Three years ago, as part of a graduate school class I was taking, I conducted a thorough assessment of my high school ministry. Among other things, this assessment revealed that in the three years prior to it, only 22% of my congregation's confirmands had gone on to participate in our high school ministry.
Though this finding was certainly disheartening to me, it was not actually surprising. As is the case in many mainline denominations, mine has long struggled with retaining freshmen once they are confirmed, in part because confirmation is so often viewed as a graduation from one's faith.
As a result of this finding, my colleagues and I made several significant changes designed to help bridge the gap between confirmation and our high school ministry. As part of these changes, we shifted our transition period. Rather than wait until August to begin transitioning students into our high school ministry, we began transitioning them before they'd even finished confirmation.
In the last two weeks, we've held two of the events we've used to do this.
The first was a combined social event for both our confirmands and high schoolers. This year, we went bowling. Every element of this night was carefully planned and intentionally orchestrated.
The week before this event, my student leadership team blogged their response to two questions:
1) Why is this event important?
2) During this event, how can you both connect with the confirmands yourself and at the same time, help them to connect with others from FLY?
Blogging about these questions helped my student leaders understand their importance and challenged them to start thinking about their role in this event, something we also discussed in person before the event.
Then on the night of the event, we assigned students vehicles to ride to and from the bowling alley in. This ensured that each car included both confirmands and high schoolers. Close car quarters forced students to begin interacting with the other people they were riding with.
Once at the bowling alley, we assigned bowling lanes to further encourage high schoolers to interact with the confirmands. Thanks to the scoreboards, students in each lane quickly learned one another's names. To eliminate a sense of competition, we played a game of crazy bowling that shifted the focus from the score, to the crazy ways in which students were being asked to bowl during each frame.
The week after crazy bowling, our high school students led an 8th grade orientation. This event was designed to be fun and to give students a taste of our high school ministry.
As part of this event, high school students led a series of fun-filled games designed to push students out of their comfort zone, force them to interact with each other, and get people laughing in order to create shared experiences and memories. Afterward, we took the 8th graders to our Youth Room, something we hope will make it less awkward and scary for students to walk through those doors for the first time as freshmen. Once in the Youth Room, our high schoolers shared about their experiences in FLY. They did so because kids listen to other kids in a way that they just don't listen to adults. Then, we divided students into small groups of high schoolers and 8th graders who closed the night by sharing one thing they were thankful for, one thing they were stressed out about, and praying for one another by name. At the end of the night, we gave the 8th graders our extra youth ministry tee's as a way of communicating that they're already one of us. The following Sunday, my high school students hand-wrote cards to each of the 8th graders, which were then mailed to their homes.
To be sure, these events are in no way silver bullets. They're also not all we do to bridge the gap between confirmation and our high school ministry.
Even so, in the years since we've started holding a spring social event and 8th grade orientation, the percentage of students who have continued to be active in our high school ministry post-confirmation has greatly increased. I suspect this is because by the time our 8th graders finish confirmation, they now know a lot about our high school ministry. What's more, they've tasted what our ministry is like and as a result, are excited to be part of it. Even more important, though, they've become friends with people in our high school ministry. They've also heard – from high schoolers and not just adults – that far from being the end, confirmation is really just the beginning of their incredible journey of faith.