If I can be honest, one of the hardest things about student ministry is the "Dropout Effect." The dropout effect is what happens when students who had been a part of our ministry walks away from it, the church, or at worst their faith. The statistics are vague on how prevalent this is, depending on who you talk to it can be as low as 50% or as high as 90% (Kinnaman tags the number in You Lost Me at 59%). Because this is such a fluid topic, we'll suffice it to say that the number is "a lot." And for decades this has been an issue for churches to try to figure out how to retain young people. I believe this "Back Door" in the church is a gaping concern, and I also believe that it's impossible to point the blame at any one group in particular. Too often student ministers catch the brunt of this, where they are blamed for failing to stop a young adult from walking away from the church, but had watched their parents for years model a superficial commitment to the church. Or parents catch the blame for failing to raise their kids right, but watched a church burn out student ministers in succession or where the student minister was dismissed for moral failure.
I believe the answer to closing the back door is to first look at the front door, and make some major commitments on the home and church side. Closing the back door is only going to happen when the front door and the time between is such that the back door can stay open and students don't want to leave. It requires both sides to recognize their important role in shaping young adults, and to make one fundamental shift in the common objective:
Our goal is not raising children to adults, but to shepherd them to maturity in their faith
See the shift? We're wanting to do more than simply graduate students to adulthood, but to develop a maturity in their faith. In this paradigm, the church and home work for a common purpose: the discipleship of a student towards maturity in Christ. Along with that come all the normal responsibilities and expectations of adulthood, but with a primary emphasis on their faith becoming the central aspect of their life. Here are the way how I believe the home and the church can close the back door by focusing on the front.
Home - Shepherding Children & Students' Hearts
1. Parents should display a vibrant faith that has genuinely changed them - It's hard to ask from your child & student what you don't have yourself. So the starting place for this is for parents to look in the mirror and ask "Am I a Christian?" "Do I live out my faith in such a way that I show Christ?" "Does our home reflect what the Bible says about the family?" It starts by moms and dads recognizing their need for a Savior and leaning on Jesus for their salvation. More than a decision or prayer, it's reflected in everyday life.
2. Don't just parent, disciple - Discipling in the home is Good Parenting + Gospel. It doesn't mean that everything is over-spiritualized, but it does mean that discipline and punishment is an opportunity to talk about sin and consequences, restoration and forgiveness, and to ultimately point to Jesus who takes all our sin on Himself. It means the Bible is read, studied, cherished, and lived. It means parents are encouraging the spiritual growth of their family (and growing themselves!).
3. Keep the end-game in mind - I tell parents always to ask themselves 3 questions: "What do I want my child/student to Know?" "What do I want my child/student to Love?" "What do I want my child/student to Do?" The end game is the mature disciple produced after a faithful 18 years of loving care, shepherding, providing, and grace. Knowledge involves the shaping of a worldview (see #1 below), Love involves treasuring Christ and loving the Church, and Do involves living life on mission.
Church - Partner with Parents to Provide an Environment for Faith to Thrive
1. Don't just teach Bible stories, develop a biblical worldview - We do a disservice to our children and students when we just give them Bible stories, even if they're really good stories. We have to make a commitment as teachers to develop a biblical worldview. That starts by seeing the Bible as One Story, one that is about a God who Creates, Man who Falls, Jesus who Saves, and Creation that's restored. Everything is about Jesus, and God is at work in every page of the Bible to show His Son. Next, a biblical worldview involves seeing life through that four-fold lens. A biblical worldview informs how we watch the news, read a book, drive our cars, and choose a career/spouse/house/car/etc.
2. Connect the generations, don't separate - If you're a youth leader, ask yourself one powerful question: If an 80 year old widow in your church died today, would any of your students miss her? Even notice? What happens so often in churches is the generations are pulled apart--either philosophically by separate programming emphasis, or physically by the design of the church facility. When we do that, we fail to put the full Body of Christ on display for our children and students. When we connect the generations, we allow for Titus 2 mentoring opportunities to happen (80% of young adults noted never having a spiritual mentor in their lives), we allow older generations to share their stories of walking with Jesus faithfully for decades, and we give children and students an opportunity to allow others into their world.
3. Provide opportunities for students & young adults to live out their faith on mission - When we build facilities that are designed to keep our students inside them and shelter them from the outside world, we do less to impact the world than we do to just build an ivory tower. It also reduces the "win" to just getting them in the door. Instead, embrace the mindset that sees how important it is to be on mission, where students are engaged with their communities and the world in sharing and serving Christ. One of my greatest convictions in student ministry is that every student should spend time serving outside of their context (different country or different region) once before they graduate high school. This gives them a love for their neighbor, a love for the nations, and a heart for serving that carries over long after the fog machines from camp are gone.
What strategies have you seen work in your church and home for producing disciples?
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.