were built to live life in a community.

More posts on the subject:


Christian Family, Community Outreach, Parenting

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.