Youth Retention in a UPCI Church
David K. Bernard
The United Pentecostal Church International effectively promotes many outreach efforts locally, nationally, and internationally, and is also highly effective in the conversion of children and youth in its ranks. However, what is the long-term retention rate for youth who grow up in our churches? Are we doing a good job of saving our own children?
This is a significant problem in most evangelical churches. Recent studies of various organizations have estimated a retention rate around 40 to 60 percent.
To examine this issue, I compiled statistics for the first 15 years of New Life UPC of Austin, Texas (1992-2007). It would be difficult to generalize from the experience of one church, but I offer this information for two reasons: (1) to encourage the examination and discussion of various factors that could be significant for the retention of youth in our churches; and (2) to encourage leaders to analyze the situation in their own local churches and youth groups.
For this study, I counted everyone who was baptized in Jesus’ name, received the Holy Ghost, spent at least one year as a member of our church’s youth group, and graduated from high school or reached age 18. The total number was 86. I placed them in one of three categories:
* A. Faithful Member: attending regularly and following the major teachings of the church; adhering to Apostolic doctrine and lifestyle.
* B. Attending Only: attending regularly or occasionally but not following all the major teachings of the church.
* C. Not Attending: Rarely or never attending; not following the teachings of the church.
I consider Category A to represent the true retention rate as defined by our theology. Category B is also significant because it represents people who are still connected to the church and who are good candidates for reconsecration and renewal. Moreover, the total of Categories A and B is probably comparable to the retention calculated by churches of other denominations.
The overall retention rate is better than we might expect from a comparison with other conservative groups. Nevertheless, there is still much room for improvement. A major part of our outreach strategy must be to disciple and retain our children and youth.
A key goal is for our children to receive the Holy Ghost before the teen years, which we seek to accomplish through children’s church, children’s revivals, children’s camps, and vacation Bible school as well as regular services. The reason is that it is easier to convert children than youth or adults. Assuming we are successful in converting our children, our next challenge is to establish them so that they will still serve the Lord as adults, which is the focus of this article.
The statistics reveal that the youth retention rate in our local church has improved significantly over time. In the first five years, we were small and had limited resources. Moreover, as a home missions church we had very few stable families; dysfunctional or problematic situations were a higher percentage of the whole.
As time passed, we were able to develop a church culture that encouraged practical and spiritual disciplines, faithfulness, discipleship, and maturity. As we grew, we were able to move into our own building, offer more activities, and to employ a youth pastor—first part time and more recently full time. In later years we have also benefited from having a higher percentage of youth who have been raised in church from early childhood. Finally, we might expect recent statistics to be somewhat better simply because there has been less time for attrition (although more time also allows for the possibility for renewal).
Based on my knowledge of individual situations, I evaluated the circumstances surrounding the youth who have not remained faithful members. Only in a very few cases does it seem that their departure was primarily motivated by a calculated decision to change their beliefs or live a sinful life. In 94% of the cases (more than I anticipated), it was evident that problems in the family contributed greatly to the situation. Of course, in the final analysis, each young adult has to make a personal choice, regardless of environ-mental influences, and God gives everyone the power of choice. Some youth choose a different path even though they come from good families who are faithful to the church. On the other hand, many of our youth have chosen to live for God despite negative circumstances—in fact, 29% of the faithful youth.
Nevertheless, my analysis indicates that the single most important factor in the retention of youth is positive parental influence and example. Thus, the church needs to disciple parents, stress the importance of their being faithful to God, and provide practical instruction for marriage and family life. Key factors for parents are (a) faithfulness in church attendance and support; (b) consistency in following the teachings of the church and supporting the leadership; (c) maintaining a good marriage and good communication in the home; (d) maintaining loving, firm, and consistent discipline of children; and (e) maintaining self-discipline, goals, and a strong work ethic in their personal lives.
I found no significant difference whether youth lived in a one-parent home, a two-parent home where only one parent attended church, or a two-parent home in which both parents attended church—as long as the dynamics of the home were good and the parent who attended church exhibited the qualities of faithfulness that I have described. Thus, while the two-parent Apostolic home is ideal, single parents and parents with an unsaved spouse can still sanctify their children. (See I Corinthians 7:14.)
Next, I examined the possible impact of educational choices of our youth. (See Table 3.) If they attended a secular college in our metropolitan area or a UPCI Bible college, the retention rate was very high. If they attended secular college out of our area, where they were forced to find another church, the retention rate fell sharply. Thus, I now encourage students going to secular college to consider options closer to home and, if they are some distance away, to consider driving home on the weekends. Otherwise, if they move away for college, I try to direct them to a location where there is a good church and personally try to connect them with the pastor and church.
Another significant finding is that we have a higher retention rate for youth who go to college than those who do not. To some extent, college can help impart discipline, an attitude of learning, preparation for life, and maturity—all of which can help youth in their spiritual life. However, believe that the main reason for this finding is that in our society and particularly in our area, there is a positive correlation between college attendance and strong families, discipline, and goals. The values and disciplines that foster college attendance also foster faithfulness to church.
This does not mean that everyone needs to attend college, but it means that we need not discourage youth from attending college if they are spiritually prepared. It also means that if they do not attend college, we should help them find other ways to acquire discipline, goal-setting, learning, and preparation for life.
According to the Assemblies of God, they retain about 95% of their youth who attend one of their own colleges, but they only retain one-third to half of their youth who attend a non-Christian college. Our local church experience suggests that such results can be expected for out-of-town colleges, but when students attend secular colleges in our area and remain involved in church activities we can still expect a high retention rate.
A study by the University of Texas found that religious youth who attend college are “far more likely” to retain their beliefs than those who do not attend college. The study attributes this in part to greater efforts by churches and campus ministries to foster acceptance of religious beliefs on campus and to provide students with resources to support their beliefs in the face of the skepticism and relativism that is prevalent in higher education. In short, instead of fearing college, churches need to find ways to keep college students connected and to provide them with solid biblical instruction that meets the intellectual and social challenges of our day.
To follow up on these conclusions, I also analyzed the track record of adults in our church who enrolled in college for a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctor’s degree at least a year or more after graduating from high school. In such cases, if the person had a good relationship with church and family, there was no negative spiritual impact.
Our children and youth are gifts from God entrusted to our care. Let’s evaluate our stewardship of them. Let’s take practical steps not only to evangelize them but to disciple them and equip them for abundant Christian life.
The above article, “Youth Retention in a UPCI Church,” was written by David K. Bernard. The article was excerpted from the July-August 2008 Forward issue.
This material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.