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Rules of Engagement: Non-Negotiables for Connecting With Post-High Schoolers

His college experience had become exactly opposite of what he’d hoped. Initially, like most high school grads, Landen was excited about meeting new people and entering his next phase of life; but also like many high school grads, feelings of detachment were creeping in.

In high school Landen was popular, had a serious girlfriend, was president of the Christian club, and was a very good athlete. This didn’t just keep him busy; it kept him feeling good about himself, giving him a sense of identity.

Now, about five months since graduation, Landen had outgrown his high school identity. His friends went in different directions, things didn’t work out with his girlfriend, he was no longer dominating in sports, and he wasn’t sure about vocational pursuits. He found himself wandering through life with a flood of questions needing answers.

An Open Door
This was one of many conversations I’ve had in the past decade with post-high schoolers. Such conversations have kept me working with this age group. The feelings of detachment during this phase of life provide open doors for ministry like no other. This is when long-term conclusions are drawn regarding faith, life, and self. I’m thankful Landen knew I was there, having a place to seek guidance in midst of his searching.

Unfortunately not all who graduate high school find this outcome; many are left alone, not pursued by older, more mature Christians. Those who grew up in the church always knew “big church” was for “old people”—and since graduating, they don’t see themselves fitting into that context. No wonder—far too few churches have any kinds of programs specifically for young adults transitioning out of high school life. More importantly it leaves far too many searching for answers outside of the Body of Christ.

Contacting Versus Connecting
Thankfully more local churches are reaching out to post-high schoolers. There are some creative ways church leaders are initiating and staying in contact with people after graduation. The following are some examples:

  • Sending students care packages filled with things like laundry soap, roles of quarters, or baked goods; some send coffee, snacks, and candy during midterm or finals weeks.
  • Sponsoring holiday or summer gatherings for students when they come home.
  • Sending e-mail updates of church gatherings and news.
  • Developing blogs on which grads can network; creating a monthly newsletter for graduates that discusses important, relevant topics.

These ideas can provide doors to ministry, communicate that we’re thinking of these young people, and show we understand some things about their circumstances; but they don’t necessarily connect with post-high schoolers’ hearts and minds. A care package may have been nice for Landen to receive, but he needed something much deeper and substantive. He needed a spiritually mature adult consistently there, helping guide his thinking through all his questions.

The crucial transitional period following high school typically lasts from five to seven years. It often involves complex internal processes, bringing all types of questions, emotions, doubts, and concerns to the surface. That’s why ministering to and standing with young adults on this journey is so important. If we’re to help post-high schoolers grow into mature Christian adults, we must understand this.

In my experience, regardless of context or format of ministry, I’ve found at least five non-negotiable concepts we need to embrace if we are to truly connect rather than simply contact them.

The Need to Be Needed
It’s easy to feel isolated and maybe even a sense of abandonment during the post-high school years. This is especially true for those who don’t go away to college and experience community there and are left “alone” at their home churches, their peers having moved on. These post-high schoolers always had a place where they were part of things; then after graduation, things changed.

We don’t need to have a specific reason; simply inviting them for simple things such as coffee or lunch can greatly help otherwise isolated grads stay connected. A college-age ministry can look drastically different than our traditional idea of student ministry (band, speaker, etc.)—but it must include older, mature believers who are there to pursue long-term relationships with those in this stage of life.

Recognize Their Adolescent Mindsets
The growing pressures of higher education have drastically affected the mindsets of college-age people. The increased use of technology and a results-oriented corporate worldview developed by Boomer generations has pushed post-high schoolers to obtain college educations. Employers are far more likely to hire someone with a college degree over someone with only a high school diploma.

In the 1950s some college-level education was beneficial, whereas today some doesn’t really help at all. High school students recognize this, and it shows that 9 of 10 seniors expect to continue their educations by attending college. This is an all-time high in American history.

Not only are more pursuing an education, but they’re also staying in school longer. Even though it many take five to seven years to complete a “four-year” degree, even after receiving a Bachelors degree, college grads still feel like they need more education. That’s why nearly 40 percent of those who obtain a Bachelors degree plan to pursue a Masters degree—and nearly 30 percent plan to go even further. There are more people today between the ages of 25 to 29 still in school (13 percent of this population) than there were 18 to 24 year olds in 1950 (only 9 percent).

This cultural shift has changed the formulation of personal identity—and extended adolescent thinking, behavior, and lifestyle choices. Since graduating high school has simply become the next stage of education, in many ways college-age people think much like high school students did 30 years ago. So we must view the college-age years as one requiring the care and nurture of older adults. Here are two things we can do to connect to post-high schoolers’ thinking:

Let them know you understand their pressures.
While youth attend college to better their professional lives, they also do so to fit in to society—a sociological identity search. People in this stage don’t really have a “role,” but they want one terribly. The pressure really comes when everyone around them asks, “What are you going to do with your life?” Because they’re not sure, they respond with a quick, “I don’t know!”

