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.
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.
Preteen 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.”
“At first, I didn’t go to my youth group. But, 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.
Preteen Issue #2: First Impression
When it comes to your graduating preteens, the youth group usually gets just one chance to make a good first impression and hook them.
“I tried youth group once,” says Jessica, 11. “There were too many people and it was too loud.”
Jessica says she gave youth group a chance, but was unimpressed and didn’t return.
Preteens’ first impressions can have multiplied results because word moves quickly, especially when kids have bad experiences.
“My friends went and said they didn’t like it, so we don’t go,” says Chad, 13. Kids’ first visits —which are often spontaneous — must be positive, welcoming, and exciting. Ideally, kids will leave wanting more.
Kids have endless opportunities to join new activities; if their experience at your church’s youth program is unpleasant, they’ll choose other activities without hesitation.
What You Can Do Today
You’re the expert on what your preteens need and what they’ll enjoy. Partner with your youth group leader to build in the right ingredients for a great first impression at youth group. Use this checklist to help kids enjoy the next level of ministry.
- Create a smiling environment. Set high expectations for how guests are treated by youth group kids. Assign each incoming preteen a “buddy” — a friendly youth group member who’ll serve as a guide. Have the buddy send a follow-up postcard the following week to say hello and tell about what’s coming up next in the ministry.
- Limit how crazy things get. Rule of thumb: If an activity can be viewed as demeaning, embarrassing, or exclusive, nix it. Kids — visiting or “regular” — respond better to an emotionally safe environment than a wild-and-crazy, anything-goes environment.
- Begin and end with fun. Punctuate the beginning and end of events and classes with fun-packed experiences. That’s when kids pay most attention — and when you’ll leave lasting impressions. Share some of your preteens’ favorite games, songs, and activities to be used in youth group so preteens don’t feel that the new environment is completely foreign.
- Share insights about preteens. Research preteen culture through the Internet, movies, books, and media. When you find a great tip, share it with your youth leader. Discuss age-appropriate lessons and activities relevant to incoming preteens. Help your youth leader become familiar with preteens’ culture before attempting to speak into it.
- Train youth group volunteers about incoming preteens. Help youth group staff understand the difference between a middle schooler and a preteen. An instant primer is the Understanding Preteens book in the Preteen Launchables Kit (Group). Encourage volunteers to connect with two preteens at each meeting and follow up with those kids by sending a note.
Preteen Issue #3: Lost in Transition
Many preteens said they struggled transitioning to the youth program for fear-related reasons. They resisted leaving their comfort zones in the children’s ministry where they’d spent years connecting with adults and peers. They felt they’d become vital participants within that program. Joining a new team — and starting at the bottom of the pile — is intimidating, especially with all the other changes preteens are experiencing.
“I really struggled trying to join a new group,” says Caitlyn, 15. “I had a really good experience before and didn’t want to leave those I was completely comfortable with and trusted just to start all over again.”
Josh, 14, agrees: “I’d rather help in the children’s classes where I know everyone. It’s fun and I like being a leader. I feel important.” For these kids, the reassurance of the known is more enticing than the unknown.
Other kids like Kendra, 15, were simply unsure about how to transition to the new group. “I missed the welcome party for incoming 6th-graders after changing churches,” says Kendra. “I was afraid to go all by myself…so I’ve just never gone.”
What You Can Do Today
Transition isn’t a one-time thing; it should be occurring all year long. Smooth transitions reassure your preteens and help them maintain the confidence they’ve gained in your children’s ministry as they head to the youth program. If you don’t build a strong bridge from children’s ministry to youth ministry, graduating preteens will fall through the cracks. Use this checklist to keep kids from getting lost in transition between ministries.
- Stage quarterly transitional events. Invite the youth leader and youth group members to attend your preteens’ programs and events during the entire year before kids graduate. Ask older kids to introduce themselves to at least three of your kids during the event.
- Recruit ambassadors. Ask your youth leader to recommend enthusiastic youth who’ll serve as ambassadors at various youth events that preteens attend. Have these kids talk about what happens in youth group and how it’s different from children’s ministry.
- Get preteens on the youth team. Partner with your youth leader to help preteens identify with the youth group. Give kids a “you’re on the team” gift, such as a poster or keychain with the youth ministry logo to “wow” them and help them feel included.
- Get preteens plugged in. Work with your youth leader to get preteens plugged into programs quickly, based on their interests. Keep an interest inventory for each of your kids, and pass these on to youth leaders well before kids graduate.
- Provide quarterly check-ins after graduation. Just as bridging before graduation is necessary, it’s also critical after graduation. Don’t drop your preteens because you rarely see them anymore. Check in on them, follow up with their needs, and personally encourage them. Touch base with the youth group leader to see if there are any concerns you need to be aware of or any way you can help with kids who seem to be checking out.
Preteen Issue #4: Parent Impact
Preteens are strongly connected to their parents, and studies show that parents still have the most influence in kids’ lives. Preteens rely heavily on their relationships with their parents — which means that parents’ perceptions of your program are paramount. Many of the kids I talked to agreed that their parents’ opinions about a program meant the difference between attending and staying home.
Add to this factor that as preteens become more independent and families have more hectic schedules, stress increases familywide. Many parents have a difficult time allowing their kids to venture out late on school nights or travel away for a weekend.
“My parents don’t think I do too much at church,” admits Justin, 10. “But they worry about me getting my homework done, so I only get to go once in a while.”
“My mom hates driving me late on a school night,” says Katie, 12. “My other siblings have to be in bed, so we don’t go to youth group very often.”
What You Can Do Today
Your partnerships with parents must be healthy and positive. Use these ideas to maintain an excellent relationship with your preteens’ parents during this critical transition time.
- Get on parents’ team. Take active steps to put your ministry on the same team with parents. Vocalize your support of kids’ parents. Plan events that are family-friendly and schedule-aware. Initiate positive contact with parents. Continually inform parents about what’s happening in your ministry and the youth ministry. Create educational and support programs for parents of preteens. Celebrate kids with their parents.
- Provide transitional transportation. Get practical; if parents aren’t bringing graduating preteens to youth group, kids will miss a key time to be woven into the fabric of the youth group. Partner with the youth group leader to arrange transportation for any kids whose parents just can’t work it out on their own. Make it easy: Think carpool!
- Give parents a strong vision for youth group. Partner with your youth leader to motivate parents to make youth group a priority for their graduating preteens. Use mailings, emails, and meetings to share the vision. Tout benefits: Teens attending religious activities are 50 percent less likely to engage in at-risk behaviors. Plan bridging activities that celebrate and involve families in the children’s and youth ministries. Invite parents of youth group members to attend these events so they can initiate strong parent-to-parent relationships.
Danelle Delgado, a youth and women’s ministry speaker, is a former middle school teacher and youth pastor from Loveland, Colorado.