What Type of Students Are We Developing?

The State of Our Seniors

Kara Powell | Oct 9, 2006

“To be honest, I’m really struggling.”

This confession from one of our church’s college freshmen two weeks ago surprised me. While she was in high school, Sarah not only tried to know Jesus, she tried to make Him known too. More than any other student in the last three years, she passionately shared the gospel with the broken and the brokenhearted through weeklong trips to San Francisco and Saturday mornings feeding the homeless in Pasadena.

In fact, after she stood up to share about the impact that her trip to the Dominican Republic had on her faith this past summer, I leaned over to another adult volunteer and whispered, “I wish we could clone her.”

But now that she’s away at college, she’s struggling. She’s homesick, her roommate’s into partying, and she’s having difficulty finding a Christian community or church that fits her.

I hung up the phone with Sarah and couldn’t help but wondering, if even Sarah is struggling, then what type of students are we developing?

The College Transition Project

More and more youth workers around the country are asking not only about the types of students we’re developing, but also a few corollary questions: What happens to our students when they leave our ministries? And how can we better prepare students for the choices they’ll encounter after they graduate?

At the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), we are trying to answer these questions through our [intlink id=“13” type=“post”]College Transition Project[/intlink], headed by Dr. Cameron Lee in Fuller’s Graduate School of Psychology. The two goals of the College Transition Project are to better understand what happens to students when they transition from youth group life into college/young adult life and to identify the components of youth group life that seem to be associated with a healthy, or positive, transition into college.

The board of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing 60 denominations and dozens of ministries, recently passed a resolution deploring “the epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church.” [[Laurie Goodstein, “Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers,” The New York Times, October 6, 2006.]] Given that some denominations estimate that over 50% of their youth group graduates fall away from either their faith or their faith communities upon entering college, we can’t keep patting high school seniors like Sarah on the back on graduation Sunday, hand them a gift Bible, and hope for the best. Through the FYI College Transition Project, we’re hoping to arrive at research-based answers to the tough questions that not only plague seniors after they graduate, but also youth workers concerned about students falling away from the faith.

Wave One: The Seniors in the Study

This article focuses on wave one of the College Transition Project in which we collected data from high school seniors. From April-June 2006, we sent invitations to youth ministries around the country, inviting their seniors to participate in online and paper surveys. [[The Wave I Senior Survey consisted of a series of items and scales assessing demographics, social support, faith (measured by religious behavior, intrinsic religiosity/spirituality, and narrative faith relevance), risk behavior participation (limited to alcohol and sexual activity), and questions related to students’ participation in church and youth group activities and their assessment of that involvement. This survey was developed largely based on pilot surveys of seniors in the fall of 2004 and 2005, and the entire instrument was pre-tested by a group of seniors who were not participants in the final study. Actual participants were recruited from youth groups around the country by a convenience sampling method, and were offered a $25 incentive for taking the initial survey while also agreeing to participate in the entire 3-year study.]] As a result of that effort, we received 162 usable responses.

These 162 seniors can best be described as follows:

  • 62.3% are female, 37.7% are male.
  • 89.5% of the sample had an unweighted GPA of 3.0 or above; 64.2% had a 3.5 GPA or above.
  • 79.6% live with both parents.
  • In terms of parental education, 57.4% have mothers with at least a college degree and 66.1% have fathers with at least a college degree.
  • 72.8% said that they were “pretty involved” or “very involved” in student leadership or leadership training at their churches.

In short, similar to Sarah from our own youth ministry, the students who completed our questionnaire are fairly high achieving, come from intact families with educated parents, and were pretty involved in their youth ministries as seniors. As you’ll read, these seniors have some surprising views about their youth groups, adult leaders, friends, and families, all of which raise dramatic implications and strategic questions for our youth ministries.

Why do They Go to Youth Group?

Findings: Seniors were given 22 options regarding why they go to youth group, and asked to rate these on a scale of “Not at all true,” “A little true,” “Pretty true,” “Very true,” “Completely true,” or “No answer.” Table 1 captures their answers ranked by average response to the scale, as well as the percentage of students who said an item was “very” or “completely” true of them.

Table 1: Why do you go to youth group? [NOTE: To enlarge tables in this article, please click on the table graphic and it will open in a new screen.]

As you can see from Table 1, the top reason that students go to youth group is because of their connection with their youth pastor(s). Other important reasons for their attendance are because they want to learn about God, it’s a tradition for them, it’s fun, and they feel comfortable.

Interestingly, seniors’ connections with their friends at youth group don’t rank as highly as many would have guessed. By average score, seniors ranked the options regarding community and a sense of belonging seventh, eighth, and tenth.

Implications and Strategic Questions: As we’ve discussed these findings with the youth workers involved in FYI’s Los Angeles Youth Ministry Network, they share our ambivalence about the fact that “I like my youth pastor(s)” is seniors’ top reason for attending youth group. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that they feel some sort of connection with their adult leaders, but on the other hand, given the rocky transitions they often face when they leave our ministries, is it possible that they have become too dependent on us as youth leaders?

