When I first started in youth ministry, I did everything I could think of to attract and engage high school youth. I held monthly social events and service projects. My Sunday school classes and weekly youth group meetings included crazy games, youth-only worship with contemporary Christian music, and discussions of relevant topics.
I chose topics based on what I thought youth cared about, so we talked a lot about friendships, sex and alcohol. While I tied these topics to scripture, I rarely focused on Jesus. I assumed that the youth, who had grown up in the church, already knew the Jesus story well and were likely to be bored by it. Rather than help students cultivate a lifelong relationship with Christ, I focused on getting them to live a Christian lifestyle. I had zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior.
Only a handful of the youth I worked with in that year are attending church today. My extensive efforts at reaching them seem to have made little difference.
Research suggests that my approach to ministry was not unusual””nor was the outcome. According to research by the Fuller Youth Institute, 40 to 50 percent of kids who are part of a youth group in high school fail to stick with their faith in college. To find out why, researchers at FYI conducted a six-year, comprehensive and longitudinal study from 2004 to 2010 called the College Transition Project. The study’s findings are found in Sticky Faith: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers, a 2011 book by Kara E. Powell, Brad M. Griffin and Cheryl A. Crawford.