Engaging Upperclassmen

I can remember being in my first few years of ministry and learning about a trend that seemed to happen every year in almost every setting. In looking at the demographics of youth groups, they always seemed to skew young. 

This was certainly the case when it came to our high school ministry. It was as if juniors and seniors who had been incredibly involved in their younger years had decided that being a part of the youth ministry simply was no longer worth their time. In some ways this was a natural consequence of lives that were busier, friendships that had shifted, and priorities that had changed. But I started to wonder: did we, as ministry leaders, just have to accept this as a situation we had no control over? 

Or, were there things we could do to engage upperclassmen in a deeper way and lead our group to a different outcome? 

There will always be students who fade away from both our ministry and their faith, just like any other life stage of people. But, I do believe that we can focus on a few areas that have the potential to keep older teens involved in a way that will truly help them in their faith and create a different culture in our ministries.

Remember that relationships matter most. 

One of the main ways to keep upperclassmen involved in your ministry is to make sure that the relationships they have at church are strong. This “relational ministry” mindset can’t just start when they are older. It has to be embedded in the overall strategy for your ministry, and you need to intentionally do things to foster relationships.

This means making time for fostering relationships on trips, at special events, and during regular, weekly gatherings (youth group, small group, Bible studies, etc.) It also means giving up some of your “teaching” time for relational time. This may be hard to hear, but people want connection more than they want content, so make time for creating connections a priority.

Students need to have solid relationships with not just their peers, but with trusted adult leaders who will love them, listen to them, and help guide them along their journey. You don’t just need people who can teach the Bible or share life-lesson stories or monitor rule-following. You need people who love Jesus and love students and are willing to jump into the messiness of teenage life. There are likely a number of people in your church who could fill this role. But, don’t forget, they need training and encouragement along the way (they need relationships, too.)

If students can start building solid relationships in their early years of the youth ministry, they will be more likely to stay around longer because they want to be with people they trust and have a history with. I have seen group after group be incredibly engaged during their junior and senior years because they have strong relationships and they have done it together.

Make it special

Sometimes in ministry we shy away from doing something more or special for certain groups. On the surface, I get it. We want to treat everyone the same and not pick favorites. But there is something to be said for having something special for older students. In reality, we all get more opportunities and privileges as we get older, and I believe the same should be true at church. For years our church had a senior trip in the spring and special summer mission trips just for upperclassmen.

These opportunities, along with a few others, are things for students to look forward to as they get older. You might say that we were dangling a few carrots in front of these teens in order to keep them involved. Well, it worked. We always had great engagement and participation from our older students, in part because there was something special for them. 

Let them use their voice. 

One of the best things you can do to keep older students involved is to give them opportunities to speak into what is happening in your church and your ministry. The Ministry Architects Podcast team has a whole episode on if students aren’t leading, they’re leaving. Lots of churches create a type of student leadership team that is primarily made up of juniors and seniors. Groups like this need to be more than a token attempt to keep teenagers involved. These groups need to have real conversations and have the ability to chart the direction of the ministry.

Students love to help build curriculum, make decisions about events, and lead meetings. Letting students use their voice does not mean that all of the adults evacuate the conversations and give up their leadership role. Adults still have to steer the conversations and make the final decisions, but teenagers have the ability and the desire to give input.

Another way to let upperclassmen use their voice is through sharing their testimony and teaching their peers. Lots of teenagers have stories to tell, and we can give them the platform to do it. When we give teenagers real opportunities to do ministry, they feel like they belong and can contribute. 

Engage them on their level. 

So many juniors and seniors check out of youth ministries because they feel like they’ve “been there and done that.” This is particularly true when it comes to what we are teaching and talking about. If they have been involved in your church for any length of time at all, they have heard a lot of the stories and they likely know the basics of the faith. 

I didn’t say they were living out their faith, but they have heard a lot about how to do it. In order to keep older students interested and engaged, we have to be talking about things they are thinking about and want to talk about. Sure, there are still things we need to be teaching them but, if we’re not careful, we’ll lose them. In an effort to help them really embrace the basics of the faith, we sometimes, unintentionally, push them away because we are covering things they think they have already heard. We have to engage them at their level, talk about their felt needs, and not revert to being too basic in what we teach. Check this starter guide out if you want to create a discipleship pathway that means something.

Prioritize relationships. Make it special. Elevate voices. Engage intentionally.

If we want to have a healthy and growing youth ministry, we have to put a real emphasis on keeping the older students involved. In lots of ways, we have to make it worth their time. If they have real and deep relationships, it will be worth it to them. If there are special opportunities that they can’t get elsewhere, it will be worth it. If they can use their voice and actually contribute, it will be worth it. And, if they feel like we understand where they are coming from and talk about things that are relevant to their lives, it will be worth it. Upperclassmen will find a home where they want to be involved, they will grow in their faith, and they will help you create a healthy culture that will be sustainable for years to come.

Ministry Architects Consultant Chris Sasser

Chris Sasser


Chris is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Port City Community Church in Wilmington, NC. He has served in full-time ministry since 1993, working with children’s, middle school, high school, college, and parent ministries. He has a passion for equipping and encouraging parents and leaders to help the next generation walk with God. Chris shares thoughts and ideas at www.equipandencourage.com and loves to share with students, leaders, and parents. Chris is married to Karin and they have two children, CJ and Kylie. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Chris is an avid sports fan and really loves the ‘Heels!