Only a small four percent of boys who participate in scouting make it to Eagle, the highest rank in Boy Scouts of America. Part of it may be the hard work that is required to acquire the twenty-one merit badges among other things. But there may be another factor too.
In a recent conversation with a scoutmaster, I heard him bemoan the issue of older scouts leaving the program as they get into high school and especially as they become upper-classmen. He said they have a saying in scouts about the reasons boys don’t stick with it: Wheels, Work and Women.
They get cars, they get jobs and they get girlfriends, all of which require lots of extra time. It changes their focus, the schedules and their priorities.
When I talk with local church student ministry leaders they speak of a similar problem. I also notice it at student ministry conferences. There are always more younger grades than older grades. The older students start dropping like flies from the regular student ministry programs. If you’re a local church student ministry leader, there’s no doubt you have dealt with this issue in some form or another.
Here are some thoughts for student ministry leaders in regards to older students:
They Either Lead or Leave
Older students need responsibility as they grow. When I was a freshman in high school, one of the senior led a Bible Study for a small group of us over the course of the year. It was a great experience for me, and it kept this senior heavily invested. Give students opportunities to lead.
Do your students know what is expected of them? Clearly articulate what it means to be part of the ministry and how you’d like them to be involved. Sit down with them and lay out how you would like to see them remain connected.
Discover Other Ways Of Ministry
It’s possible that older students would need to work in the evenings or study more hours. If they are unavailable for the student ministry program hours, there may be another time slot that could work for connecting. Keep them connected on Sunday mornings. I’ve heard of many successful small group times slots for students in the ministry and this can be led by someone other than the student ministry leader. Breakfast before school once a week with older students may be a good place to begin.
They’re Still Yours
Don’t give up on older students, they are still in your fold. Send them cards. Keep them on the prayer list. Keep them in the loop. Talk with them. Cheer them on. Be their church and their pastor. Love your students even if they do get a job and have to work on Wednesday nights during youth group!
Rites of Passage
When a student knows what to expect, they have a better shot at staying connected. Developing some rites of passage as they get older in the student ministry may help them feel a sense of stronger connection and belonging.
Make A Big Deal Of Graduation
Begin to make a big deal of graduation and other markers. Even if you only have one senior make some great plans and go to great lengths to encourage them with a recognition, lunch, a party, scholarship, pictures, etc.
Disengagement Isn’t All Bad
As students age, we want to cheer them on in their development as young adults. Taking on responsibility is good for them. It’s good practice to live a faithful life of a Christian and be in the workplace, on sports teams or at play practice. In your teaching and leading, include practical steps and discipleship training that help younger students make great faith decisions as they grow older. Disengagement from some youth programs doesn’t mean disengagement from faith. Continue to invite them to participate, work to create roles in and through the church in other ways.
Don’t Get Mad
It’s easy to get upset when a student who is a leader all of sudden has sports practice and will be missing from your regular meeting time for the next four months. Respond, don’t react. Let them know you’ll miss them. Ask them if they mind being kept in the loop about things? Let them know they can come straight from practice and no one will mind. Have them tell you a solid date they will be back. Keep the door wide open.
Don’t Just Add In Grades
The temptation for small church student ministries is to add in younger grades to increase the numbers. This will make it even more difficult for the older students to stick with it. Keep a firm handle on the grades of student ministry. If you really need to build your student ministry, step back, start with kids (this is a long-term investment for sure) and don’t call it the student ministry. Give it another name and eventually promote children to the student ministry.