I remember that I was shocked, absolutely SHOCKED, when I first heard statistics about the long-term impact of local church youth ministries… or actually the lack of it. According to the leader of a seminar I took at the National Youth Workers’ Convention, in his denomination only 6% of youth ministry participants were later engaged as adults in local church ministries. SIX PERCENT! How is it that our youth ministries in many instances are failing our young people as they enter adulthood and failing the church in its longer term mission?

Many a youth ministry struggles with retention – retention of middle schoolers as they enter high school, retention of young teens who complete confirmation experiences never to be seen again, first-time visitors who never again darken the door. But many, many churches miss the boat as high school seniors graduate, casting graduates into the “outer darkness (of college and/or young adulthood) where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” disconnecting from graduates because they are “done.”

You know the old youth ministry joke:

Question: What do you do if you hurt a graduating senior’s feelings?

Answer: Who cares!

This kind of thinking is particularly present in youth ministries that exist in silos, operating largely separate and distinct from the local church as a whole, caring little for what happens with students after graduation or what happens in the church outside the youth ministry.

Every Youth Ministry Needs an Alumni Relations Department (or At Least a Plan for Graduate Retention)

Of course, youth ministries and churches have a tremendous opportunity to make a long-term impact upon the lives of their students by taking a long-term interest in their spiritual formation and discipleship development  into adulthood, a terrific chance to go well beyond concepts of exam care packages and annual college worship observances (though these are good, of course, in the context of an intentional larger plan).

Here are some bigger ideas that might be part of a larger graduate retention effort:

Go deep with your students.

It will take more than gimmicks. They might show up for your notepad or game system giveaway, but that won’t keep them interested when a relationship is falling apart or they’re flunking out of college. They will want to know that somebody cares enough to stay in touch in an intentional way over the long haul, even after they’ve graduated from high school.

Better yet, connect them to Jesus.

Well, okay … duh! But if they’re connected to Jesus, they have THE source of light and joy that will guide them when life is falling apart, even when their local church fails them.

Give them a roadmap.

Place an emphasis on longer-term relationships as part of youth ministry curriculum. Help them explore what it will mean to make decisions as an adult, what it will mean to be a person of faith and integrity, and how that might look in a relationship with a local church. Why not offer a six-week emphasis that lays it all out for seniors during that big last year of high school.

Lead your church toward a whole life discipleship pathway.

Children’s and youth ministries are the most likely to have intentional discipleship pathways in place, but what about adults? This is probably the most ignored yet most important task of ministering to young adults. Why not lead your church in addressing the discipleship needs of young adults, offering valuable input about a population of young adults which you likely know better than anyone else. You don’t have to take responsibility for making it happen (though you could), but you can be a big part of seeing that it does happen.

Pave their way.

Graduating seniors can go in dozens of different directions and pursue dozens of different goals. Many times they go to isolated places or on isolating journeys, and they need our help in connecting with ministries and people along the way. One of the best things we can do is to contact local church or college ministries in the places they are going or to contact friends in those place that our graduates are going to create moments of hospitality in new strange places.

They Graduated a Month Ago; The Time Is Now

They are about to scatter to the winds, if they haven’t already. This is your chance to have a lasting impact that will have a great effect on your students’ lives and on the life of the church.

Don’t let it slip away again this year…

And… check out Reimagining Young Adult Ministry, by Mark DeVries and Scott Pontier, to help you in this adventure!

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