A Student Exit Strategy

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In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of the lost son. This story, possibly better termed the parable of the two lost sons, is very appropriate for this transitional issue. The young son has had enough of house and home, so he packs up the Mustang (maybe literally), and he leaves.

Ready or not, distant country, here he comes. Assured of himself, he sets off with half of his father’s wealth to support his new life.

His plan? Jesus doesn’t say, but I can only guess that he packed up the PlayStation, some Gatorade, and plenty of Ramen noodles before his voyage. Not long after he got to his destination, he spent all that he had on “wild living.”

Now, armed with nothing but his pride, he searched for a job but, because of a famine, all he could find was work in the pig fields. He was even reduced to eating the pigs’ food, apparently because he ran out of both pride and noodles.

Then, in verse 17, we see something beautiful. It says that the son, who had hit rock bottom, finally “comes to his senses.” He got to a point in his life where he began to notice that the life he once had was more fulfilling than his current situation.

He understood that he had made a mistake, and, as we learn in the verses following, he was now willing to do whatever it took to go back to his father. So, he goes back home and is welcomed with open arms by a father who loves him.

Kids are going to graduate from high school, go to college and exercise some level of freedom.

In so many ways, we need them to do that. We hope they don’t find themselves eating with the pigs.

Rather, we hope that once they get there and see how hard it is going to be, they come to their senses about who they are and what they have been created for.

But you can’t come to your senses unless you have a sense to come back to, and that is our job as leaders, mentors and those called to guide students. We must help them strengthen their foundation that will endure through a season of life when everything else is shifting.

Defining a Student Exit Strategy

A student exit strategy is an end-goal expectation for your students for what they will take with them when they graduate from high school and leave your youth ministry.

Determining this will challenge the very core of your ministry mission purpose and serves as a reminder of the opportunity we have been given to develop the young faith of teenagers during this very formative season of life.

When you think in terms of a youth ministry’s student exit strategy, you must first look at the end and determine the most important things that a student needs in order to continue growing and maturing in the next season of life.

To determine this you must ask yourself a few questions. First, what kind of challenges will students face after they leave high school? Second, what faith principles will they need to meet those challenges and thrive at the next level?

What will it take to help them grow and mature to the point that they can handle those challenges and continue on a trajectory of faith in life?

I believe that there are four key components of a maturing follower of Christ that need to be instilled into the hearts of every transitioning student. These four qualities are: identity, community, wisdom, and ownership.

I will spend the next four sessions of this series addressing each of these four components of faith.

Ownership is the process of caring and protecting for something that belongs to an individual. This is the ultimate goal of every believer, to reach a point of placing faith as the core of one’s life and basing all other things accordingly. With that said, ownership does not happen automatically. Wisdom is the fuel that drives a life of ownership (Proverbs 4:6-7).

But, as you know, wisdom does not develop by default, rather only through a healthy life of prayer (James 1:5). One typically does not grow in faith without a healthy community of believers to grow along side (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Furthermore, understanding who you are in Christ often plays a role in building community and is important in understanding what it means to truly follow Jesus (John 1:12).

As you can see, the order of this list is as important as the list itself, all leading to a place of ownership that students will need to occupy in order to successfully handle life on their own.

Developing a Student Exit Strategy

When you see the phrase, “Student Exit Strategy,” what word do you focus on most? As a youth worker, you probably center in on the word “Student.” Some might think more about the word “Exit,” being reminded that all students will leave your ministry at a designated time.

But I want you to focus on the word “strategy.” It is my experience that strategy is an underused concept in normal youth ministry circles. We like the words relationship, discipleship and evangelism but not strategy.

Yet, I would argue that it takes strategy to develop the other ministry components. A strategy is a well thought out plan of a very distinctive goal, with a clear target in mind. In this case, the goal is faith ownership, and the target is graduation. The strategy is the path you will take to get from here to there so that you reach that goal.

I want you to begin thinking about this strategy in terms of your current students. What will it take to get them to a place of faith ownership by the time they exit from your ministry? Spend some time thinking through the following questions as you consider a student exit strategy.

  • What have been your past successes and/or struggles for long-range goal setting?
  • Why do you think that it is important to develop a detailed student exit strategy?
  • How have you seen faith ownership become the central factor in students who have either struggled in the transition or those who have not?
  • What components of faith do you think are most critical to lead a student to a place of faith ownership?

Here is your assignment. Take the list that you just made from the previous questions, and figure out what it will take to prepare students for faith ownership.

Begin with the end of the 11th grade, and then work backwards: 10th, 9th, 8th, & 7th grade. Will you focus on teaching these faith components every year, in a different way, or will you teach them through a cycle in middle school and then again in high school?

You will want to make sure that you complete the study by the end of the junior year so that, during the senior year, you can review these concepts and then apply them to the setting of college. I will further develop this concept in future posts in this series.

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