Why some kids check out after children's ministry
-- from kids who've done it -- and how you can stop the
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"I didn't go to my youth group until 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
"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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.