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How You Can Help High School Grads Transition

“Slipping through the cracks” is a cliché term used for many things, but unfortunately, it’s all too familiar in our churches. Mostly, it’s come to define what happens to many kids as they transition out of high school youth ministry.

Ministries intentionally reaching college-age people cannot solve the entire issue, but the lack of them certainly contributes to the drop-off during this transition. Most churches have yet to embrace a ministry specifically to this life stage, leaving them without guidance and often feeling unwanted and detached. They don’t fit in our traditional ideas of student ministry anymore, and they certainly don’t feel like adults.

Means vs. End
The evaluation of whether or not a high school ministry is successful must include how it helps students transition into adulthood. Without embracing this idea, we hinder the growth and maturity of our young people.

Once our kids graduate from high school ministries, many disconnect. Yet our actions scream, “We don’t care about you anymore! You don’t belong in our church! You’re not important enough for us to address your life stage issues!” Of course, we would never say that and our heart certainly doesn’t feel that way, but our actions seem to be speaking louder than either.

Is the point of our high school ministry to get students to come, or is it a small part of the lifelong discipleship process of individuals? Is our high school ministry the end, or is it a means to a greater end? For both questions, I hope it’s the latter. If not, we’ve falsely defined success in ministry.

Necessary Recognitions
Before we look at practical ways in which we can help our graduates transition into adulthood, I want to make sure we understand why we do these things. The reality is times have changed. I’m not talking about modern versus postmodern eras, the differences of the ‘Net generation from former ones, nor am I speaking of specific generational values or beliefs. I’m talking about the life of people in a specific age-stage, between 18-25 years old. The realities people face in this age-stage have tremendously evolved.

To be effective, there are at least four things we must embrace before we determine where we spend our time and energy:

  1. Transition is longer than a summer.
    Failure to recognize transitioning students as bigger than a summer or a one-time-event will lead to higher disconnection statistics. This “transition” can last up to seven or more years, and these years are some of the most formulating years of a person’s life. So the church must begin to engage post-high schoolers during this entire time of transition. It’s not a transition out of high school as much as it’s a transition into adulthood, and this is far more complex than a few events or retreats can solve. Whether or not our students move away to college, we must still make sure they’re being mentored and loved throughout these crucial years.
  2. Time of instability
    Looking for a place in society, high school grads are experiencing an array of things helping them reevaluate beliefs and assumptions they were raised in. It’s a stressful time for many, but more than that, it’s a time of searching…with hope of discovery. Truth, identity, intimacy, meaning, and pleasure are all areas of life college-age people are searching through and doing so differently than people in any other stage of life. Unfortunately, too many are aimless, wandering through these years alone without the presence of biblical guidance and loving mentor voices. Graduates are too often left with secular thought guiding their reevaluations. A summer event could be helpful, but like our ministries, it’s not the end.
  3. Delayed adulthood
    Graduating high school has generally become another transition into the next stage of education, not a time of adult-like living. Certainly, there are adult characteristics in every college-age person, but we can also make the mistake of viewing them as more stable than maybe they really are. The college-age years have become a late adolescent stage of exploration versus a time of consistent maturity. Most late adolescents view adulthood as a desirable time of stability, but from their perspective, it’s also a time where autonomy, spontaneity, exploration, and essentially all liberty ends. They need sound doctrine guiding their reevaluation of beliefs, and mature believers guiding them can allow for this.
  4. Identity crisis
    Grades, sports, humor, a significant other, and their social network of friends are all things that can give high school students a sense of identity. After graduation, their high school identity is typically either lost or outgrown. Christian or not, this leaves most grads with feelings of isolation, and detachment. Although this is a natural part of everyone’s transition after high school, when you lose a sense of who you are, certain questions come to the surface. Who am I? Where do I fit into society? What makes me unique? What am I going to do with my life? Again, a few one-time-events held over the summer will not answer these questions by themselves. Recognizing the longevity and importance of this search is necessary to truly help post-high schoolers transition. If the body of Christ is not a part of this entire thought process, our students have only popular culture to look to for identity.

Helping Students (Truly) Transition
While unpacking the core issues faced during late adolescence is too vast for one article, the previous four elements are the basis for engaging those struggles. They at least provide a basis for understanding the need, and they offer a direction for determining how we can help. This transition is a complex internal process that all people go through after high school, and our role is to walk with them during this time.

What are some practical actions we can take to not only make them feel loved but also show them through our actions that they actually are? Here are three things we must do to properly transition kids, and some practical ways of going about them.