Our role is to let them know this process is normal, healthy, and that we’re going to help them get where they want to be—no pressure! You just have to look them in the eyes and tell them. These consistent conversations go an extremely long way.

We have to talk about their spiritual identities.
More young adults pursuing higher education delay finding identities (sociologically), but that can spell huge opportunities for us as spiritual leaders. Post-high schoolers are looking at themselves in new ways, processing who they are and aren’t.

Before they get too overwhelmed with pressures of gaining sociological identities, we have the chance to help them first embrace who they are spiritually. Once they understand this identity, our goal is to help them live this out in society, wherever that may be. The post-high school years are the best time to capitalize on this—although starting earlier in high school and middle school ministry is beneficial, as well.

Encourage Thought

The post-high school mind is beginning to see different perspectives and views. It’s expanding like crazy. Ideas, principles, and beliefs they grew up with are being questioned. Things learned as black and white are turning grey. Since this process is necessary to having a personal faith, it must be encouraged.

Typically if a young person confides in us, saying, “I’m not sure I believe the Bible is true anymore,” our red flags start flying. We immediately go to the shelf and hand them books such as Evidence that Demands a Verdict or A Ready Defense. We want to help, but piling on information may be counterproductive at this point in their thinking.

There are certainly black-and-white issues in Scripture and even things that can be empirically proven, but instead of waving red flags and throwing information at them, we need to see green lights for intellectual discussion in these conversations. Being the ones who encourage them to think beyond concrete concepts is one of the greatest ways we can connect to their minds. Here are a couple of practical things we can do:

Intentionally talk about mystery.
I used to assume I had to play the part of the solid rock with all the answers amid their questions. This stance has a place, but I’ve found that honesty with our own questions can actually be the thing that keeps post-high schoolers connected. Often when they question their faith, it leads to a sense of guilt, which can lead to detachment.

Instead of hiding our questions we need to intentionally expose our college-age friends to them. Holding onto our faith in spite of our questions is extremely comforting to them; they’ll see they can have question and remain faithful, too. And what could’ve led to detachment now helps connect.

Answer questions with questions.
This skill can really help post-high schoolers think for themselves. Late adolescents want someone who can help them think through things. Unfortunately, many don’t think of church as a place that forces them to think; rather it has been viewed as a place that tells them what to do. Now is the time to show them differently—again, the earlier we do this, the better.

Faith and Law Are Different
I’m just as guilty as others—I think I’m teaching faith, but at the end of the day, it’s really law.

Read your Bible, pray, go to church, invite your friends to church, and obey your parents. (Aren’t these among the 10 Commandments of student ministry?) We also throw in things such as: share your faith, serve in the church, don’t have sex, and don’t do drugs.

There’s nothing wrong with following these principles, but most young people come to view Christianity as the act of doing or not doing these things (i.e., following the Law). But I’ve seen a difference between what we think we’re teaching and what post-high schoolers are learning.

Consequently the majority of college-age people, whether they’ve grown up in the church or not, view Christianity as Law. During the late teenage years and even the early 20s, this brand of Christianity is harshly questioned and critiqued, often leading to detachment. Therefore to connect with them we must:

Live a life of faith beyond religious routine.
I’ve taken a serious look at my own life, and if I’m honest there are areas that look more “Churchian” than Christian. As I share these areas with post-high schoolers, I’ve realized that they find this honesty refreshing, letting them see a fresh perspective of the Christian life.

Talk about abstract issues in Scripture, rather than behavioral issues.
For instance, Ephesians 1:1-14 walks through who we are spiritually (abstract thoughts). So instead of telling them what this looks like behaviorally, let’s help them think through it abstractly for themselves.

These conversations have to move beyond the encouragement to conduct daily quiet times and going to church. This is the process I used with Landen: His circumstances had changed, and it was time to connect with him on another level—in the abstract.

Consistency of Ministry
In order to follow through with the previous four concepts, we must be consistent in peoples’ lives. I understand most small to mid-sized churches can’t afford to pay a full-time minister specifically for post-high school ministry, but this doesn’t mean there can’t be some type of consistency in this area. Whether they’re dinners at various houses, Bible studies, discussion groups, a formal weekly ministry, or just one person pursuing relationships with grads, there has to be consistency in every context.

This may sound harsh, but after walking with post-high school young people every day for the past eight years, I believe that not having something consistent in their lives is, for them, nothing less than unfaithfulness on our part. You don’t have to do anything extravagant—just make it consistent. Post-high school ministry doesn’t require elaborate programming, either—it just needs to be authentic, relational, thought-provoking, and truly relevant to their specific life-stage issues.

My heart breaks because as a whole it seems as though the least amount of the church’s attention is given to post-high schoolers. If you consider Landen’s situation, you quickly realize his desire for (and the very real need that) someone more spiritually mature would spend time with him.

There’s far too much ministry potential to continue passing these situations aside.

Published by Journal of Student Ministries, September/October 2007

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Rules of Engagement: Non-Negotiables ...

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