Keeping Kids When They Become Young Adults

By Mark A. Taylor

When teenagers are active in church but then graduate from high school and disappear, unfortunately most of us aren’t surprised. In fact, at least one youth ministry expert thinks it may even be normal.

“It’s the rubber band syndrome,” says Les Christie, youth ministry professor at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California. “College students are stretching away from home. They’re testing their independence. But they usually come back, especially after they’re married and have kids.”

Christie quotes the familiar Proverbs 22:6, emphasizing one word: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s satisfied with the low church attendance among post college students he’s seen for decades. I had called him for reaction to a news release from the Barna research group earlier this fall. “A majority of twentysomethings 61 percent of today’s young adults had been churched at one point during their teen years,” it said, “but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying). Only one fifth of twentysomethings have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences.”

Christie believes the church could do something to improve these numbers.

He suggests “more emphasis on leadership development” and decision making skills with teenagers.

And he believes youth ministry should pay attention to parents of teenagers, equipping them to lead, teach, and be models for Christian living in their homes.

This idea is echoed by others I spoke to. Gary Zustiak, formerly with Christ In Youth, and now teaching at Ozark Christian College, is a big advocate of family based youth ministry. “We cannot do youth ministry with the pied piper model,” he said.

Nick Tomeo, youth ministry professor at Cincinnati Christian University agreed with the need for a whole family emphasis in youth ministry. And he thinks one of the best places to begin is with worship. “We’ve separated the kids by putting them in their own worship services,” he said. “They’ve never had a meaningful experience with multigenerational worship or the whole church.”

Both Christie and Zustiak agreed that a primary solution is for the church to look carefully at itself. “The church needs to reach out to a new generation,” Christie said.

Twentysomethings are seeking a way to ” be the church,” Zustiak said, “not just go to church.” In other words, when more of the church takes its faith more seriously, that in itself may keep more young adults engaged.

“At the very core of the church,” he said, “the way the gospel is lived out needs to be changed.”

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