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Not a Faith Graduation

The spiritual journey of a young person is a lifelong excursion, yet we let high school graduation be the end of our faith walk with them.Graduation season is mostly over for another year. Gone are the parties, open houses, and RSVPs. Graduation is indeed a great accomplishment. Students have worked hard, parents have been supportive, and teachers have lived out their vocation. Now the students must move to the next level, whether that be college or the working world. Graduation celebrates the end of a long journey and looks ahead to the future.

listeningSo often, once high school seniors graduate, their faith life starts to fade. Most congregations can commit to a Sunday school and junior and senior high ministries, but very few do a good job with college and young adult age ministries. At one of the most crucial times in the faith life of a young person, church programs abandon them. They grew up going to a class designed specifically for them. They learned all the Bible stories and doctrine of the Lutheran faith with age-appropriate methods. But then they move away, and the congregation no longer has that weekly or monthly contact with them.

Why not? Virtually everyone has a cell phone or social media account that takes little time to utilize. We emphasize strongly that Confirmation is not graduation because the spiritual journey of a young person is a lifelong excursion, yet we let high school graduation be the end of our faith walk with them.

There is no silver bullet, but let me tell you what we have tried at my congregation with graduating classes of 8–15. By no means do we maintain contact with all of our former youth, nor do all of our former youth remain in the church or with a vibrant faith life, but you never entirely know. The connection begins in the summer before they leave. I take the high school graduates out for lunch and talk to them about their concerns, fears, and worries. I encourage them to connect with a campus ministry at their future school (for a listing visit https://www.lcms.org/lcmsu). I also reach out to the campus ministry at their school and pass along contact information. I invite the new college freshmen to join our “Youth Group Alumni” group that meets monthly over the listeningsummer to catch up. They see a lot of familiar faces and are able to chat about upcoming challenges and opportunities in college. You might even think about having a summer servant event just for your youth group alum or new high school graduates.

As summer ends and the first day of school arrives (these vary college to college, state to state…so do some homework), I send a simple text to the new freshmen and also the students I saw over the summer. It is a basic, “Praying for you on this first day of school. God, may you guide and direct (name) to continue to walk with you. Have a great week!” You could make it more personal if you wish. Then towards the end of the first month I send a follow-up, asking how things are going and if they have gotten involved with the campus ministry we talked about over the summer. Some do/will and others find a different campus ministry home. Regardless, the hope is for their spiritual journey to continue!

I am surprised at how many “youth group alum” will contact me very randomly to ask questions of faith—even if we have not talked for months.Your role still does not end there. There should be a continual attempt to remain in relationship with these students. One thing our high school youth group does twice a year is send a finals-week care package of snacks and highlighters and such. If we don’t have the youth or time to pack these kits, we send a $5 gift card (this is actually cheaper than to pay postage). Let them know you care! If there are some who have not gone off to college but remain in the area, do not give up meeting with and caring for them too. Start a new group and meet for breakfast or an afternoon cup of coffee. You do not have to do intensive Bible study with them, just remain in relationship and let Jesus work on their heart. I am surprised at how many “youth group alum” will contact me very randomly to ask questions of faith—even if we have not talked for months. Don’t abandon them on their faith journey, but keep praying for them and continually be an encourager along the way.

Aaron Grube is Director of Christian Education at Zion in Kalamazoo, Mich. He enjoys being able to work with all age groups and discovering new ways to reach them with the love of Christ.

Photos © iStock/jeremyiswild3, Julie F514.