By Aaron Earls
How can we stop teenagers from dropping out of the church?
Pastors and church leaders have discussed this question often, as yet another group of teenagers leave their congregation behind as they become young adults.
Lifeway Research found that 2 in 3 teenagers raised in the church will drop out in their early adult years.
Many of the potential solutions churches have tried make little difference.
There is no statistical difference in the drop-out rate based on being part of a large youth group, involvement in student ministry activities, or attending Christian camp.
Nothing is wrong with those, and many of them may be a catalyst for life change in some teenagers.
Churches should continue to engage in those activities with the hope that Christian teenagers will have their faith strengthened and lost teenagers will encounter Christ.
However, churches should make sure that these five simple steps are part of their student ministry, if they want to increase the likelihood teenagers stick around.
1. Recruit adults to invest in them.
There might be no more important step a church can take than to have multiple adults make investments in the personal and spiritual lives of teenagers.
The odds of a teenager dropping out of church is 2.65 times higher among those who had no adults investing in them between the ages of 15 and 18 compared to those with three or more adults investing in them.
Do what it takes to keep teenagers at your church safe but work to have multiple high-character adults involved in their life.
Look for ways many different adults can be involved in your student ministry. Create roles. Find opportunities.
Even one adult can make a difference.
Among those who dropped out, 46% say an adult spent time with them regularly to help them grow spiritually. Among those who stayed in church, 58% say they had such an adult in their life.
2. Task the student pastor to challenge them spiritually and be involved in their lives.
Several factors related to the student pastor and the student ministry had an impact on the likelihood teenagers choose to remain in church.
If the student pastor regularly gave students the opportunity to follow Christ, challenged them in their faith, and fostered a place where students could ask honest questions, teenagers were more likely to stick around as young adults.
If the student ministry taught them how to share their faith with others in conversations, how to study to Bible on their own, how to defend their faith, and was a place they heard other students ask tough questions, the likelihood of their dropping out decreased.
But it wasn’t just about what happened at church. The odds a student stayed involved as a young adult increased when the student pastor attends a teenager’s extracurricular activities and has a relationship with the teenager’s parents.
3. Encourage them to read the Bible.
Bible reading shows up as a factor in virtually every study of positive spiritual outcomes.
Not surprisingly, teenagers who say they spent regular time reading the Bible are less likely to drop out of church as a young adult.
4. Give them responsibilities.
The tendency can be to simply bring teenagers to church and then keep them entertained with music and activities.
One way to increase the likelihood they stay in church, however, is to put them to work.
Teenagers who say they had regular responsibilities at church are less likely to drop out.
5. Keep their friends active.
The number of students had no significant impact on drop-out rates, but friends did matter in keeping teenagers in church.
There is a case of positive peer pressure, where friends involved in church can encourage others to stick around.
If the student says his or her group of friends respected peers who attended church, they are significantly more likely to stay in church.
Why it matters
None of these guarantees a teenager will not drop out of church. After all, 66% do drop out for at least a year as a young adult.
However, even among those who drop out, only 29% of those who left the church when they were 18 to 22 still say they don’t attend at all as 23- to 30-year-olds.
What your church does with student ministry matters beyond the teenage years and even past their time as a young adult.
The ways you invest (or don’t invest) in teenagers at your church today matters through eternity.
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.