A few months ago a pastor friend of mine fretted to me about the church’s inability to retain youth into their college years. “90 % of youth who participate in church as high school students don’t in college,” he said. “And 90% of those who do in college don’t as young adults.”
I don’t know where my friend got his figures, but I’m inclined to believe them. What I don’t believe, though, is his framing of the problem. It’s not a failure of retention, but of conversion. We are failing to convert young people into more mature and responsible forms of church participation and leadership.
I don’t think the church is served by retaining Janie Straight-A Student into her young adulthood, at least not as she is in high school. She’s a gift to the church as a high school student. But as she grows and learns, her participation in church life, her understanding of God and her experience of faith, all need to be converted into something more than they were when she was 17.
Which brings me to Graduate Recognition, which our congregation will celebrate this Sunday. We will parade our five high school graduates up front, where I will fuss over them and lead the congregation in praying for and blessing them. I don’t see any reason NOT to do this. It’s a valuable ritual for the students and for the congregation that has invested in their nurture and growth.
What I do feel a need to differently, though, is pray. Whereas previous Graduate Recognition Sundays have had an air of, well, graduation, about them, I hope to give this one an air of commissioning. That we are sending these students out to the next phase in their life and that we still exercise a claim on them (and they on us) is what I wan’t to communicate. Even if they weren’t all relocating geographically, this would still be true. We are blessing them for the next phase of their faith journey, which remains intact in its current youthful form both to their and the church’s peril.