Equip Your Seniors for the College Transition with This Simple Idea
By: Aaron Thompson
Working with teens is a joy and a privilege. As youth workers, we get four to seven years with most students—laughing with them, crying with them, learning from them, and pouring into them. And then … they leave. It’s easy to get so invested in our church, our program, and our time with students that we lose track of the incredibly formative and difficult transition that our high school seniors face.
For our parents, it’s a time of changing roles, expectations, and relationship norms. For the graduates’ friends still in our ministries, it’s a time of painful change and even a few forever-goodbyes. For faith development, this is a time of paramount importance.
Research from Fuller Youth Institute suggests that six out of seven seniors who graduate from youth ministry programs feel underprepared for and overwhelmed by the transition from high school to college. And, as most churches are starting to recognize, church attendance data backs this up. Half of the students raised in protestant churches don’t continue to participate in church life after high school. Many leave not only faith communities, but also faith all together.
There are many reasons for this, but a primary one is this: in the midst of changing from high school to college, the anchors of a student’s faith disappear. Church, family, and Christian friends all change. When students make the jump from a well-established faith community and support system to the unknown (and sometimes hostile) spiritual world of college, they don’t always land on their feet.
But here’s the good news: we know the problem and some of the causes. And we can work on it.
The research from Fuller tells us that students who do find faith community in college find it quickly. In fact, Fuller’s study suggests that students who do not plug in to a church or campus ministry in their first six weeks of college probably will never plug in over the next four years. (For more on this, see the book Sticky Faith by Kara Powell.)
The first few weeks at school are crucial. And students need to walk in knowing this. More than that, they need to have a plan and determination to find a new faith community that will support and nurture them as their world turns upside-down.
To encourage this, our ministry has taken an experimental approach. A team from our youth staff takes interested students to a different church each Sunday for six weeks before graduation. Over those six weeks, students explore, in the context of their current faith community, what other churches are like. They get a taste for what speaks to them in other churches and what doesn’t. And we work to help them with things as simple as where to find information about churches online, how to get more information at welcome desks, and how to find a new small group or service opportunity.
This time is about modeling and practicing with the students what we want them to do on their own in their first few weeks at college. It is our goal that students will walk into their new communities confident that good churches are nearby and that ongoing faith community matters.
We’re now at a place as a ministry where we can see the experiment at work. Just yesterday I got a call from a former student (now a college Junior). In the course of catching up on his life at school, he talked about setting up the registration desk for his college ministry. He started reminiscing about the time he first went to that desk to learn more about getting connected. I smiled as he said, “I saw the table by the bookstore and knew I needed to stop and talk with them because you were always on me about only having six weeks.”
That’s what we want—students who know that they don’t leave our ministry as fully formed Christ-followers. We don’t want students who so love our small groups, programs, or teaching that everything else pales in comparison. We want to be a building block, and often, a starting point for their personal faith. But then we want to push them on to the next community that will help them to grow.
About the Author
The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry… Read More