When I first heard that daunting statistic that every youth pastor laments (you know the one about 80% of students leaving their faith by the time they finish college) I had the same response many of you probably had. My heart broke. I thought we have got to do something different. At first I thought the answer was apologetics. If students just knew how to think well about their faith then they wouldn’t ever leave it. That was a mistake. Nevertheless, I knew we had to do something. So I got proactive and turned my attention on high school seniors’ transition. As the college pastor for 8 years now, I have had a lot of experience in attempting to help high school seniors transition into the next stage of their life. Once I started putting my attention here I realized there is actually quite a bit involved in this process. Along the way I have made some huge mistakes and I think I have done some things well. The following 3 little bits of advice are simply some of the things I have learned in the process.
Barriers to faith
For each student, really for each person, there are specific barriers to growing and thriving in their faith. Tim Keller talks about three specific barriers to faith in his great book The Reason for God. In helping seniors get ready for “the real world” I have used these barriers to frame what we discuss. The three barriers are emotional, intellectual, and social. In reverse order, the social barrier is the barrier that is potentially created by the peer group students surround themselves with. The intellectual barrier is questions of faith regarding evolution, the problem of evil, the trustworthiness of scripture, etc. The emotional barrier is the most personal of the three and is usually tied to issues of identity and/or inner healing. So what I have done over the years is intentionally have a straight forward conversation with seniors about these barriers and how I see the next stage of their life presenting these barriers. I have done everything from have them write out a life plan, to read books regarding each barrier, to just have an informal conversation about them. Regardless of the approach I have found it helpful to discuss these specific barriers as they approach the next stage of their life. Like everything else, the more personal the better, the more time spent the better, and having other leaders involved is best as well.
In my context we have lots of students who are excited to go off to college in some other city and tackle the world “on their own.” In addition we have quite a few students who stay locally and go to community college or don’t go to school at all. One of the things we do to bless and encourage all of these different folks is have a senior retreat in the spring of every year. During this time we specifically discuss their identity in Christ, how to navigate the twisting world ahead, and how to get involved in a church as a college student/young adult. The topics are great, but honestly the best thing we do is have their parents and/or loved ones write them letters of encouragement and we spend a significant amount of time praying over them and asking the Spirit for words of prophecy and encouragement to help shape their life in the near future. By this time of year we tend to know everyone’s plans for the next year so we attempt to bless them in those plans. We help find churches for them where they are going, find ways for them to get involved in our church if they are sticking around, and most importantly confirm in them that we are still around and very interested in doing community with them whether they stay near or go far. In short, we look for ways to bless them.
Who’s ear you got?
Four years ago I was transitioning yet another senior class and in the process I noticed that a student named Jay was really interested in what I was saying. At the time I wasn’t the youth pastor so I didn’t know Jay very well, but to be honest he didn’t know the youth pastor very well either. Jay was a pretty quiet student. He was interested and hungry to learn, but very quiet. As we went to lunches with the seniors, taught senior transition class, and started talking about plans for the next year I could just tell that I was supposed to give Jay some of my time. Turns out that really was from the Lord, because Jay ended up being a key person in helping lead and form the college community for the next 4 years. One of the things that helped me realize I was supposed to give Jay my time was simply the fact that he was listening. The instruction I was offering he was following. It’s really that simple. So now I often ask the question, “Who’s ear do I have?”
As youth pastors we all want our students to thrive in their faith not just while we “have” them, but for the rest of their lives. The transition between high school to college/young adult can pose a threat to this goal. To be honest, this transition is usually a 2-3 year process–not just an “over the summer” happening. Which means it requires having these conversations over and over again, and being intentional with our efforts, going the extra mile sometimes for the same student. But if that’s what we have to do, well then sign me up. Lastly, I just want to say that I realize that the above bits of advice won’t “fix” the 80% statistic, but my prayer is that through intentionally pastoring students through this transition we can at the least help some.