Last year, one of the great opportunities I had to serve in ministry was teaching 10th grade guys in Bible study.
They haven’t forgotten me, and I haven’t forgotten them since I left to help start a new campus of my church. When they see me, they don’t just say hello. They come by and give me a hug. Normally it’s a rib-crushing embrace. These guys are strong!
Every time I get one of these hugs, it reminds me of a central truth: You can’t have an effective young adult ministry in your church without an effective student ministry. That’s one of the central truths of Thom and Sam Rainer’s new book, Essential Church?, which just hit bookstores.
The Rainers, one of whom is my boss at Lifeway, use this book to dig into one of the bigger issues in our churches today—the tendency for young adults ages 18 to 22 to completely drop out of church. In fact, two out of every three church attenders leave the church at some point in this time period. Some of them never come back.
The big question is, Why? The Rainers examine a variety of reasons, but two of the biggest issues are attributable to “people” reasons.
26 percent of dropouts say church members seem judgmental or hypocritical.
20 percent of dropouts say they didn’t feel connected to the people in their church.
In my estimation, these two reasons walk hand in hand. If you’re a young adult and you don’t know people in your church very well—meaning they haven’t invested in your life—there’s a chance you might not see them in a positive light.
If you know them, if you see their hearts and you understand their motives, you probably have a tendency to think the best of them.
This is why the link between student ministry and young adult ministry is critical. If a 13-year-old has strong adult leaders who care about him, talk to him, teach him, disciple him, and completely invest in his life all the way through his senior year of high school, there’s a great chance that young man will continue to see value in church attendance.
If those student leaders can connect the same young man to similarly committed young adult leaders once he graduates from high school, what do you think the chances are he stays involved in church? About 100 percent. It’s a little more complicated if that young man leaves to attend college or work in another city, but that’s why the connection of like-minded churches to each other is so important. If his student leaders can point him to a campus ministry at college and a church he can connect with in his new city, then the odds of him remaining in church are much greater.
So, where’s the disconnect? Most churches make student ministry a vital part of their church, but neglect young adult ministry. A high school student who is used to being taught, discipled and cared for walks into the great abyss of ministry emptiness once he steps into his 20s. It’s really not surprising these folks walk out of church.
Or perhaps it’s slightly different. Perhaps, no one steps forward to teach the 10th grade Bible study class at church. No one invests in the 15- or 16-year-olds. Guess what happens when they get a driver’s license. They’re gone, whether or not you have a great young adult ministry waiting for them. They’re still gone from church, perhaps never to return.
The Rainers suggest a plan of Simplify, Deepen, Expect, and Multiply as a way to solve this problem. It almost completely lines up with our Threads Young Adult Ministry message of Community, Depth, Responsibility and Connection. But I will let you read the book to get their full message.
One thing you will not be able to miss: Effective young adult ministry and student ministry must link together to prevent the church dropout phenomenon.