I have a saying I repeat to youth group students again and again: “The most important time of youth group is after you leave youth group.”
This is my functional ecclesiology, which I try to impart to our teenagers during their youth group years. Faith in Christ is rooted in Jesus’ love and salvation. While a student’s walk with Jesus may begin and blossom during his or her time in youth group, the relationship needs to continue to grow long after high school graduation.
Years ago, in trying to help our older students transition well from youth group to participation in church, we started a weekly gathering called “Senior Night.” Rather than holding just one celebratory evening at the end of the year, my wife and I hosted a weekly meeting of our youth group’s twelfth graders in our home. We explained to parents that we wanted to create space for seniors to discuss their futures, talk about college applications or vocational options after high school. For those applying to college—we even helped with their applications and essays.
More than practical support, the gathering provided time to eat, fellowship, and find some refuge from the pressures of senior year (and in some casese from family pressure as well). Over the course of a given year, our evenings evolved into times of deep discussion, prayer, and an occasional Bible study. We invited the college pastor and senior pastor to a few meetings so that students could get to know other pastors who would shepherd them after they graduated youth group.
As I reflect back on many years of youth ministry, senior night became a rite of passage in our youth group. Underclassmen eagerly anticipated the day they would enter twelfth grade and get to participate in this weekly gathering. They all looked forward to urban legends about the great food my wife cooked and the fun and laughter students had together. In reality, while there was great joy and fun, along with amazing food, it was more than that. (In fact, due to my wife’s work, she wasn’t always able to cook. Sometimes we wound up eating pizza.)
The most profound aspect of our meetings was that our seniors all had one thing in common: they would be graduating from high school in the coming year, and each of their futures stretched out ahead of them.
This commonality in the group provided opportunities to build relationships with each other and with my wife and me. The pull of bonding over the coming transition was so strong that it attracted even students inconsistent in regular youth group attendance. Sharing the prospect of an unknown future led into deep conversation and the sharing of hopes, dreams, and fears. Ultimately, we shared unity and growth leading to deeper trust in Jesus.
Gospel Hope for High School Seniors
In Matthew, Jesus invites us to seek him and trust in him instead of worrying about tomorrow. He calls us to seek his kingdom and righteousness rather than worrying about what the future may bring (Matt. 6:33-34). As we repeatedly shared the truth that God holds our futures, these words of Jesus created a bond between our twelfth graders. The gospel invitation to seek Jesus first became a unifying call to spiritual growth.
The seniors in your group need this same message of hope. As you think about how to encourage them this year, here are some suggestions I would offer.
Provide Time and Space
Whether or not you have a weekly senior night, you can create space for seniors to gather during the year. Invite students together to process and even pray about their futures in their pivotal last year of high school. Perhaps you can gather monthly instead of weekly. Or maybe one of your small groups could be just for seniors during their final year in youth group. A regular senior night gathering offers an opportunity to share the gospel, as well as to care for and counsel them.
Once you’ve established a gathering of some kind, consider inviting the twelfth graders’ “future” pastors for a few meetings. This includes pastors in your church who will primarily shepherd students after they graduate from youth group. We all know the dreadful statistics of students who leave the church after youth group. By inviting other pastors to some of these gatherings, you can help both parties get to know each other. This goes a long way toward nurturing students’ transitions post youth group.
While a senior night gathering might seem like another youth group event on your busy schedule, the preparation doesn’t have to be laborious. Many seniors are more mature in their mental and spiritual development. While our other adult leaders or I often planned a short devotional, the common theme of the future and students’ own sharing most often drove our conversation. Their transparency often also led into rich prayer times. I didn’t need to plan as much for our meetings, and our time together often produced organic, fruitful discussion and prayer.
Finally, offering some kind of food is always good, especially with soon-to-be graduating seniors. While there were certainly nights we made things easy and ordered pizza, my wife and I also tried to prepare some nice meals for students. For us, this was a way to show a deeper appreciation for them in their last year of youth group. Many of our graduates come back and recall fondly the great meals as a way we loved them.
Ultimately, as I reflect upon the many years of doing “Senior Night,” there wasn’t a single class of graduating seniors that didn’t want to talk about their futures. Many of these weekly meetings were more organic than planned out, even as we repeatedly shared the gospel encouragement of Matthew 6:33-34. I cherish those gatherings years later as God-given opportunities to invest in our seniors, helping them to “seek first his kingdom.”
Looking for more practical advice for doing gospel-centered youth ministry? Make plans to join us November 2-4, 2023 for the Rooted Conference in Nashville, Tennessee.