Why preteens don’t come back to your church–and what to do about it. From kids who’ve done it — and how you can stop the exodus.
Each year you stand on the imaginary steps of your ministry and wave farewell to your beloved preteens — graduates from your children’s ministry. You’re excited and a little nervous as you dream about them flourishing and growing as they get involved in your church’s youth program — just as they did in your children’s ministry… But later you discover that several kids aren’t attending the youth group. You’re dismayed to learn that some of your most involved and “promising” kids checked out after they graduated from your program, or worse, stopped coming to church altogether.
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Even when your church has an amazing youth program, it isn’t uncommon for preteens to “switch off” during the transition from children’s to youth ministry. As children’s ministers, we can guess and make assumptions about why kids check out. But to truly understand-and hopefully solve-kids’ vanishing acts during this time, it’s vital to have a frank conversation with kids who’ve left. That’s what Children’s Ministry Magazine asked me to do.
The kids featured in this article, ranging in age from 10 to 15, come from various church backgrounds. Some dropped out of church after completing elementary school, some tried the next phase of ministry but didn’t stay, and some only recently connected with a ministry program. I uncovered four compelling issues underlying why graduating preteens check out of church, and the practical things you can do now to keep these kids plugged in.
ISSUE #1: FRIENDSHIP FACTORS
Friends are first for preteens. Kids this age are developing identities independent of their families, and peers are elemental to this individuation process. Friends help preteens sort out self-identities and establish a sense of belonging. It’s no surprise, then, that friendship-related issues are easily the #1 reason for attending or abandoning youth programs after children’s ministry.
The youth ministry must be welcoming, friendship-friendly, and centered around building relationships. If graduating preteens know friends are waiting at youth group, they’ll be more inclined to join.
Scott, 14, remembers after he graduated from children’s ministry. He says, “It took me two years to go to youth group. I didn’t want to feel like a loner. Once my sister was old enough to go, I started with her. I loved it and was bummed I didn’t try it earlier.”
“I didn’t go to my youth group until after I started middle school and found out all my friends were going,” says Jordan, 13. “I just wanted to fit in. When I found out that everyone was going, I wanted to go too.”
Preteens feel “safety in numbers”-and the prospect of being excluded or rejected is too much for many. Being treated like an outsider is one of preteens’ biggest fears-and sadly, something many experience.
“People made fun of me,” admits Travis, 11. “The teacher was the only nice one there. I really don’t want to try that again.” Travis was one of several kids hurt or affected negatively by other kids or leaders. Consequently, he was never open to attending again.
Preteens say that the “friend factor” and a sense that “everybody’s doing it” are key in whether they’d join in or shy away from the transition into youth ministry.
What You Can Do Today
Use these ideas to strengthen the fiber of friendship between your preteens today so they’ll have positive relationships to take with them into youth group.
- Create a welcoming environment. Ensure that kids’ friends are always welcome. Specifically ask kids to bring their friends to your next class or event. Teach kids and adults the “2-foot rule” — whenever anyone is within two feet, smile, introduce yourself, or say hi.
- Plan for relationships. Organize classes so kids have time to interact with their peers. Integrate at least five to 10 minutes of unplanned “talk time” into each lesson. Let kids talk freely at the beginning and end of each class.
- Intentionally connect with preteens. Train your adults to mingle with kids so they get to know preteens and their friends. If adults can’t remember kids’ names, use name tags.
- Strengthen relationships. Use at least one game or activity that builds self-esteem and confidence during each class. “Shuffle” kids so they get opportunities to interact with kids outside their immediate circles.
- Involve everyone. Create an “everyone wins” environment with activities where kids aren’t excluded for “losing.” Choose cooperative games over competitive games.
- Use lots of humor. It’s great to have fun with kids, but no one has fun with humor that puts down others. Keep your humor victimless; don’t direct it at anyone. Integrate humor often, such as during crazy skits that drive the Bible lesson home.
- Share the limelight with kids. Have at least two or three kids take center stage during class. Rotate kids so everyone — even reluctant ones — gets to lead in some capacity.
- Connect kids. Help kids stay connected. Set up a chat room on your ministry Web site, share email addresses, or use a phone tree to communicate weekly messages.