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preaching article The Research Is In--This Is the #1 Reason Students Leave the Church

The Research Is In--This Is the #1 Reason Students Leave the Church

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Aug 26, 2015
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Editor's Note: This discussion with youth expert Kara Powell is a critical conversation for preaching pastors. We need to do everything we can to reverse the trend of high school graduates leaving their faith and the church. I encourage you to use this insightful talk to fuel both your teaching and your passion for cultivating a church where next gen disciples thrive.  

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Kara Powell, our recent guest on the ChurchLeaders Podcast, is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. As a youth ministry veteran of over 20 years, she serves as an Advisor to Youth Specialties. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women You Should Know," Kara is the author or co-author of a number of books including Sticky Faith and more.

In this important conversation we cover the changing trends in youth ministry, why high school graduates really leave the church, and why we should listen to our student’s doubts and hit tough topics head on.

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Here are the highlights from Kara’s research and insights on reversing the trend of milennial faith drift (*edited for clarity).

Kara, what has changed the most in youth ministry over the last decade?

Over the last decade the professionalization of youth ministry has really gorwn. There is much good as a result of this like better trained leaders, more called people, better pay, more resources, and specialized education programs. The downside is many churches feel like they can outsource spiritual formation of young people to their designated staff member. The result is churches have moved away from investing in the lives of students themselves.

So what’s the #1 Reason this generation walks away from their faith?

Of all the youth group participation variables we’ve seen, being involved in intergenerational worship and relationship was one of the variables most highly correlated to young people’s faith. So in other words, while it’s great that there are better trained, more called, more specialized paid and volunteer youth leaders—the downside is that the gap between the overall congregation and the youth ministry is growing, which ends up being toxic to young people’s faith.

As a result, students graduate and all they know is the youth ministry and the youth leader. They don’t know their church; they don’t know adults in their church. No wonder they drift away from the church because they feel like they’ve graduated out of it. Really good research indicates that almost half of young people drift from God and the church after they graduate.

This is why the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) does what they do. They are figuring out how to get students to have “sticky faith.”

What is needed to bridge that gap between the youth and the church?

We need a 5 to 1 ratio. Many children’s and youth ministries will have one teacher for every five kids. But to bridge the gap, there should be five adults for each student. This is a research-based reversed ratio. Ideally, there should be five people praying for one student by name and showing up at their sporting events throughout the year. It’s a paradigm shift. It’s not about finding five small group leaders per student, it’s about finding five adults who show an interest in your student or child.

The church can creatively empower parents to surround kids with their team of adults. Ask your son, daughter, niece or student, “Who’s on your team?”

(Research shows five people is best, but Kara clarifies it doesn’t have to be five people. Even just one person or two people is better than none.)

The key is to motivate and equip parents to create that team. Then the youth pastor can focus on the kids who don’t have parents at home who are able to do this.

Here are a few practical steps for youth leaders to get started:

  • Talk to senior pastor and/or supervisor. Explain the vision and get their support. It’s helpful to know your supervisor’s love language (adapted from Gary Chapman’s work). Know what is most meaningful to them whether its scripture, research, or examples. Then frame the change you think God intends for your ministry along those lines in ways most meaningful in the context of your church like evangelism, discipleship, and growth.
  • Next, get parents on board and train them. Explain why you’re doing this and how you plan to accomplish the vision, then offer resources and training.
  • Identify the students who don’t have involved or available parents. Talk to them and get an idea of who they look up to and who they might like to have on their team. You can be the catalyst to create that team with them.

How should the church approach doubt in ministering to students?

One of the greatest surprises out of the Sticky Faith research was data related to doubt. In their 3 year study of over 500 students in first three years of college, they found doubt is fairly pervasive in young people, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. What is toxic is unexpressed or unexplored doubt. When young people have the opportunity to express or explore their doubt, it is correlated with stronger and more mature faith.

Kara shares it’s often those tough questions that help God become even more real to us. However, toxic messages of doubt start young. When something bad or scary happens, it’s typical for a third or fourth grader to say, “I don’t understand why God would allow this earthquake to happen.” So often, well-intentioned Sunday school teachers quiet the young student instead of offering an answer. This tells kids the church can’t handle their questions and neither can God.

Leaders should raise tough questions on purpose. The church and youth ministry should be the first place young people feel they can go to with their questions. This starts with adults. We must raise our own tough questions and talk about tough sections in scripture. This shows students God is bigger than your toughest question.

The four most powerful words can be “I don’t know, but.” Maybe you don’t have a ready answer, that’s okay! Discover the answer together or get back to them.

The worst response is to do nothing. The best response is to partner with parents. Students do best when they feel like they’ve come to their own conclusions. We can look at scripture together and talk through “what do you think this means?” It’s messier and harder, but so worth it because young people will own the insights from those conversations.

Now what?

Kara shared the number one reason why young people are walking away from their faith—it’s a lack of intergenerational worship and relationship. But we can be part of the solution. Focus on connecting and cultivating relationships between youth and adults within the church. Make that a primary focus for your ministry and we’ll see those statistics start to shift.

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Kara Powell, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. As a youth ministry veteran of over 20 years, she serves as an Advisor to Youth Specialties. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women You Should Know", Kara is the author or co-author of a number of books including Sticky Faith, Essential Leadership, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. 

Talk about it...

Omenlemen Aidenojie Godwin avatar
Omenlemen Aidenojie Godwin
0 days ago
Omenlemen Aidenojie Godwin avatar
Omenlemen Aidenojie Godwin
0 days ago
Omenlemen Aidenojie Godwin avatar
Omenlemen Aidenojie Godwin
0 days ago
Charles Goza avatar
Charles Goza
0 days ago
I was a youth minister for over 25 years and Bill Gothard told us in 1979 that the reason was the last verse in the Old Testament "turn the hearts of the children to the fathers and fathers to the children lest I come and strike the nation with a curse. He said the same thing Kara said, that the parents turned the youth over to the youth ministry and weren't involved. That prompted me to get a doctorate in family ministry and change my job description from youth minister to family minister and do intergenerational ministry.
Lafern Cobb avatar
Lafern Cobb
0 days ago
Love the ideas! I was a Youth Pastor in my 20?s before I became a Pastor. It was a volunteer position and a great learning experience. It also gave me a heart for the youth. I even had one person tell me I focus too much on the youth and not enough on the elderly. One problem that some churches have is they see the youth as transitional and therefore don?t want to put much effort into the youth dept. Then you can go the other way and try to make your church a continual ?rock concert.? I have been pastoring for 22 years now at the same church. Over the years I have seen a new problem arise. When I was young our church was diverse. But today the ?older generation? is ?out spending their children?s inheritance? to quote a bumper sticker. Our older Christians are setting a bad example for the youth. You go to church for a few months and then head south for six months. Snow birds show no consistency. That has affected the outlook of church attendance throughout our church family, not just the youth. But these older members feel they have done their part and it?s time to relax. My grandparents were active in the church until they passed away, not until retirement. I think the adults need to set a better example??and I would welcome any ideas from others who may have noticed this change through the years in their congregations.
Lafern Cobb avatar
Lafern Cobb
0 days ago
Don't know why my apostrophes are all question marks.....sorry...
Jd Anderson avatar
Jd Anderson
0 days ago
I think the problem is faith. The adults, the children, the church at large does not have a faith imparted as a gift from God. We, the church, have removed the stumbling block, made the path wide and easy. Nothing there for the Holy Spirit to convince of. Think John 16:8-11.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.