Photo by Jonathan Daniels
Most of us have been there—the awkward “Senior Sunday” event.
We line students up and ask them to share what’s next after high school, which forces a comparison game only the best can win. We elevate the high performers and hope no one notices how we try to hide the ones struggling to graduate, or whose failures outweigh their accomplishments. We make room for the students we haven’t seen in months or years because, well, this is their church, too.
Tragically, our Senior Sunday rituals can mark what one student called “the most alone I’ve ever felt in my church.” Just when we want it to feel like celebration, it feels like rejection. Just when we want to help them say hello to adulthood, it feels like the church is telling students goodbye. We foster more shame than confidence.
We’ve seen students wonder on the other side of Senior Sunday, What now? What’s my relationship with the church now that I’m no longer a “student” or part of the “youth group”?
You care about this—because you care about young people.
You’re probably already doing something for seniors. Here are some ways to be even more thoughtful, more intentional, and as a result, make this moment more fruitful this year. These tips flow from our partnership with Orange to create a resource we’ve called Senior Sunday, available now. We’ve also included a free download from the event kit later in this post.
1. Redefine the graduation milestone
Why is Senior Sunday important? Do we even need it?
High school graduation stands as the only overt societal milestone between adolescence and adulthood. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, and is often tragic for those who drop out of school or fail to graduate with their peers, but in a society bereft of agreed-upon rites of passage, it’s one of the few that cuts across cultural groups.
Rites of passage serve as meaning-making rituals in cultures and traditions across the globe. They help communities name when significant life events are taking place, and confer new status on those who are walking through the passage from something old to something new. While some cultural groups within the US offer more rites of passage than others, and some religious traditions provide rites like Confirmation for students, the graduation milestone can be an important common moment to infuse with meaning for students, families, and the entire community.
We can redefine this milestone and give it even more meaning in the church. Aside from baptism, it may be the one time the entire church community comes together to affirm a young person by name. It gives a time and space to note that real life transition is taking place, and to communally bless and send these young adults into the world—even if they are physically staying close to home. A congregation might offer this blessing through special liturgies, prayers, rituals, or gifts. For example, one church displays special journals in a common gathering space for the month leading up to Senior Sunday, inviting members to write prayers, Scripture verses, memories, and words of encouragement for current seniors. These journals are then presented to students during worship while different members of the congregation pray aloud for each one.
This kind of approach offers much more than simply “celebrating seniors.” It’s infusing that celebration with deeper significance as a transition for these young people into full adulthood within the community of faith.
2. Move the finish line
Ministry to a young person doesn’t stop at the end of high school. If one out of two young people walk away from church and faith after high school, moving the finish line forward is a necessity. In our Sticky Faith research, we found that six out of seven youth group graduates felt unprepared for life after high school. Rather than walk with them through that uncertainty, we program for relational cutoff.
But the stakes are so high. So much happens in the early emerging adult years. So many decisions are made that impact young people long into adulthood. Moving the finish line forward means we reconsider as a church what kinds of support systems we will construct around these fledgling adults while they get comfortable using their wings. Practically, this might mean asking small group leaders or mentors to stick with grads for one extra year after high school, remaining their point of contact or discipleship support. Or it may mean creating a new small group specifically for young people who stay in the local community after high school, or actively helping them integrate into existing adult groups.
Moving the finish line also means we are communicating to grads:
- You are not going alone into this next season of life.
- We aren’t saying goodbye. We are welcoming you into the community in a different way as an adult.
- If you leave, you can come back. No matter what.
If you leave, you can come back. No matter what. (tweet that)
3. Remind everyone that relationships matter more than ever
The summer after graduation is often a relational desert for young people. They no longer belong anywhere. They’re receiving mixed messages from their family and church. They’re scattered, and uncertain about what’s next.
What if we relationally engaged during this season rather than pulling away? What if every student graduated knowing they have at least one contact in their phone they know they can reach out to no matter what, no matter the situation or failure, no matter the question? Let’s encourage all of the adults in seniors’ networks that now is the time to press in, not pull back. We can set up small group leaders and mentors for success by prompting them with the kinds of questions that might be most helpful to young people before and after graduation, and into the first year of college, work, or the military. (Our How to Talk to Any Young Person toolkits can be a helpful start!)
4. Help parents succeed
Toward the end of high school, parents are emotionally overwhelmed and logistically maxed, trying to hang on in a chaotic season. Let’s support them in the moments they’re already going to have, the events they’re already going to navigate. The relationship is about to be reframed, but it’s still critically important. Parents know these changes are coming, but aren’t sure how the changes will play out. We can step alongside parents right where they are.
One component of the Senior Sunday package is a quick guide for preparing for the graduation dinner, and we’re sharing it as a free download below in this post. Parents prepare for the logistics but not the warmth and conversation of this moment. In addition to making restaurant reservations or cooking that favorite meal, help parents think about intentional space to make it memorable. A little bit of thought ahead of time can transform the meaning-making potential of these common family rituals surrounding graduation.
5. Propel Senior Sunday from awkward to memorable.
Senior Sunday, when done thoughtfully, can help young people transition into what's next without feeling abandoned. Rather than parading students across the platform or setting up a predictable “pass the mic” scenario, rethink how you will create a memorable, meaning-making Senior Sunday this year in your youth ministry and with the entire congregation. Gather a team and consider how you might address some of the above points through your celebrations for seniors, and create something authentic to your context.
If you’d like additional help planning for this season, we’ve partnered with our friends at Orange to create a suite of resources:
- Resources for worship services honoring seniors, including a sermon script and a host of other ideas
- Resources for youth ministry events honoring seniors, including components involving families and options for a seniors-only gathering.
- Small group leader conversation guides—including touchpoints through the first year beyond high school.
- Parent discussion guides to make sure in the midst of a hectic season they don’t miss the critical conversations that help their kids make meaning.
- We’ve provided tons of creative assets to save you time and help with everything from promotion to message slides to social media.
What we say and do in these moments matters. You want it to be memorable. We want to help you make it memorable.
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