By Sharon Mager
WALDORF, Md—In the midst of what seems like a millennium mass exit from church, First Baptist Church, Waldorf is holding its own. According to LifeWay Research, 70% of young adults who attended church regularly for at least one year in high school drop out, though the report does show that two-thirds later return.
First Baptist Church of Waldorf, responding to the information, decided to do their own study and were surprised at the results. Randy Stacks, FBC Waldorf’s associate pastor emphasized the study was very informal, but still eye-opening. Eighty-three percent of their former students still attend church regularly and 18 of those students are actively involved.
“We looked at six years of twelfth grade classes. Out of six years, we had 52 kids on the roll.” Stacks said, explaining that for them to be on the roll meant that they at least attended occasionally. Forty-six of the students were active, attending at least once a week.
Out of the 46 active students who graduated, 38 are still attending church regularly. Eighteen of those former students are doing more than attending. They’re doing ministry and going on mission trips. One former student, Brian Jones was recently accepted into the International Mission Board’s (IMB) journeyman program.
So, did the kids who did drop out do so because heir families weren’t active? Surprisingly, Stacks discovered that was not the case. A lot of the kids who left had active parents.
Stacks and senior pastor Wayne Kempson both agree the probable reason FBC Waldorf is retaining their young adults is because they have an intentional cradle to grave focus on ministry with multiple intergenerational contacts. Kempson said it’s an intentional “seamlessness.”
Often, Kempson explained, kids move from preschool, to elementary school ministry, then they are kind of dumped into the youth bucket. After that, sometimes they’re inadvertently “dumped.” There’s no place to go but to adult ministry and that transition can be quite radical.
Stacks said on Wednesday nights, the youth play games and hang out then do a 15 to 20 minute devotion. When students graduated, they were expected to go in with the adults, but that was difficult, so Stacks said they began to allow the graduates to occasionally hang out on Wednesdays or participate in some of the games.
One of the ways the church has tried to integrate the young adults include allowing high school juniors and seniors to do some activities with the collegiate group. They have an opportunity to develop and strengthen relationships.
The young adult ministry is the one we struggle with the most,” Stacks admitted, referring not only to FBC Waldorf but to evangelical churches overall. Stacks and other church leaders have been attending the Passion conferences for several years, targeted for young adults ages 18 to 25, and they have seen the impact and the importance of a ministry focused on that age group.
They also started a new college and career ministry for students and young adults ages 16 to 26. Stacks said a group for singles that goes from 18 to 30 plus had its difficulties.
“A kid in high school doesn’t want to go to class with 30 year-olds” Stacks said. There are too many differences. After beginning the new class, both classes, the college and career and the singles group doubled.
Ryan Hutchinson, a student at University of Maryland, College Park, said having opportunities to build relationships and to serve has had a huge impact on his spiritual growth, and is a reason why he stays connected.
“By intentionally extending these opportunities to college students, you really get the feeling that you’re not just a warm body in a pew but that you’re a valuable member of the church whose absence would be felt. You don’t just feel wanted but needed. Hutchinson said.
Brian Jones agrees with Hutchinson. “A huge part of why I’ve continued in church after high school is the foundation I had at FBC Waldorf. We had solid Bible teaching, we kept a missions-based mindset. The people I saw as mentor-figures were just real with me, a kind genuine attitude that you can’t fake,”
Other factors in ministering to and retaining young adults, Stacks said, is understanding that there is more of a delayed maturity in today’s culture with more young adults living home and not necessarily working full-time jobs.
Another big aspect is discipling younger children in fourth and fifth grades as they prepare to move into the older grades.
One of the biggest components, though,is that the young adults must relationships with adults outside of their family, bonding with youth leaders and teachers. By doing this, Stacks said that when they leave home, whether to go to college, or just moving out, they know what kind of people to surround themselves with.
And they have to make their faith their own, not their parents’ faith.
“They have to realize that their faith is personal, “ Stacks said.
Ryan Hutchinson echoes that sentiment. “Our church stresses that your relationship with God is your own. It is between you and Jesus.This is especially true once you enter the youth group. I know in particular that in the 11th and 12th grade Sunday school class, those who are a part of it are invited to college ministry events and intentionally given time to hang out with and fellowship with their future peers. So early on, and specifically when they reach the end of their high school career, the youth are taught the importance of having their own relationship with Christ.”
Seeing and connecting with adults who are living authentic Christian lives is what kept Thomas Cole, a recent University of Maryland College Park graduate and FBC Waldorf member and currently participating in The World Race, a mission adventure serving “the least of these” in eleven countries in eleven months.
“Moving from high school to college is a big change.You’re free. You’re doing your own thing, living in your own place, taking care of your own errands, new friends, etc,” said Cole. “I think we tend to look at our spiritual lives as less important than everything else going on, and let’s face it we were also 18-19 years old. So with such a season of change I think it’s easy to neglect Jesus in all of it. And having the discernment to go to church every Sunday much less find one in the area that works for you. It’s difficult. You’ve really got to seek it out.”
“I think church members make a huge difference in whether or not young adults stay in the church or not. Growing up, you notice a difference in those who live out the gospel and you gravitate to that. I think a lot of time we overlook the power of what living like Jesus looks like to people. It’s different. It’s noticeable. People want that.” Cole said.
“I think that’s a big reason why FBC Waldorf does have young adults staying in church. For me, many of the members watched me grow up. I saw true and authentic people striving to live like Jesus did. I saw people loving others knowing they’d get nothing in return. I saw people make sacrifices for others that made no sense but they did it out of love and I wondered why in the world they would do that. Living out the gospel is powerful. People want that. I wanted that. And I think having authentic Jesus following church members also reflects back on the church itself. For me, that was why I stayed in the church.”