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Why Youth Don’t Return to Church After College

Why Youth Don’t Return to Church After College

As much as Mark and Jessica would like their kids to cling to the Christian values and faith they were taught, it’s an uphill battle.  Social media, television, teachers and friends compete for their hearts and minds.  They considered sending Emily and Ethan to a Christian school, but it wasn’t affordable.  They try to monitor the kids’ intake of sexual and violent content, but it’s coming from all directions.  Eventually all children must confront the realities of a society bent on eliminating Jesus from His own equation.  Mark and Jessica have resigned themselves to simply delaying Emily’s and Ethan’s inundation with worldliness and godlessness as long as possible.

Despite discipling the kids since they first learned to talk, Mark and Jessica needed help to prepare them to navigate today’s post-Christian culture.  It takes a “village” but in their minds only one bastion of Christian teaching and influence was available to walk alongside them in this journey to raise Christ-followers – their church, specifically its children’s ministry and youth group.


Emily is 16 and was active in youth group for years.  Recently though she’s been losing interest – not only in youth ministry but in matters of faith.  It seems that as Emily aged from a child to a young lady, her level of excitement about Jesus and the church waned.  She went from:

  • an engaged new believer at 10, to
  • an eager learner until 13, to
  • seeing youth group largely as social hour for a few years, but eventually
  • finding friends elsewhere where she’d prefer to spend her time

Not coincidentally, the church’s children’s and youth ministries seemed to follow that same path, from:

  • emphasizing coming to faith in Jesus as a young child, to
  • providing solid biblical teaching to preteens, to
  • fearing children would lose interest and making youth group more “fun”, but eventually
  • clinging to the few who were still around by the time they hit their mid-to-late teenage years

Rather than breaking this cycle by carrying forward true discipleship from children’s ministry all the way through youth group, their youth pastors felt discipleship was not compelling enough to keep today’s heavily-distracted, overly-stimulated teens coming back.  So instead of attending for Christian education and worship, the vast majority show up primarily because they like another girl or boy or want to hang out with friends.  Youth pastors don’t monitor those motives, happy they’re at least still coming – keeping the numbers up.

But Emily isn’t impressed with numbers.  She’s questioning her faith and becoming critical of youth group as she sees how those same kids (even those touted as “leaders”) act when they’re not at church.  They’re certainly not disciples of Jesus Christ.  They haven’t experienced any transformation – except on Sundays and Wednesday nights.  How can what she believes be real when it’s not real to the friends she grew up with at church?  At least the non-Christian kids in her public school are being true to themselves.  They’re coming out as homosexual, proclaiming their individuality and protesting injustice.  In her mind, being honest sure beats the hypocrisy Emily sees in the youth group members who attend her school.

Plus her teachers are presenting some pretty convincing scientific evidence that everything can be explained in the absence of God.  She’s being exposed to alternative ways of thinking, different cultures and other religions outside of Christianity.  And then there’s Emily’s biggest wake-up call – her realization that people don’t really seem as bad as the Bible says they are.  Her classmates believe that people are basically good and think Christians are hateful because they judge the “sins” of others.  Are Christians actually the bad ones, laying guilt trips on nice people, saying they need Jesus when they’re less “sinful” than her church friends?  Emily wonders how she could have been so cynical and naïve.

If she’s hanging on by a thread now, what will Emily’s belief system look like by the time she finishes college?


Emily’s brother is 13 and he’s still strong in his faith, but the shift in focus at church from biblical education to “engaging” teenagers is already starting to occur – no more memory verses and intensive Bible studies.  Those are being replaced by lot of “fun” activities with a hint of Scripture sprinkled in.  Ethan notices the change.  So do Mark and Jessica.  As Christian parents, they’ve always asked Ethan after church what he learned in the children’s ministry that day.  Ethan used to share the Bible stories and verses he was taught, but not anymore.  Now when he gets in the car, he gossips about what “so and so” said at youth group and how well he did in the games they played.  Mark and Jessica aren’t too concerned at this point – as long as Ethan had a good time and wants to keep going to church.