On a related note, in the midst of a nationwide trend toward ministry philosophies and strategies that emphasize the importance of “community” in youth groups, relationships with friends is not one of seniors’ main reasons for coming to youth group. In fact, when we asked seniors to rank five sources of support, parents emerged as their primary source of support (which is an encouraging finding), followed by their youth group leaders, then peers outside their youth group, then other students in their youth groups, and finally, other adults in their church. So of five possible sources of support, other students in their youth group came in fourth, behind kids outside of their youth groups (see Table 3 for comparisons of support received from youth leaders and other students in the youth group).

It’s difficult to know whether students ranked other students in their youth group fourth because they don’t experience deep relationships in their youth group, or because they simply experience such great support from parents, adult leaders, and other kids that the relationships in their youth ministry pale in comparison. Either way, these findings about the surprisingly unimportant role of friends within the youth group should cause youth leaders to ask some tough questions such as, Are the relationships in our groups producing deep transformation, or simply splashing around in the relational shallow end? What hinders our students from building authentic, supportive relationships with each other? What can we do to remove these obstacles and help our students share themselves and their lives with each other? In the past, when have our students experienced deeper community, and how can we facilitate that dynamic again?

What Would You Change About Your Youth Group?

Findings: To better understand seniors’ attitudes toward their youth ministry, we also asked a second question about youth group: What would you change?, and asked them to rate items based on whether they would want to see more or less of each in their youth ministry. The range included “Much less,” “Less,” “Keep about the same,” “More,” “Much more,” or “No answer.” Table 2 depicts students’ rankings of these 13 elements of youth groups based on average response to the scale, and the percent who wanted “more” or “much more.”

Table 2: What would you change?

The major theme of these seniors’ responses is a desire for deeper responsibility and interaction; they want to express themselves and their faith through service and mission trips, and they want deeper interaction through conversation, accountability, and alone time with leaders. The vast majority do not want more games.

Implications and Strategic Questions: The type of depth students desire is both relational and service-oriented. In comparison, fewer students want more or deeper Bible study.

In fact, these seniors aren’t reading the Bible much on their own either. In a separate part of the questionnaire that surveyed religious practices, seniors indicated that they read the Bible by themselves an average of 2 to 3 times per month. That raises an important question: in the midst of offering students deeper relationships and more opportunities to impact the world around them, how can we better integrate Scripture into those experiences so that they fall in love not just with service, but with the very Scriptures that invite us to serve? [[For an example of a research-based integration of scripture with deeper service and concern for the world, please check out our free downloadable [intlink id=“950” type=“post”]One Life curriculum[/intlink].]]

What Difference Did Students’ Involvement in Youth Ministries Make?

Findings: We asked students how frequently they were involved with a variety of youth group experiences ranging from mission trips and retreats to Bible studies and midweek meetings. We then examined the relationship between involvement in these gatherings and a number of other variables.

When it came to drinking alcohol and sexual activity, the only youth group event that had a significant relationship with seniors’ choices was their involvement in Sunday youth group gatherings (i.e., Sunday School).

In an effort to examine how youth group involvement affected not just students’ risk behaviors but other aspects of their faith, we also examined the relationship between youth group involvement and three faith scales: their intrinsic religiosity (or the degree to which they internalized their faith), their religious behaviors (i.e., prayer, service, Bible study, sharing the gospel), and their narrative faith (or the degree to which they integrate faith with other areas of life). Encouragingly, many of the youth group activities were significantly correlated with higher scores in all three aspects of students’ faith.

Yet more than any single type of activity, it was the cumulative effect of all of the activities that had the greatest effect on these three faith variables. Students who reported that they had been involved in the leadership of their youth ministries also had higher scores on all three faith scales.

Implications and Strategic Questions: While we had hoped to pinpoint a handful of youth group experiences that make a real difference in seniors’ faith, that simply isn’t the case. Instead, it’s the entire constellation of youth group involvement that is most significant in seniors’ faith. Not only do they need chances to serve and worship, but they also need opportunities to engage in small group discussions and overnight retreats. Given this finding, youth workers should ask themselves if they are offering well-rounded opportunities to students instead of over-emphasizing one type of activity and thus inevitably minimizing students’ engagement in the rest.

When it comes to the significant relationship between students’ involvement in leadership and their faith, we can’t know whether those who had higher faith scores are the types of kids who tend to be involved in leadership, or whether those kids who are involved in leadership are the types to have higher faith scores. Our hunch is that it’s a mixture of the two. Either way, since students were reporting their perceptions of their leadership, youth ministries would be wise to offer students regular opportunities to influence others, and then affirm the steps they take towards viable student leadership.

What Difference Do Adults Make?

Findings: A number of survey questions specifically asked seniors to comment on their feelings about their adult youth leaders. Table 3 compares students’ views of their youth leaders with their views of other kids in their youth ministries, based on a 4-point scale where 1 = strongly disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = agree; 4 = strongly agree.

Table 3: Youth Leader and Youth Group Support

Overall, this is encouraging news for youth leaders. Seniors feel supported, valued, and appreciated by youth ministry adults. Perhaps surprisingly, seniors’ perceived levels of support from other students in their youth groups pales in comparison to the support they receive from their adult leaders.

