The largest generation in U.S. history is headed to college. According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, perhaps this nation’s leading generational experts (in Millennials Go to College), the peak birth year for Millennials was 1990. That would make the high school classes of 2008 and 2009 the largest graduating classes ever. The demographics shout the facts. During the next few years the enrollment in American colleges and universities will swell to record attendance.

The church must do something about it; but undoubtedly, you’ve heard the statistics. The number-one time for people to quit going to church and, in fact, to walk away from their relationship with God is immediately following their graduation from high school. According to a recently released study from Lifeway’s Ed Stetzer (Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches That Reach Them), “88% of evangelical children are leaving the church shortly after they graduate from high school.”

Here’s what church life experts Thom Rainer and Sam Rainer III reported in their new book, Essential Church: Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts: “The church is losing the generational battle. . . . Multitudes are dropping out of church. . . . In order to stop the mass exodus; churches must renew their focus on those in this age group.”

Well-known youth ministry expert Chap Clark agrees and identifies a common scenario: “In most churches, when adolescents leave high school, there are few programmatic options available for them much less a welcoming community that has committed to bring them into the life of the body.” (See Clark’s Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers.)

Many, many churches struggle with their ministry to young adults and college-age students. In my travels around the country, I often ask church leaders and other ministry workers what they perceive to be the weakest programming aspect of their church’s ministry. Invariably the answer is their ministry to young adults and college-age students. Young people who were once very active in church youth activities and functions during their teenage years become inactive in church following their graduation from high school.

Reasons for the exodus

I am convinced that this departure from church following youth ministry is happening for five basic reasons.

1. Traditional youth ministry is often characterized by separating generational age groups.

I have been in so many churches where the youth room is literally as far away as possible from where the adults meet. It’s almost as if churches don’t want the two age groups to mingle at all. In fact, I recently visited one of the largest churches in America that was in the process of building an absolutely incredible building exclusively for the church’s ministry to teenagers. This edifice contains a huge gym, a concert hall, a coffeehouse, several offices, and meeting rooms; but they built it on the church property as far away as possible from the main auditorium. This practice seems to be the norm instead of the exception. Churches tend to isolate the generations along peer lines. The result is often a lack of meaningful relationships between teenagers and most adults. It’s therefore no wonder that when we dismiss them from youth group following high school, young adults fail to make a positive transition into the adult ministries of the church. Their high school world featured a different program, often a different philosophy of ministry, a different meeting location, different pastors, different musical styles, and very few positive relationships with godly adults.

2. Many youth ministries fail to build loyalty and ownership to the overall church.

You’ll have to evaluate your own ministry on this one. Are your church’s teenagers more loyal to the youth group than they are to the church as a whole?

Author Robert Laurent made this observation: “The leading reason why young people leave the church is ‘lack of opportunity for meaningful involvement.’ “That same idea is illustrated by Steve Wright in his book reThink: “It seems that churches of all denominations and sizes are failing to reach teens with the Gospel and baptize them. . . . If our programs are bigger, our budgets are bigger, our shows are bigger, and our workloads as pastors are bigger, then why are baptisms still declining?”

In other words, we must be intentional about helping our students develop loyalty to and ownership of their church. An experience from my own youth ministry taught me the importance of this principle. During my early days of ministry, my church hosted a gym night for our teenagers to play pickup basketball and volleyball. During the evening one of the church’s older gentlemen came into our gym and climbed downstairs. In a couple of moments all of the gym lights went out. That dear saint had flipped the electrical circuit breaker.

He came back up the steps and was making his way across the gym floor when I stopped him.”Sir, what happened?” I said.

He responded curtly, “I turned off the lights.”

“How come?” I said.

This was his rationale. “The teenagers don’t tithe, so they don’t deserve to use church electricity.” Then he abruptly walked out. We got those gym lights back on that evening, but his somewhat misguided logic helped me reevaluate our youth ministry. I determined to help the adults see the benefits of investing in the youth and to help the youth understand the importance of supporting the church.

That conversation helped me see the great value of building loyalty to the church as a whole within the fabric of student ministry. We began to encourage our students to tithe, to get baptized, and to serve within the parameters of the entire church. We taught our young people to participate in church workdays, to attend church business meetings, to serve in various church ministries, and to get involved alongside godly adults in appropriate avenues of service with children and adults. The man’s action may have been wrong, but it brought about a good ending.