In fact, they understand that their pastors have intentionally designed the youth program to be so “cool” that kids will literally be asking their parents if they can go to church – hoping that parents who don’t attend that church (or any church) will come with them.  Where Mark gets concerned though is when he looks at what’s happening with Emily.  Has his church gone too far in trying to appeal to “Generation Screen”, competing with video games, cell phones and social media?  Is it necessary to give the kids so much free time, so many interactive games and so little Gospel?  Are the kids even paying attention during those short messages or passing notes to their friends?  Even if they are listening, is the message transformational?  Are Emily and Ethan leaving youth group knowing more about Jesus but not knowing Jesus more?

Mark and Jessica admit they have primary responsibility for spiritual leadership of their children, but they expected a little more help from their church.

What Should Youth Pastors Do Differently?

There is an answer to Mark and Jessica’s dilemma.  It is possible for their church to reorient its youth ministry where kids stay engaged while also advancing its mission of making disciples (who then make more disciples):

  1. Convey Biblical Truth – What if kids in youth ministry understood the truths of Scripture so well that they could clearly see through the thin veneer of false authenticity among their non-Christian classmates? Rather than being swayed to their side of the “inclusion” and “tolerance” debate, they would see a lost generation searching for purpose in their self-righteousness and seeking justification for their immorality.  Knowing Jesus intimately means never buying into the lie of moral relativism – that people are basically good, that we’re born the way we are, and our job is to be our true to ourselves.  A true believer knows we’re born in sin and therefore must be born again.  No one starts off the way we’re supposed to end up – we’re born flawed but born again righteous through Jesus Christ.  Being our authentic, original “self” by definition means being authentically self-centered, worldly and sinful.  Only by denying self and following Jesus can I become the “me” that God intended.
  2. Realize that Life Change is Exciting – Youth ministries whose goal is true transformation and not regular attendance will graduate kids who come back to church after college. Only a transformed teenager will endure four years of indoctrination in the world’s values and philosophies.  Living a life on mission is exciting.  Having true purpose and meaning is a far better path than the dead-end road of secularism.  Youth pastors must not back away from the call to give teenagers what they need and not what they “want” – they need the radical but all they get is the normal.  Otherwise teens eventually will find activities outside of church that are more interesting and walk away – likely joining the ranks of the “dones”, possibly never to return.  Instead, give kids what the Lord brought them to church for – personal transformation and enduring hope in a seemingly hopeless world – and they’ll return when they’re older.  Transformation also means the “hypocrites” Emily points to won’t be living differently all week than they do in youth group at church.
  3. Exchange Strategies for Discipleship – Rather than making a goal of children’s ministries and youth group to get parents to come to church, take the risk of continuing to challenge kids to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.  Keep driving home the Gospel and theology, preparing them to answer the tough questions they’ll face in high school and college.  Attractional church growth models may get some parents to come to church but won’t make disciples of either the parents of children.  Youth ministries shouldn’t be the execution of a strategy but the fulfillment of the Great Commission mandate.

Those three principles would likely drive away some non-believers, church consumers and lukewarm fence-sitters but Jesus did not intend for His Church to be designed to placate people who fit those profiles.  If Emily and Ethan are to navigate life with their faith intact, Mark and Jessica need their church to reinforce their discipleship efforts, but that requires that their youth pastors convey hard truths, call for radical transformation and require personalized discipleship – which are far too risky for today’s church attraction and retention models.

It’s Your Turn

What advice would you give to Emily and Ethan?  What about Mark and Jessica?  Do you have any thoughts for the youth pastors at their church?


2 Responses

  1. Thank you for your article. Iaam struggling in this ministry at the moment and the issues you mentioned are quite critical in my country town I’m Kenya. I’m so glad that I will try this new methodology and pray that it works especially number 3

  2. Erickson’s stages of life is the key to successful ministry to youth. Teenagers cannot stand to be isolated or ostracized. they need to form their identity. Teach them to be friends and friends with Jesus. Teach them to find their identity in Jesus Christ and their relationship with Him. Young adults must learn intimacy with other people. This is especially true with opposite sex relationships. The church frequently keeps males and females separate. The key is to bring them together, but also teach them to maintain sexual purity in their relationships. Read the book the Art of permanence. Mate selection and Marriage in a World of Brokenness.

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