After the Youth Group, What Next?

For a number of years now we have been hearing a grim statistic: half of our teens will lose their faith after graduating from high school. Churches have hired youth ministers, built gyms and hosted musical extravaganzas. They have saturated their curricula with “relevant” discussions on sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Is any of this actually working?

Recent studies by the Barna Research Group show that teens are more likely than adults to attend worship services and participate in other activities of the church.[1] As we have come to expect by now, the picture changes dramatically after graduation: 61% of the people who were active in their teens are no longer active in their twenties. This figure applies to the American population as a whole. What about the Church of Christ in particular?

Flavil Yeakley has surveyed several thousand members of the Church who graduated from high school from 1997-2006.[2] Roughly forty percent were no longer attending the Church of Christ. Of this number, half are affiliating themselves with denominations, while the other half are claiming no religious affiliation at all. This dropout rate is nothing to crow about, but is less than the “half” figure we usually hear, and much less than the religious world in general. According to Yeakley, of those who fall away, as many as 12% may return in later adult life.

How can we stop or at least slow the dropout rate? We know that active, thriving youth groups are part of the answer. Teens need a sense of belonging and acceptance, but is it enough? One Barna researcher thinks churches need to do a better job at “discipleship and faith formation.” I cannot agree more. Somehow, we have to impress on their vibrant and searching minds the need for God. They need to know what’s at stake, and they need to know how to thread their way through the morass of spiritual challenges that lie ahead.

The church as a whole must do better, but parents must bear the brunt of responsibility for raising their children (Proverbs 22:6, Ephesians 6:4). Carting our kids to and from church youth activities is not enough.

Eighteen years of diligent teaching and preparation may not be enough, either. Yeakley’s research reveals an astounding statistic: 85% of our members who graduate from high school and attend a college affiliated with the Church of Christ remain members of the Church. An extra four years of immersion in a Christian context significantly improves their chances of remaining faithful in the long term. The majority of dropouts occur among members who attended other colleges, or never went to college at all.

There are some great campus ministries associated with public universities. The problem, in Yeakley’s estimation, is that most of our freshmen are dropping out as soon as they leave home. Students need to feel a part of the campus ministry or local church at an early stage, and parents can play an active role in encouraging and promoting involvement.

Attending a Church of Christ-affiliated college is not for everyone. Tuition tends to be expensive (although substantial financial assistance is often available). Some of these schools may not offer the right academic program. And, frankly, not all of our colleges are equal in nurturing both a love of learning and a respect for God’s Word. As a result, many high school graduates will end up attending a local, state-supported school, or take a non-college track. Whatever their choice, parents and church leaders have a tremendous task ahead of them.

[1] The Barna Group, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” September 11, 2006. [URL updated September 14, 2009]

[2] Flavil Yeakley, “Where Have All the Young People Gone?,” Lecture, Freed-Hardeman University, January 19, 2008.,frameless.htm. [URL updated May 8, 2010] See also Flavil Yeakley, Good News and Bad News: a Realistic Assessment of Churches of Christ, USA, 2008.

© 2009 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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