Transitions can be challenging for the best of us. How many parents can remember giving 15, 10 and 5 minute warnings to your children before leaving a beloved friend’s house after a great afternoon of play or before bedtime, hopefully warding off copious tears over having to quit one activity for the next? These warnings served as transitional cues to our kids--necessary because moving on can be hard. One of the best things our children's elementary school did was to do a step up day on the last day of school. This was so helpful to my own girls who were very loyal to their classroom teachers and often had a difficult time imagining that anyone could be as great as their present instructor. Not having to stress for the entire summer about who their new teacher would be and what students would be in their class was a blessing for many kids. It served as a sort of soft launch into the next year.
In youth ministry we often assume that our students are on board with leaving Kinder Church to go to Sunday School or our GEMS and Cadets are itching to get out of those great programs to head into our Youth Groups. While it may be true for a large number of our students, recent youth ministry studies suggest that our assumptions are not entirely correct and that we may not be acting intentionally enough about helping kids transition through our programs. These studies show that kids as young as 10 are opting out of church youth programming and parents are finding it more and more challenging to fight the attendance battle. I have personally known young women who loved GEMS, but did not want to attend Youth Group once they graduated from GEMS. This caused no end of worry for their parents, but the students’ reasoning for not attending was understandable. They had not gone through elementary school with the vast majority of the other youth and were not going to be attending high school with them either. They just did not feel socially connected. (There is fruit here for another blog, but I digress…)
How can we facilitate better transitions? Or have we limited ourselves to only programmatic transition points? From a very practical perspective, do we do enough to encourage cross-pollination between groups that will be launching and receiving members, so that there is both familiarity and excitement built into the transition? Do we do soft launches that allow both leaders and participants from one group opportunities to serve, invite, welcome, receive new members and participants of the launching group opportunities to see the vision and experience the culture of the receiving group?
I believe we can learn a lot from my parenting and step up day examples. Rather than making our discipleship initiatives look like a straight trajectory we might do well to work in more of a spiral where students aren’t graduated just because of age or grade in school, but are offered a variety of experiences that may start as age based, but then be multi-generational and/or interest based and then family based and then back to age level based again. Who says we have to follow a day school model? Maybe in this expanding and contracting model more connections will be made with the broader body which may also facilitate a larger number of possible ways in which students can plug in to the mission of the church. Perhaps this would afford us with more soft launches into the full life of the church that mirror an individual’s personal faith journey and spiritual giftedness.
Recent studies in both the States and Canada point out that our weakest transition point is when our young adults move on to University and Career paths. Perhaps this model would help us to be more effective in keeping our young adults connected to their launching churches, so that the church body can continue a dialogue about how to engage a new faith community in a meaningful way. Why? 1) There would hopefully be more ties to their launching church than just their peers who could speak into their lives with real relational capital. 2) Having been so organically embraced by Jesus and the life of discipleship, so embedded in the full life of the church, young adults would find it hard to imagine any other way of living.
Finally, this type of approach would also lend itself to growing congregations where the entire church body marks significant discipleship transitions or milestones similar to what Laura and Robert Keeley write about in Celebrating the Milestones of Faith published by Faith Alive. Rather than simply marking the steady movement of time, although important that birthdays and drivers licenses and certain graduations do. Maybe we can begin to make room for marking both the ebb and flow of our journeys with Jesus which for most of us are anything but a straight trajectory and are often filled with transitions that do not include soft launches or 5 minute warnings, but do offer opportunities for us to walk alongside each other.