By now, most pastors and church leaders recognize the teenage dropout issue. Two-thirds of churchgoing teens leave their local congregations as young adults, according to Lifeway Research. Many of these never come back.
But there is a specific age range in which students begin to fade away from church. If church leaders can step in during those important ages, they can work to keep young adults active in their congregations.
Comparing church attendance of those who inevitably drop out versus those who stay in church, there is little difference in the early teen years. In fact, those who drop out are more likely to say they regularly attended church at 13 than those who don’t drop out (75% to 71%).
Things begin to change, however, at age 16 when they enter the church dropout danger zone. After their sweet sixteenth birthday 73% of eventual church dropouts attend regularly, compared to 79% of those who stayed in church. By 17, the divide grows (64% of dropouts are attending versus 78% on non-dropouts). At 18, less than half of those who drop out are regularly attending (48%), while the percentage of non-dropouts attending remains stable (77%). The next year, at 19, only 26% of those who drop out are still regularly attending. The percentage continues to decline until bottoming out at 16% when young adults reach 21.
If you want to reach and keep a teenager in your church, you’d better do so by the time they reach 16. Overall, 75% of teenagers who attended a Protestant church regularly are attending at age 16. By the time that same group reaches age 20, however, only 36% are still attending regularly. So how can you avoid losing teens after they turn 16? These five steps can help.
Be the right type of church
The good news for churches is that the most important characteristics to retaining young adults are ones churches of every size can strive to embrace. The size of the church or the size of the student ministry has no influence on drop-out rates.
What characteristics do have an impact? The 10 traits of churches that made the most difference between those who stayed and those who dropped out are: sincerity, avoiding hypocrisy, authentic, supportive, non-judgmental, forgiving, inspirational, caring, welcoming, and unified.
Connect the church to God
That may sound like a given, but like many adults, teenagers who drop out stop seeing their involvement in church as part of their spiritual life. For church dropouts, Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at Lifeway, said, “There simply isn’t an understanding of what the church is, how it functions in their life, and how they are meant to function as part of it.” For those who stayed in church, however, the number one reason they gave was because they saw church as a vital part of their relationship with God (56%). The second most common reason was they wanted the church to help guide their decisions in everyday life (54%).
Help young teens make this connection. If you wait until a teenager gets their driver’s license and a job to talk about the importance of local church involvement, you’re already running behind. Talk about (and model) how vital it is for someone who wants to faithfully follow Christ to be an active part of their local congregation. Help teens get integrated in the larger body of believers by having them serve, and with older believers.
Plug in with parents
Don’t spend all your time speaking with the students. Make sure the parents know how important their words and actions are to their teenagers’ spiritual lives and futures. Another of the top reasons young adults give for not dropping out is they wanted to follow a parent or family member’s example (43%).
If parents make church a priority for the family, students will pick up on it. If parents treat church as just another optional activity, teenagers will pick up on that as well.
Involve other adults
Parents and student ministers are important to the spiritual development of teenagers, but having multiple adults make positive investments in the lives of students has a tremendous impact.
The odds of a teenager dropping out of church is 2.65 times higher among those who had no adults investing in them between the ages of 15 and 18 compared to those with three or more adults investing in them. Among those who dropped out, 46% say an adult spent time with them regularly to help them grow spiritually. Among those who stayed in church, 58% say they had such an adult in their life.
Get them in God’s Word
In almost every study that looks at positive spiritual outcomes, Bible reading plays a role. Children who read the Bible growing up are more likely to be spiritually mature adults. Adults who read the Bible are more likely to be growing disciples. Teenagers who say they regularly spent time reading the Bible are less likely to drop out of church as a young adult.