Fuller Seminary's Center for Youth and Family Ministry (CYFM) released results from its first wave in a three-year longitudinal study surveying high school seniors going off to college.
Studying the current state of seniors and the type of students youth ministries are developing today, the College Transition Project received responses from high school students around the country for wave one of the milestone study.
Surprisingly, the top reason students go to youth group is because of their youth pastor. According to the responses received, 162 of which were usable, 68 percent said it is "very true" or "completely true" they go to youth group because they like their youth pastor. The second most popular reason was "I learn about God there," which was followed by 58 percent who said "It's fun."
Other reasons listed as "very true" or "completely true" by at least 50 percent of the students included "I feel comfortable there," "I've always gone to church/youth group," "It's a place where I can learn to serve," and "It feels like a real community."
Some youth workers expressed ambivalence about the top reason students listed but they also raised the question if it's possible that the students have become "too dependent" on their youth pastors.
"Interestingly, seniors' connections with their friends at youth group don't rank as highly as many would have guessed," noted the report. "By average score, seniors ranked the options regarding community and a sense of belonging seventh, eighth, and tenth."
The least likely reason students listed was that their parents make them go or that they feel guilty if they don't go.
Students were also asked what they wanted to see more of in youth ministry. At the top was the desire for more service projects. Following that, 70 percent of the respondents wanted more or much more time for deep conversation; 65 wanted more mission trips; 65 percent wanted more accountability; and 58 percent wanted more time to worship. Ranked last was the desire for more games.
"The major theme of these seniors responses is a desire for deeper responsibility and interaction; they want to express themselves and their faith through service and mission trips, and they want deeper interaction through conversation, accountability, and alone time with leaders," stated the study. "The vast majority do not want more games."
Although 56 percent said they wanted more Bible study, the study highlighted its lower ranking among the listed changes and pointed to the little time seniors spend on reading the Bible on their own. A separated questionnaire had indicated that the seniors read the Bible by themselves an average of 2 to 3 times per month.
On an additional note, involvement in Sunday youth group gatherings was found to have a significant relationship with seniors' choices on such risk behaviors as drinking alcohol and sexual activity. Earlier results from the project's first pilot phase had found that 100 percent of students who graduated from youth ministry had engaged in risk behaviors.
However, the more activities, such as Bible reading or youth ministry works, students engaged in, the greater effect it had on their faith and life choices.
A third question in the study asked seniors about their feelings toward their adult youth leaders. Youth leaders were looked to as a greater source of support than fellow peers or "other students" in their youth group.
"Overall, this is encouraging news for youth leaders," the report highlighted. "Seniors feel supported, valued, and appreciated by youth ministry adults. Perhaps surprisingly, seniors perceived levels of support from other students in their youth groups pales in comparison to the support they receive from their adult leaders."
Their perception of being supported by their youth group leaders also made a difference in their choosing to or not to drink alcohol. It had no effect on their levels of sexual activity.
Having discussions with parents was also found to make a significant difference on students and the choices they make.
When it came to integrating their faith into their life choices, 85.1 percent agreed that it is important that God be pleased with their dating relationship; 81.5 percent agreed that they try to see setbacks and crises as part of God's larger plan; 75.9 percent said it is important that their future career somehow embody a calling from God; and 72.2 percent said it was important to them to seek God's will in choosing what college to attend.
"The good news is that students faith makes a difference in their perspective on dating, crises, college selection, and future career," the study noted. "The bad news is that students faith has far less impact on their choices related to money and schedule."
One college sophomore described, In high school, everything was scheduled. In college, every choice is up to you, and you set your own schedule. You can do whatever you want.
Wave one of the College Transition Project collected data from 162 high school seniors through online and paper surveys. The majority of the respondents were female, had a GPA of 3.0 or above, live with both parents, and said they were involved in student leadership or leadership training at their churches.