Anyone who thinks youth ministry is just a fun-filled catalogue of activities that allow us to indulge our own inner teenager clearly hasn’t been doing it very long. Youth ministry does have its wonderful, amazing and sometimes deeply satisfying moments when we see young people take steps of faith or finally fulfil the promise that we recognised and nurtured in them. It also has its brutal side, when key young people whom we have invested in seem to give up on us, God or both, and leave. Sometimes we don’t allow for this, so that is what this article is about. We are going to look at what might be happening and, crucially, pick up some pointers for how to handle these most painful of moments.

Counting sheep

Let’s start with a really practical ‘good practice’ issue – do you keep a register of who attends your group? If not, start doing so. I realise that this is easy if you are a traditional-style group meeting in one location, but may be very hard if you are running a drop-in group and next to impossible in detached youth work. A techie friend of mine had a brilliant system where he issued his group with barcoded membership cards that gave big discounts on trips out, food etc. The young people would swipe in, giving the attendance data he need with no effort at all. I am also aware that there are GDPR issues here but they are not onerous. Keep the info secure, for an appropriate time and don’t share it. You do need to research this but don’t let it put you off!

So why do we need to keep records? First, it is simply good practice to know who has been there. An urban youth worker I met was contacted by the police. They were charging three members of her group with attempted murder and their alibi was attendance at her club three weeks earlier. She really needed to be able to say if they had been there.
Let’s be honest, we may not have ‘favourites’, but we all have young people who we resonate and click with, those at the heart of the group and those more on the fringe. It is easy, particularly with the latter, to think “I haven’t seen John for a couple of sessions…” only to find he hasn’t actually attended for five weeks. That is a long time in a young person’s life and makes the situation worse – he probably already feels that he hasn’t been missed. Get a register!

So why do young people leave?

There are as many reasons as young people but to keep it simple, I’m going to divide it in to four broad spiritual reasons:

1. A crisis of faith

Most people reading this article won’t just be doing youth work in the secular sense of the words (valuable though that is). I know you will be doing work that puts Jesus at the centre, that gives young people a chance to explore faith in a solidly Christian context and become disciples. Young people may take some time to do this but they know you are ultimately looking growth. Jesus of course predicted this in the parable of the soil, see Mathew 13:1-23. 

Heartbreaking though it is, sometimes some of the young people who we like the most that fall into the first three categories. Perhaps they have rushed into a rapid decision to follow Jesus without counting the cost (swept along at that residential or big festival), perhaps the commitment was real but ill considered, not really having realised the implications. Perhaps the commitment was real but pressures from friends and family are just too much. Incidentally, research done many years ago by Scripture Union shows that the younger a person is, the harder it is for them to sustain an independent Christian faith in the face of opposition from their family, in fact it may be almost impossible for children to do this.

2. Westerhoff and the development of faith

I am a huge fan of John Westerhoff’s model of faith development. It really needs an article on its own but to summarise, children tend to be like ‘spiritual sponges’, absorbing and largely accepting the teaching of their church (stage two of faith). Inevitably however, at some point (often in the teenage years), they will hit stage three – questioning – which often is a crisis. They realise that what they have is not really their faith, it is simply what they have accepted from others. Stage three may be a process of quiet searching as they work faith out for themselves but it can also be a real struggle. Westerhoff’s powerful metaphor is that their faith is like a jacket, it has protected them but as they have grown, the jacket has not grown with them, it is no longer fit for purpose (indeed, it does not fit and seems childish). The only thing to do is throw it off and go in search of something better. This is certainly scary and can feel disorientating for everyone, especially the young person. 

3. Growing integration

This is a really interesting one! Children are able to largely compartmentalise different parts of their lives. We tend not to respect this much in adults (for example, dropping round your manager’s house to find they are quite a different person at home). As teenagers grow, they will have an increasing awareness that they simply can’t integrate clashing parts of their lives. I have observed teenagers who seemed quite committed in their faith but would drop out (sometimes for several weeks) while having a sexual relationship. When it was over they would return. I am not saying this is OK, I’m pointing out that there was actually something good about the growing recognition that integrity meant they could not be one thing at the Christian youth group and something else in their love life.

4. All the other non-spiritual reasons

This is a list as long as you like, and you will know most of them already. Young people fall out with each other. Sometimes they steal someone’s boy or girlfriend. Sometimes they want to be part of a particular cool group more than they want to be part of your group. Sometimes they are laughed at or pressured by friends at school or college. Sometimes a romance goes wrong and they just need to avoid someone. Sometimes…you get it.

Let them know you miss them

I have specifically said ‘let them know’ because I will leave the judgment of what is the best media up to you. WhatsApp? A text, phone call or visit? What matters is that you get across two things. First, that you have clocked that they are not attending (remember the need for that register) and that secondly, you miss them and would love them to know they are welcome to come back.

If at all possible, try and find out what is going on, because this information is crucial to how you handle things. It is perfectly legitimate to ask any of their friends who do still come if they know what is going on. If they have given Christianity a go and feel it is not for them, they need to know that your acceptance of them is not based solely on you sharing faith. An older young person who had been in my 18-plus group for some years dropped out. It hurt but I knew he worked in his dad’s mobile phone shop so when I was in town, I’d walk slowly past and if no customers were in, I’d drop in and say hello. Not a long talk, not a lecture – not even an invite back to church. Just saying: “I miss you and care about how your life is going.” We are still in touch through Facebook. You never know. After 40 years of ministry I can see that it is sometimes the ‘drop outs’ that end up the best disciples. Keep the door open (metaphorically) and communication possible.

If young people are wrestling with faith and doubt (Westerhoff’s stage three), what they need is someone to accompany them on this scary journey. Not to judge nor condone – just ‘walk’ with them. The biblical metaphor here is the road to Emmaus. Jesus turns up and just listens and talks. Incidentally, this may also be the point at which you share (appropriately) your own doubts. Many young people think they can’t be Christians because of doubts. This is the moment to start modelling and sharing an adult style of faith which encompasses doubt as well as certainty, as if we are saying about God: “This much I know…this bit I don’t yet understand.” Research by Richter and Francis way back in the 1990s show that very few people actually have an instant crisis of faith. For most it is a much more gradual process that starts with unresolved issues but progresses to them simply living more and more of their life without reference to God.
To throw in a quirky idea here, why not post them a card? Young people get bombarded with emails, texts and WhatsApp messages every day. Very few actually get any post. Why not send a card with next term’s programme or a low key invite to something?

Be a great shepherd

Years ago I read a novel set in the sheep rearing outback of Australia. It was harsh. Sometimes it didn’t rain and they might lose a third or half of their flock. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep makes me chuckle. Any sane shepherd getting to 99 sheep would say: “Well that’s pretty good, 99 out of a 100 – I’m going to sleep.” No shepherd really goes out for one sheep. You see, to go after one sheep, that’s not a good shepherd, that is a really, truly, amazing and extraordinary shepherd. Be that shepherd. Incidentally, the shepherd counts the sheep – remember I said you’d need a register?

has been teaching (and doing) youth and children’s work for decades. He is currently helping CYM innovate its courses and organisation. He has a master’s in community education, and is a qualified coach and youth