Intentionally “Rattle their cage.”
Too often, students enter their college-age years with their parents’ faith, not their own, which often ends in spiritual confusion. We make the mistake of not forcing them to think through this before they graduate. It’s much better if they are confused while you’re there to walk them through things rather than being confused with nobody to go to. If you’re the first one to bring up issues that cause them to question their faith, they’re more likely to come back to you to talk about it if a professor does the same thing down the road. So simply teaching “proper behavior” doesn’t mean we’ve done our jobs. Here are some practical ways you might go about preparing your kids to be confronted by life after high school:

  1. Have weekly one-on-one meetings with the goal to hang out and eventually ask some hard questions from a devil’s advocate perspective. Why do you believe the Bible? How do you know it’s true? They may reply for instance, “Prophecies.” Ask them, “What prophecies?” If they name a couple, ask them to tell you where those are in Scripture. The point is to make them realize they probably don’t know as much as they think they know. This is good, healthy, and even necessary. If you don’t ask these types of questions and force students to think, someone else will. However, that other person may not have the foundation to guide their thought processes toward biblically mature conclusions. In fact, they may even have an anti-Christian bias.
  2. Have a weekend retreat for graduates where you talk through identity. Ask questions like, “Who are you?” “Why are you Christian?” “How do you know you’re not just Christian because your parents are?” Leave it ambiguous, and wait for them to come to conclusions themselves. Don’t be afraid to create a little bit of a mess in their lives. It’s ok if you make them feel like they don’t know who they are. The point isn’t to confuse them and then leave; it’s to let them know you’re going to help them think through these issues. If thought is caused, the retreat will be filled with teachable moments. Take advantage of them, but don’t just provide answers. At some point, they will ask these questions anyway; so we might as well be the ones to force the thought process – so we can be the ones to guide it.

Expose them to other adults.
Too often, our goal is to transition our kids into a church service, rather than the life and body of the Church (with a capital C). High school grads’ biggest need is remaining connected to the body of Christ, not necessarily our local congregation or ministry (although that would be great, as well). Whether or not your students leave for school, intentionally fostering a connection in your ministry (and/or a church near their campus) beyond just you and their parents is vital. Far too often, we fail to recognize that truly loving our students requires us to help them connect beyond us individually. Here are some practical ways you might do this:

  1. Have a dinner/barbeque for your graduates, but invite a couple or two from the church as well. This couple is there just to hang out and talk. Nothing more. Age doesn’t matter, but this couple needs to be relational, down to earth, and mature in faith. This can provide an opportunity for your students to connect with people they never would’ve otherwise. Simply introduce them as your friends and let your students know they wanted to be there because they were going to be praying for them as they transition into the next phase of life. (I’d recommend telling your students individually, keeping it authentic and relational; if articulated in a group setting it could create awkwardness, with the perception of being forced.) E-mails and phone numbers may be exchanged, but this should happen naturally rather than institutionally.
  2. Host a weekend retreat for your graduates where you invite some older, more mature adults. Again, age doesn’t matter, but they should have the same qualities as the folks you invite to the barbeque. Have a lot of down time just to hang out, but have these people share their testimonies at some point. It’s important that they articulate their personal story and are careful not to give the typical “I want to tell you all the things you should not do,” teacher-to-pupil type of testimony. They are real people with real stories. Graduates can apply their stories to themselves. They need to see these peoples’ hearts (besides, they already know what not to do).
  3. Meeting with our students one-on-one is vital, but sometimes it’s better if we’re not the ones they meet with. There are times when another leader in the church can help them just as much as we can, possibly even more. As much as possible, connect your students to these other people. When an issue comes up in a conversation with a student, talk to her about it-but at some point let her know there’s someone you want them to talk to who’s dealt with the same thing. If your student trusts you, she’ll meet with this person.

In all of these situations, constantly pray that mentoring relationships are being formed with young people beyond with just you.

Help them see the bigger picture.
Our goal isn’t to increase the numbers in our ministries, making us look good; it’s to disciple students to live as mature believers, having a worldview that’s bigger than their individual whims. Without this perspective, they will never truly transition into mature, Christian adults. Here are two ways you can implement this:

  1. Send them off as missionaries. After meeting with them individually and talking about this concept, have your pastor introduce them as missionaries in church services. Have your missions pastor (or other leader) constantly keep in contact with them. Maybe even raise some financial support for them as any missionary would, which helps keep them focused and creates a sense of accountability. Now, if you decide to do this, it can’t happen merely over one summer; it must be a core aspect of all your time with them. You can even travel with them to their college campus, pray over the campus, and walk the halls – challenging them to think through how they might be able to live out (and share) their faith there. (And you can do the same for those entering the work force or military.)
  2. Re-emphasize the fact that you and your ministry are simply the means to a greater end in their lives. Love them enough to truly prepare them. Constantly remind them they haven’t arrived, but your goal is to help them keep their “eye on the prize.”

What are our actions really saying if we drop kids after they graduate? What does that say about our definition of a successful high school ministry? Looking at our actions, we can see what we really believe and where our priorities are.

Like me, you are probably constantly limited by lack of time, but we have to remember that it’s not about us. Christianity never is. It’s about others that are left aimless, in need of loving mentor voices. We must be willing to pay the price of time, if need be.

So how do we follow up with people throughout these crucial years? There’s a lot to it, so I think I’ll save that for the next article…