What attracts and keeps students at your church?

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Dec 12, 2004

Think about the last student who showed up at one of your youth ministry events for the first time. Did they come back? If not, why not? If so, that’s great, but do you know what your ministry did that kept them coming back to your church?

It’s been said that lunacy is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When it comes to attracting and keeping students at your church, youth workers have all too often repeated the same “tips and tricks” to connect with first time guests. Introduce them to the rest of your students. Give them some candy. Hand them a copy of your calendar before they walk out of the door. Most of the time, no matter how cool the candy or the calendar is, we never see the guest again.

While fun greetings and M&Ms aren’t inherently wrong, some new findings by Carol Lytch in her new book, Choosing Church, suggest that we’re missing deeper issues. For ten months, Lytch attempted to attend all the youth activities in three churches in Louisville, Kentucky. Lytch intentionally chose three churches that represent a broad spectrum of Christianity; one was evangelical, one was mainline Protestant, and one was Roman Catholic. To understand the dynamics of the youth at all three churches, she attended fifty worship services, thirty-seven youth meetings, four retreats, twenty Sunday school classes, Bible studies, and small group meetings, and eleven choir rehearsals. In addition, she visited eleven schools and spent time with students at their jobs and with their friends.

After coding her field notes and interview transcriptions, Lytch discovered three factors that consistently attracted and kept students at church. Interestingly, these three factors were pervasive even in the midst of the doctrinal diversity of the evangelical, mainline, and Roman Catholic youth ministries.

  1. A sense of belonging. Youth who felt “at home” and “safe” at their churches and youth ministries were most likely to stay actively involved.
  2. A sense of meaning. Youth who felt that youth activities and meetings were filled with meaningful teaching, discussion, worship and relationships were more likely to keep coming back.
  3. Opportunity to develop competence. While this factor was not as strong as the sense of belonging and meaning, youth who felt their skills were being developed through service or leadership opportunities were nonetheless more likely to stay engaged in the youth ministry.

If you want to take Lytch’s discoveries and apply them to your own youth group, start by asking yourself the following questions:

Creating a sense of belonging

  • Do students feel that they have a physical space (i.e., a room or youth center) to meet in that is truly “theirs?” What can you do to make it even more “theirs?” How can you involve students in making it “theirs?”
  • What do you do to connect with first time guests in the week following their visit? What could you do to better connect with them in a way that helps them feel like they belong?
  • There’s a balance healthy youth groups need to maintain between being “open” enough that new folks can enter, but “closed” enough that once they enter, they don’t fall through the cracks. Is your group more “open” or “closed?” What could you do to better balance the two?
  • Small groups help to create a sense of cohesion and “family.” Do your students have a chance to meet regularly with a group of friends through small groups? What can you do to make sure guests have the opportunity to connect with a small group?
  • Does every student have an adult in the youth ministry who regularly checks in with them and “pastors” them? What are these adults doing well? What could they be doing better?
  • How thoroughly are your students integrated into the life of the overall church? What could you do to improve relationships between students and your congregation?

Finding a Sense of Meaning

  • How regularly do adult leaders share with students their own search for meaning? What could you do to ensure that students are exposed to adults’ faith journeys?
  • How relevant is the teaching in your ministry to students’ struggles? What can you do to get students’ input even as you’re deciding what to teach and discuss?
  • What could you do to make your teaching even more applicable?
  • If a student is struggling with their faith, is there a person they could talk to about it?
  • Are there rituals or traditions in your ministry (other than just communion) that give a sense of history and meaning? How could you make these rituals even more meaningful?

Creating Opportunities to Develop Competence

  • How many of your students know what their talents and spiritual gifts are? What can you do to help more students identify their own gifts and abilities?
  • How many of those who know their talents and spiritual gifts are actively using them? What keeps them from using them? What can you to do remove those obstacles?
  • What does your ministry do to develop students’ leadership potential? What else can you do to help develop students’ leadership abilities either in your ministry or in your overall church?

The next time you’re gathering with parents or adult volunteers in your ministry, try asking them some of the questions above. If you do, you might just get some ideas that keep students connected to your ministry even better than M&Ms (hard to believe, but nonetheless still true!).

For more information on Carol Lytch’s research, see Choosing Church (Louisville: John Knox Press), 2004.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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