Orginally published on Monday, April 16, 2007 at 7:30 AM
by Earl Creps
There are some numbers that everyone takes for granted: 50 states, taxes due on the 15th of April, and 75% of students absent from church after high school graduation. Across the country I have heard youth pastors express more anxiety about this last statistic than about almost anything else. The notion that our student ministries are rounding up young people for a brief season only to see them march off a spiritual cliff just days after leaving high school is appalling. However, I sense that part of the anxiety comes from the lack of a firm conclusion about what is causing this debacle. I make no claims to expertise in this area, so I was surprised when friends who I consider to be national resources in the field expressed similar uncertainty on the issues of what creates this situation and how we should respond to it...
Into this void, a number of competing theories are asserting themselves. Here is a sampling of what I’m hearing on the road and the internet:
1. The 75% number is bogus. This theory cites George Barna’s telephone surveys showing only a 42% drop in church attendance between high school graduation and age 25 (it gets worse later). However, more than 80% of these young adults say that religious faith is very important with over half claiming a personal commitment to Christ. They pray at the same rates as older adults. So maybe we’re measuring the wrong things anyway?
2. The “cliff” may be more of a turn in the road. One youth minister from the East coast told me recently that he doesn’t worry much about this statistic because students tend to enter college ministries or simply take some time to get oriented to adult life, meaning that not being there on Sunday morning for while is just not the end of the world. Like a bend in the road, the experience may take them out of site for a while, but that doesn’t mean they are gone.
3. Why focus on teens when our adults are no better? This argument pushes back by claiming that the spiritual vitality measurements we have for the average adult aren’t exactly glowing either. So the fact that mom and dad are present on Sunday morning hardly indicates that their relationship with God is vibrant and transformational. Maybe the students are just being more honest. And maybe the parents’ lack of “honesty” is part of the problem.
4. The drop-off is a function of family dynamics. Many youth pastors are struggling with reaching out to students they describe as the “Have’s” while simultaneously working with others they refer to as the “Have Not’s.” These groups are often separated by a combination of economic status and parental church attendance. Lots of ministries are maybe 50% “Have Not” kids whose parents have no connection with the congregation and offer little support to their spiritual growth. Is it any surprise, then, that these students don’t stick with it after graduation?
5. Students are there for the relationships. The average student, goes this argument, is present because of a network of friends in the group. When the network breaks up at graduation, so does their faith, or at least their participation in congregational ministry.
6. The students are living out the inherent flaws of youth ministry. Critics of today’s ministry models claim that they prepare students for a world that no longer exists, ignoring the realities of the pre-adult (or Twixter) life stage that high school grads are about to enter. Also, youth ministry’s focus on events, media, conferences, etc. places the emphasis on the venue and not on the heart, say some critics. Form this perspective we are lucky that the drop out rate isn’t higher.
FOR DISCUSSION: What’s your theory?
About the Author: Earl Creps has spent several years visiting congregations that are attempting to engage emerging culture. He directs doctoral studies for the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri (http://www.agts.edu). Earl and his wife Janet have pastored three churches, one Boomer, one Builder, and one GenX. He speaks, trains, and consults with ministries around the country. Earl’s book, Off-Road Disciplines: Spiritual Adventures of Missional Leaders, was published by Jossey-Bass/Leadership Network in 2006. Connect with Earl at http://www.earlcreps.com .
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