The “Nones” Impact on Student Ministry

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Recent studies and polls show a steadily increasing trend when it comes to religious identification: The rise of the “nones.”

Nones are people who don’t identify with any religious group. They aren’t Catholic, they don’t belong to any Protestant denomination and they don’t follow any religion outside of Christianity.

They are areligious or, in some cases, even anti-religious, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

What does this mean for student ministry?

It means things have to look different than they used to. Because of the nones, our ministries already look different.

When I was in high school, for example, in the early to mid-2000s, it was much easier to get teenagers to regularly attend a student group. Some students came because their parents made them come along as they attended Sunday or Wednesday church.

Now, according to Pew Research, the percentage of older millennials (read: parents of young children and teens) who don’t identify with any religion has grown from 25-34 percent in the past decade or so. Fewer parents are attending church, and even fewer of those who attend make their teens come with them.

In small-town Alabama, where I grew up, many students attended church because there wasn’t much else to do or because church was where we saw and talked to our friends outside of school.

That has now changed dramatically as well. With the advent of smartphones, teens are in constant contact.

As we will discuss in a moment, there is always something else to do. We can no longer count on a steady trickle of visitors to our groups just because they needed to get out of the house or wanted to hang out with friends.

To put it simply, student ministries have to adapt. We have to be more focused, deliberate and intentional in everything we do — from what we teach to what events we put on to how we connect with our students. All things considered, though, I think this is a positive.

The rise of the nones is forcing us to constantly refine ourselves and our ministries, and I believe that process will produce more Biblically-sound, disciple-making groups in the future.

To help, here are five ways to keep students connected and keep ministries thriving during the rise of the nones. These are all things that I’ve personally experienced during my time in ministry.

  1. Don’t try to out-entertain the world. Ten years ago, students came to church because there wasn’t much else to do, especially in small towns. Now, teenage entertainment is an industry. When I was in high school, trampoline parks and TV streaming services didn’t exist. Students didn’t attend 20 concerts a year or become Internet-famous for making videos of themselves dancing. We are past the time when we could draw students to our churches solely on the strength of mood lighting, professional-looking videos or up-front games. Our groups need depth. If we try to engage teens simply by being entertaining, we’ll never be able to keep up with the dozens of options they have for entertainment every day, and we will likely come off as a poor imitation. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t make our spaces look good and make our worship services excellent, but we can’t rely on entertainment value alone to draw students in and make them stay.
  2. Be authentic. As much as students don’t need more entertainment options, they desperately want more authenticity. Cut the fluff and frills, and make yourself and your ministry as real as you can. Let them know that your church is a place where they are welcome as they are. Really get to know them. Let them really get to know you. Let them see you with your family, if you have one. Let them hang out late to talk. Teenagers are experts at spotting fake. They know they are surrounded by it, and they crave authentic relationships.
  3. Emphasize discipleship. As the nones rise, some of our groups will shrink. That’s just logic. So we must begin investing deeply in discipleship. We can’t afford ministries that run on surface-level lessons anymore. Our students need to be truly discipled so they can be firmly rooted in their faith when they depart for college. In addition, discipling students leads to increased influence in our communities. As a student pastor, it’s harder for me to get into places than it used to be. I can’t just breeze into the school cafeteria anymore. But if we disciple the students we have, if we teach them to see and love God, to see and love the lost, and to share the Gospel easily, they can still influence their schools, clubs and teams even if we can’t.
  4. Help them find places to serve. Teenagers want to be a part of something important and significant. They rally to causes they believe in. We need to take that desire and direct it to Kingdom work. 4. Help your students find places to serve within your church. Teach them to identify their skills and desires, then show them how they can use those strengths to serve. Give them a list of options. Connect them with team or department leaders. Giving students a place to serve will help them realize they are active participants in the Kingdom of God, and it will make it easier for them to remain connected to the church even when they graduate from the student ministry.
  5. Choose events wisely. Students are busier than ever. It’s almost impossible to plan an event at a time that at least a quarter of your group isn’t busy with sports, clubs, family vacations, school projects, work or something else. For that reason, we have to be intentional and wise about the events we schedule. Schedule wisely. We attend summer camp at the end of May. It seems early to many people, but that’s the window that allows most of my students to attend as school is out, but summer practices haven’t started yet. Choose wisely. Trips to the trampoline park for fun are great, but think about how many events you have planned for the year. If you have more fun events than events with depth that will help your students grow spiritually, consider rethinking the calendar. Fun events aren’t bad, but we have to make the most of the limited time we are given.

The rise of the nones isn’t the death sentence for our churches that many make it out to be. It is, however, a refining fire. If we adapt to make our groups more authentic, intentional and discipleship-oriented, great things will happen as we see our ministries produce invested, passionate, spiritually-mature disciples of Christ.

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