Preventing Teenage ‘Faith Drift’

“ROI” is a term I use often. Not because my ministry requires me to wheel-and-deal in high-level business negotiations (unless you count asking for soy milk at my local coffee house). But as I dream about my own ministry, and the ministry of leaders nationwide, I want us to have the best possible “Return On Investment.” I want the gospel seeds I plant to be used by God to yield great fruit—especially when it comes to harvesting faith in teenagers and young adults.

Recent research on the faith trajectories of young people intensifies my quest to find the best ministry ROI. According to multiple studies, 40 to 50 percent of youth group seniors—like the young people in your church—drift from God and the faith community after they graduate from high school.

Our team at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) wasn’t satisfied with that faith drift, and we bet you aren’t either. So we have spent the last decade studying over 500 youth group graduates, 50 families, and 200 congregations to figure out how leaders and parents can build faith that lasts—or what we call “Sticky Faith.” While it is ultimately God who brings about spiritual transformation, research can help guide your congregation to the practices with the greatest potential to make a difference in young people.

The power of intergenerational relationships

In our quest to uncover what matters most in young people’s faith, we studied the effects of 13 different youth group participation variables, meaning 13 different activities churches tend to offer teenagers. You’ll be glad to learn that service and justice, small groups, student leadership, and retreats are important in building faith that lasts.

But surprisingly, the variables most correlated with mature faith in high school and college are involvement in intergenerational worship and intergenerational relationships. In our study of 500 youth group graduates, bringing the generations to sit shoulder to shoulder or look eye to eye was more important for long-term faith than any other youth group activity.

The Five-to-One Principle

One study examining young adults who drop out of church found that 18 percent of youth group graduates who remain connected to the church had five or more adults invest in them spiritually and personally between ages 15 and 18.

That finding aligns with an astute recommendation made by my colleague, Chap Clark. For the last few years, Chap has advocated that we need to “reverse the adult-to-kid ratio” in children’s and youth ministries.

What does that mean? Many ministry leaders say they want to have one adult present for every five kids during small group meetings, Sunday School classes, or youth group activities. Chap’s encouragement is to reverse that ratio so that instead of having one adult for every five students, we have five adults for every one student.

We’re not talking about five Bible study leaders. Nor are we talking about five adults to whom parents outsource the spiritual, emotional, social, and intellectual development of their kids.

We’re talking about five adults who know a young person’s name. Who pray for them. Who show up occasionally at that young person’s gymnastics meet or volleyball tournament. In other words, five adults who are on their team.

What this means for your church

We aren’t saying you should eliminate all your children’s and youth ministry programming. In the midst of advocating for intergenerational ministry, we believe there is still a need for regular age-based ministry that tackles appropriate developmental questions.

So while you continue to develop robust children’s and youth ministries, we also encourage you to look for strategic ways your faith community can build relationships across generations. Perhaps you could institute a new “senior to senior” mentoring program that matches high school seniors with senior adults. Or you might want to infuse your church’s Confirmation program with opportunities for kids to build their own 5:1 team.

If an ongoing intergenerational ministry seems intimidating, consider giving a current one-time program an intergenerational spin through inviting teenagers to your next men’s or women’s ministry event. Or take a bigger leap by combining your student short-term mission trip and your adult short-term mission trip into one all-church mission trip.

In order to build enduring faith, many congregations are making their corporate worship services more intergenerational. One congregation of 1,500 members now invites middle school and high school students to join the first 20 minutes of every worship service—before splitting off into their own age-level classes.

Desiring to help their teenagers connect more with the overall church body, three years ago Saddleback Church in southern California decided to shut down their middle school and high school youth group the first weekend of every month. That means 1,600 teenagers are not only attending the overall church worship services that weekend but also participating as greeters, worship leaders, ushers, and Scripture readers. According to Kurt Johnston, Saddleback’s Student Ministries pastor, “Now that this practice is a regular part of our schedule, the benefits are beginning to bubble to the surface. Our students feel like they are a significant part of the larger church, and the adult congregation has completely embraced them.”

That’s a faith ROI worth celebrating.


Originally posted on the Christianity Today blog
Image: Israel Egio