4 Reasons Students Aren’t Walking Away From Church

4 Reasons Students Aren’t Walking Away From Church

Aaron Buer

Digital giving apps and tools

I’ve been a student pastor for about fifteen years now.

Along the way I’ve read most of the research about how students are walking away from church after they leave our youth groups.

I hear a lot of talk about how the church in America is going to basically die out in a generation because so many students are walking away from Church.

On the other hand, I’ve observed hundreds and hundreds of students who’ve graduated from ministries that I’ve been a part of, who are still in the church and still following Jesus.

I’m not saying that all the research isn’t right. I am saying that it doesn’t have to be.

What I mean is that there are strategies that we can employ that dramatically impact these statistics.

I have some thoughts based on research and my own learnings in ministry that I’d like to share.

Here are four reasons students aren’t walking away from church.

1. They Feel Invited

Have you ever walked into an environment in which you immediately understood that you weren’t really welcome?

Maybe I just brought up some terrible memories from middle school. Sorry about that.

We all know the feeling when your presence is tolerated but not truly appreciated.

This is what it feels like to be a teenager in many churches. We’ll tolerate you but we really would prefer that you grow up and got a haircut.

What I’ve observed is that students who stay in the church after high school feel invited by the church and by this I do not mean that they feel invited to the student ministry of the church. I mean, they feel invited by the people of the church.

How would a teenager feel invited? It has a lot to do with warmth and relational engagement.

These concepts are clearly described in the book Growing Young. Side note: This book is fantastic.

A few essential questions to ask:

Who is going out of their way to talk to teenagers in the atrium or lobby of your church before and after church services?

How do you talk about teenagers from the stage of your church?

Would a teenager ever see another teenager on the stage of your church in the worship team, giving announcements, praying or reading scripture?

Can a teenager be involved now or do they have to wait until they “grow up?”

All I’m saying is that one of the reasons students aren’t walking away from church is that they feel invited and by this I mean that they feel welcomed and also like they can have meaningful roles in the church now.

2. They Are Invested In

We have a significant problem in our culture. It’s called systemic abandonment and it’s described in detail in Chap Clark’s book Hurt 2.0. Side note: This book is also fantastic.

Here’s what systemic abandonment is:

Our society, in many ways, has moved away from nurturing and investing in children and teenagers to leaving them own their own to figure out life.

A clear example that I’ve felt is sports. Sports used to be about fun, character building and teamwork. Now, sports are about winning. Instead of using sports as a vehicle to invest in kids, our society now uses kids to win.

This is just one example of what systemic abandonment looks like. The result is a bunch of teenagers who feel abandoned and in some cases used by adults.

They feel left to their own devices to navigate the difficult and awkward transition from childhood to adulthood. On the whole, this phenomenon is obviously very bad but also, in a weird way, an opportunity for churches.

How could it be good for churches?

Well, teenagers in our culture are hungry for meaningful relationships with adults. It might not be obvious on the surface but trust me on this.

In many cases, teenagers have very few adults in their life who they believe are truly for them and committed to them.

What I have learned is that the most magnetic strategy we can employ in student ministry is connecting students with caring, Jesus-following adults who will consistently show up for them, invest in them and mentor them in life and faith. It is incredibly magnetic.

Let me say it clearly:

The most attractional aspect of our student ministry is not amazing videos, games, fun, technology, iTunes worthy worship, or anything to do with big, expensive, or relevant…it is the caring adults who show up week after week to invest in the lives of students.

One of the biggest reasons students aren’t walking away from church is the caring adults—small group leaders, mentors and others who show up week after week to invest in them.

I’m telling you, it is rare for students to find this anywhere else. This is one area where our society simply cannot compete with the church.

3. They Are Engaged

In many of our churches, we have accidentally created a significant barrier.

The barrier is between our student ministries and our weekend church services.

This is something I’ve been guilty of in the past.

At one point, we had tons of students coming to our Sunday morning student services. They loved it. But, they rarely if ever attended our weekend services that were designed for the adults in our church. And, it took me way too long to figure this out.

Often, when they graduated from our student ministry, they left the church because they couldn’t make the leap to the adult services. The two services were too different.

What I realized is that the way we had structured our ministry basically made the student ministry a para-church ministry. Our students were not engaged with the church as a whole and so how could we expect them to make the leap from student ministry to adult services when the two felt so different?

Here’s how I’ve changed my approach:

We don’t offer a high school service during our weekend services.


Because we don’t want adult services and student services. We just want one church service that students can engage with.

Our high school ministry, which meets on Sunday nights instead of Sunday morning feels a lot like the weekend service. The worship feels essentially the same and the message, while targeted toward students, feels very similar to a message that would be experienced in a weekend service.

Instead of having students primarily serve in our student ministry, we push them to serve in the church as a whole, particularly in the children’s ministry.

These three changes have dramatically impacted our retention of students after they graduate from our student ministry. One of the reasons students aren’t walking away from church is that they are already engaged in the church.

4. They Didn't Leave Earlier

In my experience, students who are invited, invested in and engaged with the church as high school students usually do not walk away from church.

If we’re going to lose them, we typically lose them before high school.

In other words, the ones who walk away from church and from faith are students we lost in the transition from kids ministry to middle school or middle school to high school. If they’re fully engaged in high school, we usually have them as adults.

What I’m saying is that in some cases we’ve focused too much on the transition from high school to college/adulthood and not enough on some of the other transition points which can be just as, if not more impactful.

The best way to improve these transitions is to begin by studying attendance statistics.

  • At what points do you lose the most kids?
  • Is it during 5th grade because the children’s ministry feels to “kiddy?”
  • Is it during the move from 5th to 6th?
  • Is the transition between 8th and 9th?

Study the numbers and decide what is most critical and then create strategy to improve retention. Most likely this strategy will need to focus on parents more than the students themselves because parents are still driving them.

All this is to say that one of the main reasons that high school graduates aren’t walking away from the church is that they stayed engaged through earlier transition points.

Wrap Up

So there you go.

The way I see it, we don’t have to lose this battle. If our students are invited, invested in, engaged, and still involved in high school then there is a great chance that they will stay in church and continue following Jesus long after they graduate from our student ministries.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What lessons have you learned? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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