3. Many of today’s student ministries may lack clear Biblical and theological teaching.

Have you ever heard youth workers or other church leaders say something like this: “My teenagers know the Bible. They’ve heard it all their lives. They need to apply and live what they already know”? I recently talked with a youth pastor about the value of Bible study materials and curricula. “My students know the Bible,” he boasted. Then he went on, “It’s a matter of them learning how to live it out.” While I absolutely agree with my friend’s last statement, I challenged him on the first part.

He gave me the opportunity following that morning’s church service to meet with his key students to discern their level of Bible knowledge. I had to admit that the group had a basic knowledge of Bible-based facts (for instance, they knew the books of the Bible, about several Bible characters, and the general themes of key Bible books). However, they struggled even with a simple understanding of doctrine and theology. Although some of them had strong opinions about some of the basic Bible doctrines, they really struggled knowing how to back up what they believed with Scriptural truth.

Youth workers, we must not ignore the importance of teaching the Bible to our students. My experience tells me that this generation wants to know what they believe and why. (I highly recommend that every youth worker and church leader read and devour Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s classic report on the Millennial Generation’s religious faith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Some of their findings will challenge your thinking, and some may break your heart.)

Let’s begin by teaching our young people the “whole counsel of God” instead of a few quick devotionals.

4. Many churches are weak in developing spiritual leadership in the lives of maturing teenagers.

I am afraid that we have been acting as if our teenagers are little kids. We try to entertain them and spoon-feed them instead of asking them for a growing commitment toward following Christ. Do you treat your seniors in high school the same way you treat the freshmen? Doesn’t it make sense to think that many of your upperclassmen should be more mature in Christ and further along in their spiritual development than they were as ninth graders?

Our student ministries should be places of spiritual growth and maturity that produce high school seniors, then young adults, and ultimately fully functioning, church-active adults who demonstrate a growing commitment to Christ and His church and who live out a maturing influence on others.

5. Many churches do not intentionally help students transition from youth group into the overall life of the church.

Churches are quite weak at helping teenagers transition from their culture of adolescence into the adult world of commitment and responsibility. I think Chap Clark has it right when he talks about the “few programmatic options” available in many, many churches following high school ministry. Not only should churches make ministries for young adults a key ingredient of their overall educational plan, they should also intentionally build sensitivity toward all generations into the framework of their worship and fellowship experiences and programs.

I appreciate the intergenerational emphasis in Gary L. McIntosh’s book One Church, Four Generations: “It is crucial that the worship team be intergenerational. The leaders who are seen on the platform influence the people who will attend the service. When people come to a church, one of the first things they do is look around to find people like themselves.” He makes a good point. Our churches must be God-honoring places where children, young people, young adults, and older adults alike serve and worship God. It is a shame if churches willingly overlook or exclude any particular age group.

Safeguards to stop the exodus

The good news is that churches can bridge the generation gap.

1. Build intentional mentoring connections. I am a huge fan of these connections, where caring, godly adults seek to develop growing relationships with individual young people.These connections can operate beyond the structure of a typical youth ministry that features a small team of adults who serve as “official” youth workers. Churches can recruit a larger group of caring adults to serve as spiritual mentors for the teenagers. These adults can form positive relationships with kids that will carry over from youth ministry into adult ministry with this by-product: kids will get to know some of the adults on a personal level.

2. Use an intergenerational approach to small groups. I’ve seen churches help graduating high school seniors make the transition through an intergenerational approach to small groups, in which young adults and older adults meet together in small group settings for Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. If your church is working on a small group ministry, consider making each of the groups intergenerational in nature.

Young adults and college-age students may be the largest unreached people group in this entire country. Church leaders must take an evaluative and discerning look at their own churches to see how they are doing in developing an effective ministry with this demographic. Don’t forget that these people do not need to be treated like teenagers. However, they do crave and need close fellowship with other believers in their age group, and they are searching for real answers for life’s big questions.

Mel Walker is the president of Vision for Youth and a member of Heritage Baptist Church, Clarks Summit, Pa. This article is an excerpt from The Greenhouse Project: Cultivating Students of Influence, published this summer by Word of Life. This article is also posted at Mel is interested in a continuing discussion with church leaders on how to reach out and minister to the growing college-age population in this country. Please take a few moments to share your thoughts on this strategic subject.