Will My Students Walk Away? Confessions of a Struggling Youth Minister

One statistic has plagued the minds and ministries of student pastors since 2007. Lifeway Research concluded that an estimated 70% of students currently engaged in church will not continue their faith journey by the end of their college years. This statistic enters my mind late at night and affects my sleep every once in a while. Is there anything youth pastors can do about this statistic besides lose sleep?

Christians should never let fear,  even healthy fears about the spiritual welfare of our students, overwhelm us. Instead, it should drive us to combat the statistic. Most importantly, it should drive us to Jesus. As Christ-followers, we want to see everyone come to faith in Jesus and finish well. Our goal should never just be salvation for our students, but sanctification until glorification. Or for the purposes of this article, sanctification after graduation.

If you are like me and worry about your students walking away, here are a few things to put into practice: 

Pray: This is the Sunday School answer I know, but I’m a huge proponent of Sunday School and this is a popular answer for a reason! We trust God to complete what he has started in our students (Phil.1:6), so we need to voice our concerns and intercede on our students’ behalf. 

Trust God: Student ministers tend to have a problem trusting anyone else with our students. We can be pretty insecure! We fear someone might lead them astray, but we need to rely on God with our students’ spiritual faithfulness—not anyone else. We need to trust that God will still be God once they enter into college. The same God that saved them will keep them until he calls them home.

Encourage them: Your students are making adult decisions and facing the real world for the very first time. Encourage them often. Remember who you were as you exited high school and entered adulthood, and be for them the person you needed at that time. Your role in their lives may have changed, but you still have a role to fill. I look back at some impactful mentors and pastors in my life and realize that mentorship is sometimes seasonal. Youth ministry, by its very nature, is seasonal mentorship. Learn to encourage students, even from afar. 

Have a place for them to stay in your ministry: This one is not applicable to every student, but we try to find a place for some of our graduated students to serve in our student ministry. Have them help with events, or if they are gifted in worship, have them play or sing. Invite them to give an updates on their lives and faith to your current students on a Wednesday night… you can get creative with it! 

We even offer college student internships for those returning from college where they help serve. In doing so, we strive to help them soar, not hold them back. For some, returning to help with their old youth ministry every summer is an avenue for tremendous growth—but for others, it may hold them back as a comfortable place. It’s your job to be a discerning leader as you welcome, or redirect, students who are home for a season. 

Keep the relationship alive: Don’t let physical distance bring relational distance. Send a text every week. Chat via FaceTime or Zoom once a month. Mail a box full of letters and gifts once a semester. Plan a trip to visit once a school year. This allows your relationships to evolve into something deeper as these former students reach adulthood. The relationships I have with some of my former students who are now young adults are so special, full of encouragement and prayer. 

Prepare them for what’s ahead: A few carefully timed Bible studies taught throughout a student’s tenure in your ministry will help them face the tests of faith coming in their early adult years. Teaching through a bible study on worldviews or apologetics may not seem very applicable to middle schoolers, but remember, you are training up middle schoolers who will eventually go out and engage with an unbelieving world!

Set them up for success: You will have students who stay local and others who move after graduation. If your church has a college and career ministry, let your seniors participate in a few events or Bible studies during their senior year. This will help them be more acquainted with the ministry they are headed toward. Go with them on college visits and plan a meeting with a collegiate ministry on campus, and help them visit a church or two. Encourage them to make a commitment to attend church the first Sunday they are at college. 

My wife and I have had the pleasure of taking several students on a tour of their dream college, and we always make it a priority to tour a local church as well. We encourage the student to pick the church they are interested in and we do the rest: call the pastor, schedule a meal, sit down with the college leader, and stay in touch. By doing so, we are setting the stage for us to back away and for our student to succeed. 

Be a sending ministry: View your graduating seniors as missionaries being sent into separate mission fields. Biblically, they are! Involve your church in praying for them to be salt and light wherever they go. 

Hopefully the next time that daunting statistic enters your mind you will remember that God is faithful to the work he has called you to do. Instead of lose sleep, you now have a plan to combat the statistic! May it be that the next time a group of pollsters crunch the numbers on the faithfulness of our former students they, are astounded and encouraged at the changes God is making.

Elliot Weston is the Associate and Student Pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Hartford, Alabama. He was born and raised in Hartford, and loves serving in his hometown. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Shelby. They have two children Jase  and Ellie . Elliot received his Bachelors in Ministry Studies from the Baptist College of Florida in 2018 and is currently pursuing his Master’s at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is passionate about seeing students come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior, growing in serving Him, and all things breakfast food.

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