In examining the relationship between this feeling of support and seniors’ faith, those who feel that they are being supported by youth group leaders were significantly more likely to score higher on the three faith indices described above. Interestingly, students’ perception of being supported by their youth group leaders made a difference in whether or not they drank alcohol, but made no difference in their levels of sexual activity.

Implications and Strategic Questions: The importance of the relationship with adult youth leaders was a theme that cut across answers in many areas of the questionnaire. We who desire to set students on a lifelong trajectory of faith and practice should devote as much energy as possible into recruiting and training caring adults who will share both the gospel and their lives with kids (see 1 Thessalonians 2:8).

What is Their View of God, and Does It Matter?

Findings: While the support of youth leaders makes a real difference in kids’ faith maturity, their perception of their relationship with God is even more important. Students who feel that God cares about their life, who feel close to God, and who feel valued by God are significantly more likely to have higher scores on the three faith scales. Conversely, they are also less likely to engage in risk-behaviors related to sex and alcohol.

Implications and Strategic Questions: Students’ views of God are highly correlated with not just their faith maturity, but also their life choices. Based on these findings, youth workers should be asking, What do our students think about God? If they were to describe Him, what words would they use? What words would we like them to use? How can we create environments and experiences in our youth ministry that reinforce that God values, appreciates, and cares about them?

How Do Seniors Integrate Their Faith Into Their Life Choices?

Findings: In order to better understand how their faith makes a difference in their lives, we asked seniors to describe the degree to which they engage in religious behaviors and spiritual disciplines. By far the most common behavior is prayer; on average, students reported praying alone two or three times per week. As already mentioned, they read their Bible by themselves far less than that, at an average of two or three times per month. Arguably, both of these statistics are lower than most youth workers would hope for students who are highly involved in youth group activities and leadership.

When it came to the impact that their faith has on their life choices, Table 4 summarizes their answers, ranked according to the percentage who agreed. Students were ask to rate these items on a 5-point scale: 1 = strongly disagree; 2 = moderately disagree; 3 = neither agree nor disagree; 4 = moderately agree; 5 = strongly agree.

Table 4: Narrative Faith Relevance

We also found that the higher the rate of agreement with the items in Table 4, the more likely students were to abstain from alcohol and sexual activity.

Implications and Strategic Questions: The good news is that students’ faith makes a difference in their perspective on dating, crises, college selection, and future career. The bad news is that students’ faith has far less impact on their choices related to money and schedule. As FYI has conducted informal interviews with college students to help design the College Transition Project, they have reported that money and time are major struggles for them. As one college sophomore described, “In high school, everything was scheduled. In college, every choice is up to you, and you set your own schedule. You can do whatever you want.”

Youth workers who want to prepare seniors for the daily choices they’ll face in college would be wise to ask, How do students view their time and money – as tools to be used for God’s glory, or as “their own” to do with as they please? How can we as adult youth leaders both teach and model wise stewardship of our finances and our schedule? Further, how can spiritual disciplines be an integral part of students’ lives in an authentic way, such that going to God in prayer and searching the scriptures for spiritual nourishment are natural practices?

What Difference Do Parents Make?

Findings: According to our data, one of the most significant differences parents can make in the faith of their students is through the discussions they have with their own students. Kids who report talking to parents about both their own faith, and the faith of their parents, felt more supported by God. As we’ve already mentioned, kids who perceive a closer relationship with God are likely to have a more mature faith and to avoid risk behaviors.

Implications and Strategic Questions: Given our findings, youth ministries need to do more than offer rhetoric about ministering not just to students but to their whole families. Instead, we need to ask, What types of tools and resources are we giving families to talk about their faith? How can our youth ministry and church gatherings incorporate times for parents of kids of all ages to discuss their views and questions about God?

Concluding Application

So what’s going to happen to Sarah, whose faith inspired our whole youth ministry in high school, but is now hitting the bumpy road of college life? Our hope is that as we follow these 162 high school seniors – as well as others we’ll be adding to our sample – through their college years, FYI will arrive at research-based answers and resources that help youth workers help students navigate the potholes that threaten to trip up their faith.

Action Points:

  • Throughout this article, we’ve given some strategic questions for you to reflect upon. Which 2 or 3 questions are the most pressing for your youth ministry?
  • In the next month, consider gathering students, parents, and your adult leadership team to discuss this article and the 2 or 3 questions that you think are most pressing.
  • Email this article to a friend in youth ministry and meet over coffee to talk through what you’re observing in your ministries related to these issues and brainstorm ideas for addressing one or two areas of concern.

Certain subsections of the first College Transition Survey are available here for free download and use in your youth ministry as appropriate. Please send us feedback on the appropriateness and usefulness of these scales. Use in any explicit research capacity must be approved directly by the Fuller Youth Institute prior to such use.

Narrative Faith Relevance Scale
Parental Faith Communication Scale
Religious Behavior Scale
Reasons for Going to Youth Group
Changing the Youth Group
Youth Group Activity Participation

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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