By Aaron Earls
Two-thirds of church-attending teenagers drop out as young adults and many of those rarely, if ever, come back. But they aren’t just leaving, they’re leaving at a specific time.
If churches can recognize when their students will potentially leave, they can make adjustments to keep them there.
For most, the danger zone is from age 17 to 20. Lifeway Research found three-quarters (75 percent) of teenagers who attended Protestant church regularly are attending at the age of 16. By the time that same group of teenagers reaches age 20, only 36 percent are attending regularly.
At the age of 30, 34 percent say they are regularly attending church. This means if churches can keep teenagers active in their congregations through that 17-20 window, they will most likely keep those young adults as they start families and establish the pattern of their entire lives.
So what can churches do to keep teenagers plugged in? How can they avoid the drop out danger zone? Here are four ways to help students see the value in sticking with church.
1. Stress the importance of the local church early and often.
If you wait until a teenager heads off to college or starts their career, you’re already running behind.
Begin in the children’s ministry and continue it throughout the student ministry. Have your leaders talk about (and model) how vital it is for someone who wants to follow Christ to be an active part of a local church.
Work to keep your student ministry integrated with the rest of the body. Let teenagers see their need for others and the ways their congregation needs them.
2. Encourage parents to be involved.
One of the top reasons given for staying in church as a young adult is wanting to follow a parent or family member’s example. Don’t only focus on the teenagers; speak to the parents.
Most parents don’t realize the impact their words and actions have on their teenagers. They wrongly assume their children aren’t listening and wouldn’t care.
If parents make church a priority for the family, students will pick up on that. If parents treat church as if it is simply another activity to take or leave, students will pick up on that as well.
3. Work with college ministries.
Is your church near a college or university? If so, ask them how you can help. Let them know that you want students as part of your church and then follow that up with actions that demonstrate your commitment to them.
If your church is nowhere near a college but you have students going away to college, get in touch with the student ministries on campus to let them know about your incoming students.
Tell your teenagers that you are reaching out to those college ministries. That way, they’re expecting to hear from those ministries, and they know you’re expecting them to be involved.
4. Keep teenagers accountable.
I remember my uncle asking one of his then teenage daughter’s friends to sign a contract (written on the back of a church bulletin) promising she would continue to attend even after she had her driver’s license.
He didn’t have this research back then, but he had seen enough teenagers leave our church once they began to drive and work. He wanted to make sure this girl wouldn’t become yet another dropout. Today, she regularly attends church with her husband and children.
It wasn’t really about that “contract.” It was the fact that the girl knew someone in church cared enough about her to keep her accountable. She understood that people at our church wanted her there and expected her there.
“One of the most influential aspects of a student’s spiritual development is the investment of multiple adults speaking into their lives,” said Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at Lifeway and author of Within Reach: The Power of Small Changes in Keeping Students Connected.
Don’t assume teenagers will continue to show up to your church because they’ve been there in the past. But neither should you assume teenagers will drop out because so many do.
Work to change the statistics—and in doing so, change the trajectories of countless lives.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.