By Jeanne Mayo
Director: Youth and Young Adult Ministries, Victory World Church, Atlanta, GA
Founder and Director: The Cadre (youth and young adult pastor mentoring)
Executive Director: Atlanta Leadership College
Founder and Director: Youth Leader’s Coach
Public speaker and leadership coach
I remember the conversation well. I was talking with another youth pastor and he sadly mumbled, “Graduation season is only a few months away again. And I feel like the ‘BLACK HOLE EFFECT’ takes place every year.” My face must have shown that I wasn’t tracking with him on his analogy so he kept talking. “You know, Jeanne, good students graduate from high school, pack up for college or university somewhere, and by the following June, they’ve become INVISIBLE! They’ve been sucked into the ‘black hole’ of college life, compromising values, questionable friends, and they rarely resurface with much spiritual hunger or depth.”
I understood my friend’s heart. I’ve had more than my share of “spiritual fatalities” from my youth ministries as students made the transition during this crucial tipping point. There aren’t easy or profound answers. Barna says that 70–75 percent of Christian teenagers will leave the church after high school.1 Equally a wake-up call to us, 39 percent of young adults (ages 18–29) now categorize themselves as “none’s” (no religious affiliation).2 How can you personally “buck the trend” with the graduating seniors you care so deeply about in your own ministry?
- Relationships, relationships, relationships! Nothing matches the sticking power of consistent, caring relationships. We have good intentions graduation night. But life gets busy and after a couple of personal texts checking on them, we easily let it ride until we see them one Sunday morning during Christmas break. I often remind myself, “He who spends the most time WINS.” So, create a system to remind yourself and your leaders to consistently call, text, or FaceTime some of “their kids.” Even though texts are often not returned, they are read…and they will mean the world to those students. Sober as it sounds, fail the relationship test, and YOU FAIL.
- Consider hosting two or three “Before You Graduate” meetings with your seniors in late March and/or early April (before the season becomes crazy busy for them). I hosted mine at our home, just to make it more personal and meaningful. My agenda was stated and clear: “Stats tell me that within two years of high school graduation, eight out of ten church-attending seniors ditch their faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t want you to be a part of that statistic. So, we’re going to get together a couple of times to dialogue about how to navigate the first few years out of high school successfully.” Our meetings were super discussion-oriented—not just me being a “talking head.” I also asked a couple of well-loved and respected college students from the youth group who were available to come and share their own experiences with the current seniors.
Though discussion-oriented, I knew the importance of making sure we hit the “Big Four” in our discussions. So, I aimed things clearly in that direction:
- Hunt for and prioritize Christian friends—even if that means you are lonely for a while.
- Have a consistent “appointment time with Jesus.” With my gang, I call it the “10 and 10” (at least ten minutes in the Word and ten minutes in prayer each day, with five out of seven days being a “successful week”).
- Remind yourself NOW what your biblical standards and convictions are. Then have the guts not to waver on those when temptation gives you countless easy ways to compromise. If and when you do mess up, WE ARE HERE FOR YOU. God’s not asking for perfection. He’s asking for direction.
- Find a church and actually GO THERE—even if it’s very different from what you’re used to. If there’s any sort of Christian club or affiliation on campus, check it out quickly and consider getting involved there as well.
- Set up “ISI Teams” among your graduating seniors— “Iron sharpening iron” accountability teams. “Accountability” is such a great Christian term, but it’s a farce in most circles. Consider putting groups of two to four seniors together on an “ISI Team” that starts to function right after graduation. The purpose is to encourage each other, check on each other, and not let their youth ministry relationships “go silent.” Even setting up text groups via free apps like “GroupMe” can make this easy and quick. The goal is to do more than just say the typical, “Find someone to keep you accountable.” The ISI Teams help to jump-start those efforts and take it to a practical, intentional level.
- If your graduating college students are staying in town, be focused on helping them find “their place” in your church community after they graduate. If your church is large enough to have a separate, thriving college ministry, good for you! (However, that is tremendously uncommon due to financial challenges.) Even with a thriving college ministry, you’ll have to help them get connected or they will disappear into the “black hole” with a thriving young adult ministry right in front of them.
