Leveraging Transitions to Remind Teenagers They Belong


As youth ministers, we are no strangers to the mental health crisis facing the teenagers we serve. LifeWay Research recently highlighted a new study revealing a correlation between young people’s resilience in mental health and their sense of belonging in community. The study suggests that ministry leaders can help to prevent mental health struggles by helping teenagers to feel welcomed and known. In this series, we explore the different ways youth ministers can lean into Rooted’s pillar of relational discipleship to create a culture of belonging, welcoming teenagers as God has welcomed us in Christ.

Sadie was the ringleader of our middle school youth group for three years. She brought the party to games and worship songs. She listened intently to the large group teaching and contributed during small groups, inspiring her peers to do the same. She frequently invited friends from school to join her, including those with little church background. I assumed Sadie would naturally become an enthusiastic member of high school youth group. But during the fall of her freshman year, she stopped coming.

Sadly, I can point to a dozen or more like Sadie from the first church in which I served as a youth minister. It took several years for me to connect the dots that students will often drift away from our churches and youth groups during big transition years.

Thankfully, we don’t have to keep watching helplessly as this drift occurs. Instead, we can leverage school transitions as moments to reaffirm a culture of belonging. Because Jesus has radically welcomed us into his family through his life, death, and resurrection, we have the opportunity to remind students that we belong to each other.

Here are four critical transitions along with ideas for how you can remind students of their important place in the community of your youth ministry and wider church family.[1]

Moving Up to Middle School

Many rising middle schoolers can’t wait to join the ranks of middle school youth group, while others approach this rite of passage with fear and trembling. Wherever rising sixth graders (or seventh graders) fall on this spectrum, they are all desperate to know they belong.[2]

Several years ago, one of my coworkers in children’s ministry suggested that we implement what we call the “Fifth and Sixth Grade Bash” to our line-up of Milestones. We invited our current sixth graders to welcome rising sixth graders at a special night of youth group just for the two classes. We taught some of our favorite youth group games so the newbies would feel like insiders when they started attending in the fall. And we took the opportunity to teach on spending time in God’s Word, encouraging students to find a spot for a daily quiet time. We offered food (think burrito bowls or build-your-own pizza) and swag bags (we included a sticker with our ministry logo, some candy, and the Exploring the Bible workbook)—both of which are middle-school friendly ways of practicing hospitality.

Whatever you do to welcome sixth graders in your context, remember that the youngest students in our ministries are desperate for the welcome of the gospel. They’re wanting to know whether they still belong at church in a new ministry area, whether the older kids in the group and the leaders they look up to will accept them. It’s a prime opportunity to do something tangible to invite them into community.

Moving Up to High School

Rising freshmen are hyper-aware of what others think of them, and they’re also starting to size up their youth leaders and peers in order to decide whether they like us. They suddenly have lots more social opportunities, and it’s far too easy for youth group to become “something I did in middle school.” This is a really critical time to give students a vision of what following Jesus can look like in their high school years.

Several years ago, some leaders and I were meeting regularly with a group of freshmen and sophomores to relaunch our high school ministry. We challenged these student leaders to consider how we could welcome the rising freshmen into our group, and an annual event known as the “Eighth Grade Ambush” was born. Each year we “captured” our eighth graders from middle school youth group and whisked them away to an epic event with great food, active games, and icebreakers. Eighth graders would anxiously look forward to the ambush, trying to guess how it was going to happen and what the student leaders might have planned for them. Additionally, the youth leaders and I wrote notes to each eight grader about the growth and spiritual fruit we saw in their lives, which we printed and laminated, then read in front of the whole middle school group on the last night of the school year.

We frequently talked with student leaders about how we wanted to create a culture that was radically different from the one freshmen typically experience at school. We hoped to base their youth group experience on the good news of the gospel: Instead of being put down, freshmen were celebrated. Rather than being hazed, the rising freshmen often got to target the upperclassmen with silly string or shaving cream in a game. Instead of having to earn their place in the group, older student communicated to the rising freshmen,” you already belong!” There were several years when we actually added to our number in high school ministry, rather than losing rising freshmen to attrition. It was a beautiful thing to see God using our high school student leaders to create this attractive gospel welcome.

Even teenagers who have been deeply embedded in our communities need reminders that they belong—and perhaps nowhere is this more important than in their transition from middle to high school. Engaging older students to help with this transition is a kind of secret sauce for letting younger students know they’re truly welcome.

Sophomore Year

This is an unseen transition that is no less real. Sophomores are often starting to make choices about what they’ll give their time and energy, and sadly this can be a time when many drift away from their church families, or from faith in Jesus altogether. I’ve found it helpful to give sophomores a challenge to which they can rise.

For example, we structured our student leadership team so that students who indicated they were walking with Jesus were invited to join at the beginning of sophomore year. We gave sophomores additional opportunities for summer service trips and for participating as leaders in corporate worship, leading liturgy or reading Scripture from time to time. Essentially we tried to recognize their growth spiritually and developmentally and to invite them deeper into relationship and service in the local church. More often than not, students grabbed hold of these opportunities to stay connected and to find their place in community.

High School Graduation

Most of us probably give significant attention to the rite of passage of high school graduation.[3] At the church I served most recently, we marked this transition in three parts: Celebrating with the whole church family (a formal commissioning in corporate worship), celebrating with parents and youth leaders, and celebrating at youth group. We held an annual senior dessert for students and their parents, along with pastors and youth leaders. Typically the family of a high school junior hosted and we simply opened the floor for the meaningful adults in seniors’ life to speak words of encouragement and wisdom over them. There was rarely a dry eye in the room as we told each class what they meant to us and then prayed over them. We always gifted students with a book or two, most recently The Jesus I Wish I Knew In High School and 10 Questions Every Teenager Should Ask (and Answer) About Christianity.

 In a similar celebration at youth group, we gathered the whole group in a large circle and allowed students to share about each senior one by one, setting a timer to ensure everyone got equal air time. It was powerful to hear freshmen, sophomores, and juniors share about what each senior had meant to them and to our group and how different seniors had helped them to experience the good news of God’s grace in their lives. There was always a deep sense of legacy when we invited the seniors themselves to share, as inevitably they would urge younger students to prioritize youth group and time in the Word, to receive the grace of Jesus in their failure and sin.

However you choose to honor your seniors and commission them into the world, look for ways to engage various parts of the church body. As students leave us to go out into the world, we pray that they will leave with the sense that there’s still a place for them in this church family, that others are prayerfully cheering them on in the Lord.

[1] Please note that what worked well in my church context may not be appropriate in your own, so feel free to adapt these for your particular students or use them as a springboard to generate your own ideas. I also encourage you to start small. Think about one transition you can implement this school year (maybe one in which you’re seeing lots of attrition), or commit to doing one small thing for each of the transitions, and then build from there as you and your leader team have the capacity.

[2] My friend Steve has covered this particular transition in more detail.

[3] Many of us may not think as much about how to help our students get settled on the other side of graduation. My friend Rebecca has written about her church’s plan for helping teenagers find a church and also for welcoming them back at Christmastime.

Chelsea is Editor of Youth Ministry Content and the Director of Publishing for Rooted. She previously served as a youth pastor in New England churches for 13 years and participates on the advisory council at the La Vida Center for Outdoor Education and Leadership at Gordon College. Chelsea and her husband, Steve, live north of Boston and are parents to Wells and Emmett. She holds an M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where she is currently pursuing a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in Old Testament Studies. Chelsea is passionate about teaching teenagers biblical theology and helping them learn to study Scripture for themselves.

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