The youth ministry successfully manages age-related transitions into and out of the youth ministry.
When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)
I always approached one “start of year” task with mixed feelings. Each January I would contact those young people about to transition into youth group and arrange to meet with them. The awkwardness and even nervousness wasn’t all one way! Rarely did they engage me in conversation or ask questions as I talked about what was happening in youth group and how much we would love them to join us.
Of course, in time I got the conversation down to a fine art: What have you been doing in the holidays? Which high school are you enrolled in? What do you know about the youth group?
All these were useful questions but there were also some strategies I developed. One was to encourage the parent who was at home to join us as we talked. That eased the awkwardness of a shy thirteen year old but it also meant they were informed and were more likely to encourage their teen to attend.
Another useful strategy was to plan a start of year activity that they and their friends were likely to enjoy. I would also ask the question, “Do you have any friends who might like to come?” Often they did and I would give them some extra written information to pass on.
If they (and their friend) attended our opening event I would always make them feel especially welcome, introducing them to their small group leader who kept an eye on them and made them feel included. If they were a no-show, I’d contact them and let them know they were missed. It was a lot of effort but it definitely paid dividends!
Studies show that the time young people are most likely to drop out of church involvement is when they are faced with a transition between one age-related programme and another. As a young person moves from the children’s ministry to the pre-teen ministry, on into the youth ministry and then the young adult ministry before transitioning into wider church life, they are faced with significant changes they need to adjust to. Failure to do so may result in dropping out and while the church is not responsible for people’s choices, we can do a great deal to make the transitions as easy as possible.
Before developing transition strategies, we need to first think about what’s involved in these transitions and in particular two specific obstacles that may need to be faced and overcome.
The first is adjusting to a change of programme. As young people transition into a new programme, they move from content that is pitched a little below them to content that risks being a little over their head. They may have become used to a programme with plenty of games and some Bible focus; now there may be some games and plenty of Bible focus. Additionally, the new programme may be on a different night of the week at a time that’s not so convenient.
They must also adjust to a change in people. There are probably new leaders to get to know and trust, along with new people attending the programme with them. They go from being the oldest, knowing most other people in the programme, to being the youngest and not knowing many.
Reflecting on these obstacles gives us insights into how we can best handle transitions. The key is to minimise the impact of these changes through familiarity with the programmes and people before the transition occurs.
As well as describing what they might expect, it is a good idea to actually invite young people in transition to attend some events before the previous year is over. If you can create a positive experience for them they are more likely to attend in the new year.
If the transition is into the pre-teen or teen programme, communicate with parents about what their child can expect and be available to answer any questions. Parents are your best ally in helping younger ones transition between programmes so enlist their help. They may let you know specific fears or obstacles their child might be facing. Continue to communicate after the point of transition and seek feedback on how their child is managing the change as well as discovering reasons why they may have stopped coming.
At that first programme, make a big deal of their presence by welcoming them personally (without embarrassing them) and think of activities in which they can both stick together with people they know, as well as meeting and mixing with those they don’t. Work with your existing young people ahead of time and remind them how they felt when transitioned. Challenge them to be even more welcoming than other people were to them.
Transitioning into a youth group is easiest when they transition with people they already know, which is why it is a good idea to encourage them to bring a friend. Even if they have been part of the pre-teen programme, they won’t necessarily be close friends with others who are also starting youth group.
The transition to having new leaders is made easier when some of their leaders from their previous programme transition with them into the new programme. That way there are familiar faces looking out for them and helping them to fit in and become involved. If that’s not possible, (and even if it is) you will need to get to know the young people before they transition by sometimes joining in their programme so at least they will know you when it is time to transition
The transition out of youth group is another point at which we can lose young people. If you have a young adult ministry, it will likely make the transition easier. Either way, look for opportunities to get them involved in church life before they finish youth group. Some may make excellent youth leaders so encourage them to stay involved. If they have responsibilities and if they know older people in the church well, they are more likely to transition out of the youth ministry well.
Finally, be prepared to be flexible about transitions. Some young people are more than ready to move on by the time they are old enough to transition, while others are reluctant. If there is a good reason why they prefer to stay in their original programme, such as their friends being a year younger, then be open to that but don’t allow whole year groups to stay back simply because they don’t like change.
CHECKLIST: INDICATORS OF A YOUTH MINISTRY THAT HANDLES TRANSITIONS WELL
- The youth ministry anticipates specific obstacles young people may face before they transition.
- Young people are able to attend and become familiar with aspects of the new programme prior to actually having to transition.
- Communication takes place with parents, letting them know what the transition involves and answering any questions they may have about the new programme.
- When a young person fails to transition, a youth leader talks with them (and their parents) and determines why.
- The content of the new programme is designed with their particular needs and preferences of the newcomers in mind.
- When young people make their first visit to a new programme they are made to feel welcome without being embarrassed.
- Some form of publicity (flyer, social media post etc.) is made available to the young person so that they can easily invite friends to the new programme.
- Some of the young people’s leaders from their previous programme transition into the new programme with them.
- Leaders take advantage of opportunities to personally get to know young people before they transition.
- There is flexibility around transitions with personal circumstance and needs taken into consideration.
CCCNZ Youth offers a coaching programme for key youth leaders and youth pastors who would like help in implementing these principles as well as learning leadership skills. Contact us if you are interested.