Why Do Students Leave Church After Graduation? According to Research, This Is the Biggest Factor

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In our conversation Kara Powell covers the changing trends in youth ministry, why high school graduates really leave the church, and why we should listen to our student’s doubts and hit tough topics head on.

Kara Powell, our recent guest on the ChurchLeaders Podcast, is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. As a youth ministry veteran of over 20 years, she serves as an Advisor to Youth Specialties. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara is the author or co-author of a number of books including Sticky Faith and more.

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Here are the highlights from Kara’s incredible insights, research and ideas (edited for clarity), but be sure to listen to the entire podcast and subscribe in iTunes!

Kara, what has changed the most in youth ministry over the last decade?

The professionalization of youth ministry. There is much good as a result of this like better trained leaders, more called people, better pay, more resources, and specialized education programs. The downside is many churches feel like they can outsource spiritual formation of young people to their designated staff member. The result is churches have moved away from investing in the lives of students themselves.

So what’s the #1 Reason this generation walks away from their faith?

Of all the youth group participation variables we’ve seen, being involved in intergenerational worship and relationship was one of the variables most highly correlated to young people’s faith. So in other words, while it’s great that there are better trained, more called, more specialized paid and volunteer youth leaders—the downside is that the gap between the overall congregation and the youth ministry is growing, which ends up being toxic to young people’s faith.

As a result, students graduate and all they know is the youth ministry and the youth leader. They don’t know their church; they don’t know adults in their church. No wonder they drift away from the church because they feel like they’ve graduated out of it. Really good research indicates that almost half of young people drift from God and the church after they graduate.

This is why the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) does what they do. They are figuring out how to get students to have “sticky faith.”

What is needed to bridge that gap between the youth and the church?

We need a 5 to 1 ratio. Many children’s and youth ministries will have one teacher for every five kids. But to bridge the gap, there should be five adults for each student. This is a research-based reversed ratio. Ideally, there should be five people praying for one student by name and showing up at their sporting events throughout the year. It’s a paradigm shift. It’s not about finding five small group leaders per student, it’s about finding five adults who show an interest in your student or child.

The church can creatively empower parents to surround kids with their team of adults. Ask your son, daughter, niece or student, “Who’s on your team?”

(Research shows five people is best, but Kara clarifies it doesn’t have to be five people. Even just one person or two people is better than none.)

The key is to motivate and equip parents to create that team. Then the youth pastor can focus on the kids who don’t have parents at home who are able to do this.

Here are a few practical steps for youth leaders to get started:

  • Talk to senior pastor and/or supervisor. Explain the vision and get their support. It’s helpful to know your supervisor’s love language (adapted from Gary Chapman’s work). Know what is most meaningful to them whether its scripture, research, or examples. Then frame the change you think God intends for your ministry along those lines in ways most meaningful in the context of your church like evangelism, discipleship, and growth.
  • Next, get parents on board and train them. Explain why you’re doing this and how you plan to accomplish the vision, then offer resources and training.
  • Identify the students who don’t have involved or available parents. Talk to them and get an idea of who they look up to and who they might like to have on their team. You can be the catalyst to create that team with them.

How should the church approach doubt in ministering to students?

One of the greatest surprises out of the Sticky Faith research was data related to doubt. In their 3 year study of over 500 students in first three years of college, they found doubt is fairly pervasive in young people, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. What is toxic is unexpressed or unexplored doubt. When young people have the opportunity to express or explore their doubt, it is correlated with stronger and more mature faith.

Kara shares it’s often those tough questions that help God become even more real to us. However, toxic messages of doubt start young. When something bad or scary happens, it’s typical for a third or fourth grader to say, “I don’t understand why God would allow this earthquake to happen.” So often, well-intentioned Sunday school teachers quiet the young student instead of offering an answer. This tells kids the church can’t handle their questions and neither can God.

Leaders should raise tough questions on purpose. The church and youth ministry should be the first place young people feel they can go to with their questions. This starts with adults. We must raise our own tough questions and talk about tough sections in scripture. This shows students God is bigger than your toughest question.

The four most powerful words can be “I don’t know, but.” Maybe you don’t have a ready answer, that’s okay! Discover the answer together or get back to them.

The worst response is to do nothing. The best response is to partner with parents. Students do best when they feel like they’ve come to their own conclusions. We can look at scripture together and talk through “what do you think this means?” It’s messier and harder, but so worth it because young people will own the insights from those conversations.

Now what?

Kara shared the number one reason why young people are walking away from their faith—it’s a lack of intergenerational worship and relationship. But we can be part of the solution. Focus on connecting and cultivating relationships between youth and adults within the church. Make that a primary focus for your ministry and we’ll see those statistics start to shift.

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Tony Ridgaway is a staff writer at ChurchLeaders.com