Students who remain connected to the church after graduating from high school and those who drop out are separated only by a matter of degrees. They don’t look any different sitting next to each other. You may not be able to spot the differences at all. However, there is a strong likelihood that many of the students in your youth group will drop out of church at some point after graduation.
A recent study by LifeWay Students and LifeWay Research found 66 percent of students who were active in church during their high school years were not active in the church during their college years. That number may sound discouraging, but there is hope. Our study found that there are small changes church leaders can make to help keep students connected.
One of the most influential aspects of a student’s spiritual development is the investment of multiple adults speaking into their lives. And parental influence is by far the most crucial.
As students describe their home-lives with regard to church, it’s clear that parental influence matters when it comes to getting students through the door. The largest group likely began attending church because it was their parents’ desire, and in the process, they discovered it was important to them too. This was a strong predictor of students staying in church after high school.
Those who stayed in church are more likely than those who stopped attending to have had parents who actively served in the church (36 percent versus 28 percent), regularly discussed spiritual things (36 percent versus 22 percent), and prayed together regularly (35 percent verses 23 percent).
When we pressed students on the topic of their parents and church, we found something interesting: Fathers staying in church is predictive of students staying in church. At age 17, only 43 percent say their parents attended the same church they did.
None of these statistics on their own is enough to make a case for one hard-and-fast rule about how to keep students in church after they graduate, but together they start to paint the shadow of a solution. Parental influence is crucial and student pastors or other church leaders can indirectly influence the spiritual health of students by investing in their parents.
Encourage and Equip Parents
One thing you as a minister can do for the families of those in your ministry is create an “as you go” mentality. At the end of Matthew 28, as Jesus commissioned His disciples to make disciples of the nations, He told them first to “go” (vv. 19–20). Making disciples happens as you go, as you live your regular life. It’s part of the process of being a believer who follows Jesus’s commands. You are in the position to empower families to do this very thing with their students.
It doesn’t have to be formal. You don’t have to call an emergency parent meeting and tell them if they don’t start having a half-hour of family devotions every night, their students will abandon their faith.
Your first step might be to simply encourage parents to talk openly with their teenagers. Encourage them to ask genuine questions—ones that can’t be answered with one word. Students are no different from adults in that they want to be understood without feeling like they are being scolded or judged. You can play the role of encourager as they open discussions that can lead to spiritual things.
Some parents might be nervous about having conversations like these with their students. That’s okay. You can be the one in their corner, letting them know it’s okay to not have all of the answers. Do your best to release parents from the burden of thinking they must have answers for every one of their student’s questions. It’s impossible for any parent to perfectly navigate the tricky years of adolescence with their teen. So be a trusted ally for parents. Help them see that the goal of parenting is not perfection but faithfulness. Your goal is simply to inspire parents to pursue Jesus alongside their students.
You can also function as something of a librarian for the parents of your church. Compile tools to help parents have spiritual discussions with their students. You could send out occasional emails with things like “Six Simple Ways to Have a Gospel Conversation with Your Students” or “How To Use Beach Vacations to Talk About God.” Get creative, and take time to brainstorm ways you might encourage parents to spiritually engage their teenagers in the rhythms of everyday life. This is one of the main reasons why LifeWay provides parent conversation sheets with each of our three main curriculum lines. These sheets are an easy way for student pastors to equip parents to have spiritual conversations in those “as you go” moments of life.
For student pastors, you are likely entrenched in youth culture and are in a better position than some of the parents in your ministry to understand how that generation thinks and approaches the world around them. Think back to your own teen years. Now, think about your parents. Did they have a good connection and grasp on the culture in which you lived? It’s the same today. Parents are mostly pretty far behind their understanding of their teen’s culture.
Because of this, many parents feel paralyzed in even talking to their teens about issues of their day. You can be a tremendous resource to parents in this moment. Pay attention to conversations between students. Learn about the trends sweeping their schools. Keep tabs on what they’re watching, listening to, and engaging with in popular culture. Your role as a student pastor isn’t to helicopter all of the students in your ministry on behalf of the parents. However, it is part of your role to research and know the culture in which your students live so you can minister to them effectively and equip parents to do the same.
God has put you in a unique position to encourage, teach, and coach parents about how to have discussions about spiritual things with their teens. They don’t have to look for this grand moment to talk about God; it should just be part of the regular routines in their homes. They don’t have to become master teachers or brilliant communicators; they only need to foster great community. Set up parents for success and you will be doing the same for students.
Ben Trueblood is director of Student Ministry at LifeWay Christian Resources and is a member of First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He is the author of “Within Reach: The Power of Small Changes in Keeping Students Connected” from which this article is adapted. Learn more at LifeWay.com/WithinReach.