I’ll never forget my very first day of high school. It’s permanently seared into my mind–not necessarily because it was traumatic, but because it was such a momentous right of passage to me at the time. I vividly recall stepping through the glass doors, toting my overstuffed gym bag and empty backpack, wondering to myself what the next four years of my life would be like…and hoping that I wouldn’t get stuffed into a trashcan and rolled around the halls by giddy seniors, as I watched happen to one classmate.

In a similar way, the passage from middle school to high school ministry is a significant occasion. Students facing this change are caught up in a mixture of excitement, dread, nervousness, poignant sentimentalism, and utter uncertainty. Add these contradictory feelings to the mixture of turmoil that marks your average teenager’s life, and you get a veritable stew of emotion bubbling.
Parents and leaders have the tremendous challenge of helping guide these volatile young teens through this messy and confusing time in their lives. The importance of truly coaching these youth at this pivotal time simply cannot be stated enough. Nationally, the statistics all tell us the same thing–that our teens are dropping out of church and giving up on their faith at an alarming rate.
While no one–not even the experts–has a definitive answer or solution to this rampant problem, knowing how to help our students navigate through this tricky transition can give us a better chance at keeping many of our youth connected through high school and beyond. Here are a few things I’ve learned through my experiences in student ministry:
Prepare Them, Don’t Scare Them
Even the most confident middle schoolers are uncertain about the challenges of high school and the changes they’ll face in high school youth ministry programs and activities. They realize that they’ll quickly face changes in peer pressure, social expectations, family responsibilities, new freedoms, and increased schoolwork–in short, nearly everything they’re finally comfortable with will change overnight. Stress and nervousness often become their constant companions as they hear adults utter phrases about how they need to “get serious” and start thinking about what they want to do with the rest of their lives, and how they need to “make commitments” to certain sports teams or organizations, or how they need to “grow up” and start thinking about getting jobs. With the added change of moving from a ministry program like confirmation or junior high ministry into high school ministry–a place where many of them have learned to feel comfortably accepted–it’s no wonder our kids can seem like nervous wrecks sometimes.
I’ve found it best to be honest with students, preparing them by explaining how high school ministry operates and what changes they’ll face not only in church but in their lives, without scaring them unnecessarily. They don’t need to hear about the horrible temptations they’ll face in high school as much as they need to hear that you love them, that high school ministry will be an exciting new adventure, and that no matter what, Christ has secured their spot in heaven and loves them with an everlasting passion that absolutely will not change.
Be Honest and Have Expectations
We know that church attendance often wanes with high schoolers. We’re quick to recognize that a lot of teenagers don’t really seem to care too much about their faith or regularly attending youth group or serving in any way. Yet sometimes, I think this is because we don’t raise the bar ourselves, as parents and leaders of our students. Often, I think our expectations are too low when it comes to teenagers and young adults. Maybe part of the issue with our kids dropping like flies is that we haven’t done a very good job at being honest with them about what happens when their faith isn’t a priority. Perhaps our failure to tell them the national statistics and the real-life consequences of not caring about God and how easy it makes it to get off of a healthy and God-pleasing path in life. After all, in four short years, most of these students are going to be making life-impacting decisions. It’s of primary importance that we start to teach them responsibility and maturity, even in matters of personal faith.
One of the most meaningful teaching moments with my students came last year, when I pulled out a picture of the previous year’s confirmation class and pointed to the faces of students who were no longer involved in church anymore. It shocked them to see the faces of their peers and realize that their friends were now a part of the national statistic of church dropouts, and they vowed anew to continue to stay anchored in their faith and to reach out to other students for Christ.
Help Bridge the Gap
One of the most effective ways to help our students transition from middle school to high school ministry is to help them bridge that gap. I truly think that utilizing older high school students to help with this is the way to go. I’ve heard about churches intentionally choosing high schoolers to mentor incoming kids, or creating fun events where the high schoolers decorate the younger students’ homes or lockers or classrooms at church. Whatever you choose, let your high school students have serious ownership in it. Allow them to dream up the ideas and make them happen, because that’ll give them a sense of investment and an excitement. More than anything, remember that the first few months are incredibly critical in this process.
I’m always very honest with my students, reminding them time and time again how they are role models to the kids younger than them, and that it’s their job to invest in the future generations–just as the adults and I are investing in them as teenagers. In the years that I’ve intentionally been impressing this importance on my kids, I’ve seen an unbelievable number of older students come back and want to plug in to helping with younger kids. That, my friends, is a great problem to have on my hands.
Attitude is Everything
 Even though you may be sad about losing them (then again, with the amount of melted Slurpees I’ve discovered in my backseat, I’m not always so sad to see them go!), this is a time to be excited for your students. Let that excitement overflow to your kids. Assure them that it’s not the end of something–in this age of social media, your relationships won’t end–but it’s the beginning of a whole new adventure that God has planned for them.
I think it’s essential for parents to realize how vitally important they are in this process, too. Statistically, families are the number one influencers of faith, not youth leaders or pastors. To diminish the incredible impact that parents have on their children’s faith lives is detrimental, and it’s important that parents and families do understand how crucial their role is in this transition. Loop the parents into your communication constantly, share your vision of ministry with them, and ask them to pray for you continually. And, remind them that their encouragement and excitement for ministry is contagious, too. It’ll go a long way towards helping pave the road into high school ministry.
Be There for Them, But Let Them Go
 This one is a tricky balancing act, especially when you’re passionate about your calling to love people as Christ does. It’s not something that I can honestly say I’ve mastered–I’m still very connected to many of the students who have stepped out of my middle school ministry and into the high school program. And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. What would be harmful, however, would be if I insisted on keeping them as “my own” and didn’t allow them to grow and blossom in new ways. As a quote I once read said, “Be a fisher of man, not the keeper of the aquarium.” We can be there for them, support them, and encourage them without stifling, smothering, or holding them back. Let them go–even though some may fail, screw up, or drift away, this isn’t a reflection of you as a leader or parent. It’s all part of the challenges of ministry to teenagers. Your only responsibility is to faithfully do the work that God has called you to do.
Ultimately, the transition from middle school to high school is–and will always be–a gigantic challenge. But take comfort in knowing that at a time when everything else is chaotic and transient, ministry can be a place of constant love and support for these students. And, as it says in Colossians 3:23-24, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”