Consider also a couple of other approaches:
- Start a small group out of youth ministry for graduates and beyond. Just because they aren’t in high school anymore, that doesn’t mean you can’t have impact on them. Find a need and MEET IT.
- Consider recruiting some of them to be leaders in your youth ministry. Some of my very best and most influential leaders were students who graduated from our ministry. I knew the power of giving my graduates a CAUSE to focus on during their college years…i.e. becoming a leader and role model for the remaining high school students in our ministry.
- Have available a couple of easily-digested apologetic books that affirm the intellectual validity of Christianity. Mention those to your students occasionally. Hopefully you’ve already done some direct, clear teaching on this important topic (I did a series called “Doubters Welcome” that hit the apologetic basics). Stats tell us that more than half of all college professors view evangelical Christian students unfavorably. College professors are also five times more likely to identify themselves as atheists than the general public.3 So, Christian students are often not intellectually equipped to resist deeply anti-Christian college professors, many of whom are focused on impacting their impressionable students with their views.
Though I know the deep importance of the intellectual proof-texts of Christianity, I am still convinced that most of our emerging “none’s” have walked away from faith not so much because of the intellectual challenging. I think the far more HONEST bottom line is because of a lack of consistent, Christian friendships. Like I mentioned earlier in my musings on this topic: “Relationships, relationships, relationships!”
- If your student is going to a “Christian college,” remind them candidly that “Christian colleges sometimes do not feel very Christian.” So once again, choosing the right friends will be paramount.
- Consider encouraging them to take a life-defining “gap year” after graduation before they jump into college. You’ve probably heard all the gap year statistics. Prominent schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton all celebrate the virtues of this approach. Both of the royal sons in England (Prince William and Prince Harry) chose this approach before jumping into more formal education.
The “gap year” approach means that graduates are encouraged to create a year of their own choosing for personal growth before jumping into their four-year degree approach. There are a host of options available. From having directed thriving “gap year” programs for over 40 years, allow me to stress the importance of finding one that is tested and with strong, positive results. Many of the current programs also offer academic tracks for transferrable college credits for those students desiring to also begin their college pursuits.
Chi Alpha Campus Ministries offers opportunities for students to "Give a Year" to serve alongside missionaries. There are opportunities to serve all over the world in a variety of ministries, from traditional ministry to business to education. Students can choose from time commitment options that range from one to eleven months (MAPS volunteers) or one to two years (Missionary Associates).
At the post-high school venue I currently oversee, Atlanta Leadership College, students are allowed to choose between three different degree and non-degree tracks. But the life-on-life experience that is gained is a game-changer that I’m deeply committed to. My years of experience in full-time youth ministry tells me that good opportunities like these are trajectory-changing ones. Students can then head into college with having fully “bought” their faith rather than merely having only “rented” it. Plus, they will have experienced a life-altering year of maturing, self-examination, and Christian friendships that often last for a lifetime.
Lots more could be shared as possible ways to help your high school graduates transition into the years beyond 12th grade without dropping into the “black hole.” As their leader, don’t allow the drop-out statistics to intimidate you. Following through with some of my simple suggestions can put the majority of your students in a very different category.
I’m known for some of my one-liners (often called “Jeanne-ism’s”). But there is one that stands out above the others as being perhaps the most repeated: “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.” With that in mind, the relational component really does trump everything else when it comes to helping your high school graduates transition successfully. They won’t get “sucked into the black hole” if someone from your youth ministry or church is consistently and authentically throwing out genuine friendship. Christian love really is pretty magnetic, so enjoy the privilege of changing a few more teenagers’ lives! It really is pretty addicting. I should know. I’ve been doing it—and still loving it—for quite a while now.
1 "Youth Exodus Problem." CrossExamined.org. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://crossexamined.org/youth-exodus-problem/.
2 "Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion-and Why They're Unlikely to Come Back." PRRI. September 22, 2016. Accessed January 10, 2018. https://www.prri.org/research/prri-rns-poll-nones-atheist-leaving-religion/.
3 Turek, Frank. "Christians Beware: Intellectual Predators at College." CrossExamined.org. October 25, 2015. Accessed January 08, 2018. http://crossexamined.org/christians-beware-intellectual-predators-at-college/