Sep 23

Mind the gap – how to stop losing young people

One of the common challenges for churches is how to ensure that children and young people in our groups transition well into new groups as they get older. Whilst seeming a straightforward action, the reality shows that it is not always the case. So what can we do to ease the process? And, why can it sometimes seem so tricky?

mind the gapResearch suggests that a child or young person makes up their mind on average 18 months before they finally actually leave their group, usually leaving at a natural transition point. That’s why it is not unheard of for young people not to move up to the older youth group, or for tweenagers to not move up from the children’s group. They’ve already made their minds up a long time ago.

So what can we do about it?

Firstly, we’ve got to increase their understanding of faith and who God is. Children and young people often step away from church because they believe they know who God is and have been left wanting more. They feel that they understand who God is but they see him as irrelevant to how they live their lives.

We need to stop teaching our children simply stories about God and give them more opportunities to experience the reality of relationship with him. Is it that we have put God in a box and so the children think they’ve got his measure? We need to be introducing them to the God who consistently gets bigger the more you get to know him. This means we need to talk more honestly about our own questions of faith and struggles (in an appropriate way of course).

We need to be helping them understand how to pray, how to listen to God, how to make decisions fuelled by the power of the Holy Spirit. We must stop teaching Christian morality, and teach about relationship. True Christianity is not a self-help religion, where we just need to try harder. We need to show them that we “can do all things through Christ who is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine”.

We need to be wise about what our group age brackets are and when the transition times occur. Don’t have this transition occur over the long summer recess. It is too long a period so gives plenty of opportunity for the uncertain young person to disconnect from church. It’s also a time where they are already experiencing significant change in their lives, whether that is a change of school year or a new school.

Rather, make the change happen at Easter time. This provides a whole term to welcome and get to know the new young people to your group, and enables you to walk alongside them as they move to a new school or year. It provides a constant in their lives, at a time of great change, especially for those in year 6.

Some children are more ready to move up than others. Try not to give in to their desires to move up too early. This dissatisfaction is useful as it creates longing for them. It means that when they do finally move up, they will be eager to get involved and to feel that they have finally made it. This is good!

It is really important that we do give them these things to look forward to. I know from experience that one of the hardest years for young people is being in year 9 in church life. They feel that they are too old to be around the year 7s, and younger, but we often don’t allow them to join in with the older youth. This is fine as long as we recognise this difficulty. What is important here is to make sure you value each year 9 individually. Spend time with them. Send them encouragements.

One of the things I developed was a year 9 weekend, where we went away for a weekend with only people in year 9. This gave them something to look forward to which was unique for them, and it also created a ‘not to be missed’ expectation, as they knew it was only for year 9, so if they didn’t go, they would never get the opportunity again. It was great! I would bring along a couple of older youth to befriend them and to explain what happens in the older youth group, and so helped the whole transition process. It also helped the year 9s see that we understood the tricky nature of this particular age, and were trying to support them. It was fantastic! Of course, you might not have enough year 9s to feel that you could go away for a weekend, but perhaps you could do something similar. A day trip to a theme park or a trip to a restaurant?

Finally, it is so vital that we have opportunities in place for children and young people to move up into, before the need is desperate. Often, churches don’t think about what will happen next until the question is pressing. By then it is often too late. The children or young people have already decided to leave (remember the 18 month lead up). If they make their minds up this early, we need to be communicating this early what they will be able to do in the future. So if you don’t currently have any youth work but do have children’s groups, be thinking about what youth work you will set up when your children are nine years old, and start to tell them. Give them something to look forward to and to feel that they are having their growing maturity respected. That way they should transition well and you will start to see a youth group take root.

Be purposeful in planning for all transitions in your youth and children’s work. Chat with your leaders and think through how each person can make these changes as painless as possible. You might like to share this blog post with them and use it to start your discussions.