If you flew a drone over northern Indiana, you would see a landscape dotted with ponds. Two of my neighbors added them to their property this past spring. Within a week of one another, both families hired experts for the construction. The ponds are man-made and not spring-fed, but they began to fill with fresh water as soon as the April rains poured down. Each was dug in the same type of soil and received the same amount of rainfall. Unfortunately, they didn’t retain the same amount of water. One of my neighbors now has a magnificent pond with a deck and a small boat launch. The other pond sits nearly empty, surrounded by weeds. For a pond to hold water, it is imperative to dig the foundation deep into the clay. The successful pond was dug thirty feet into the soil, while the empty pond is less than half that depth.
Driving past both properties over the last several months, I have thought about the importance of foundational grounding, depth, and retention. These two ponds have become my metaphor for youth ministry and the drop-out rate that all too often occurs between the high school and college years.
If you are a youth ministry leader, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the wealth of information on emerging adults, church drop-out, and enduring faith. Researchers tell us the drop-out problem is more serious than in past generations and that cultural factors make it less likely that students will return as they mature. We know that parents are the most influential factor in shaping a student’s faith, but churches, peers, and adults also play an essential role. Specifically, we have learned that students need to be part of a welcoming church body. They thrive when other adults invest in them, believe in them, and take time to mentor them. Intergenerational relationships matter and students need opportunities to serve and lead. Youth ministries that help students grow deep in their faith are centered on Jesus, have vital discipleship programs, are grounded in sound biblical teaching, and equip students for evangelism. Students are more likely to grow in their faith and remain committed when the ministry content is challenging and not shallow, and when they’re allowed to question and express honest doubt.
No one wants to see young people walk away from the Church post-graduation. Many youth leaders probably believe their ministries exemplify most of the qualities just listed. They believe they’ve built a “pond that holds water.” The “leaky pond” is down the street. My concern is that we haven’t actually taken any measurements.
We know what we need to be doing to help students grow deep in their faith, but we don’t actually know how well we’re doing. That’s what some colleagues and I are trying to discover through the Student Assessment of Effective Faith Factors (SAEFF). This research relies on student perspectives, not adult opinions. How do they evaluate their church and youth group experiences? We would value your students’ participation in this anonymous research. The survey can be accessed on any device at SAEFF.life. We will make the results available next spring.
Dr. Karen E. Jones is the chair of the Ministry and Missions department and director of the Veritas Theology Institute for high school students at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana. She completed her Ph.D. in Youth Ministry and an M.A. in Religious Education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. Jones also holds an M.S. in Education/Remedial Reading and a B.S. in Education from Missouri State University. Dr. Jones has extensive experience in youth ministry leadership, writing, and research and serves on the national board of the Society for Professors of Christian Education and the executive board of Youth Ministry International.
Jones is committed to the preparation of youth leaders around the world. This passion is realized through annual teaching opportunities in such places as Nigeria, Malaysia, Nepal, and Indonesia. She also serves as the volunteer director for the new Doctor of Educational Ministry in Youth Ministry program at Havana Baptist Theological Seminary.