When you take a job to help teenagers develop a lifelong walk with Christ and prepare them for their futures, it can be frustrating to toil self-sacrificially for four years only to watch them disappear after graduation. Why do they walk away? Is it impossible to decipher the adolescent's mysterious brain well enough to predict or affect their post-high school faith?

I know a senior named Kelly. Being a typical senior girl, she is obsessed with graduating high school and heading off to college. If you met Kelly, you would think she is exceptionally kind and innocent. She carries herself with a confident intelligence that would give you the impression she is bright and talented. There'd be little doubt in your mind she is really going to do something significant with her life.

I recently had a conversation with Kelly about what she was looking forward to at her new university. She smiled widely as she related to me how happy she is to be graduating and moving on to college. She had a whole list of expected benefits. She talked about how awesome dorm life will be, and she was enchanted with the idea of independence from cumbersome parental governance.

Those, of course, didn't shock me. It was the last wish on her list that induced such a sudden physical pang of sickly sadness in my heart that I doubt I'll ever forget it. I nearly cried from the heartache as she looked me in the eye and, with a smile of pure delight, touted how she absolutely could not wait to become a sorostitute.

Although it was the first time I had heard the term, it was easy enough to assemble the shocking meaning of what this pitiable suburban socialite was forecasting. She was looking forward to the life of a girl who notoriously flits and flirts from frat to frat, partying and hooking up with college men.

Her obvious ignorance of the gospel was heartbreaking. She has no idea that reaching the future she relishes will subject her to the self-destructive, seductive indulgences from which Christ has freed us.

An Unsettling Problem
It's perilously easy to assume the temptations Kelly was succumbing to are not common in your church kids, especially your youth group attendance all-stars and Bible trivia juggernauts. Unfortunately, many of our Christian teenagers secretly are harboring the same cravings for destructive gratifications only to feel free to express them within the context of post-high school independence.

Youth pastors are in a seemingly endless search for the explanation and solution to this issue. Why do our students walk out the door of the church after graduation not to return again until they have completed their own personal version of the prodigal story? That is, if they return at all. How can a kid walk through years of Bible study, mission trips and retreats only to sprint into the arms of godless sensuality and materialism rarely to be heard from again? Why do we lose them? Why do the found become the lost?

Perhaps we didn't lose them. Maybe we never had them to begin with. We just didn't know it.

They may have spoken and acted Christian, but they never have followed Christ. We can't lose what we've never had. Far too many of our students are leaving our ministries un-transformed by the gospel, so we shouldn't be surprised when they turn their backs on the community of the God they've never loved.

Many of our students came to us lost; they were lost while they were with us; and we sent them packing, off to a life of swapping relationships and worldly philosophies in college or the workplace where it should not amaze us to realize they're still lost.

A Dangerous Assumption
The journey to discovering why our students wander off the path of lifelong, unwavering discipleship starts with the acknowledgement that many of our students are not actually Christians. Many of our programs operate under the assumption the gospel is well understood, those in attendance are inhabited by the Holy Spirit and we are all united in the battle against our own sinful flesh.

I've met kids who are absolutely, wholeheartedly transformed by the renewing of their mind; but I've met a lot of kids who claim Christ, yet are identical in almost every way to their staunch atheist classmates. I'm not so naïve to think the determining difference maker is which building they find themselves in on Sunday morning or which family they come from. However, we make a grievous error when we assume that when we connect with any number of our church attendees that we are communicating exclusively with reborn followers of Christ.

The process of overcoming this assumption begins with knowing our students well. The better we know our students, if we are in a transparent and vulnerable relationship with them, the more we will see their brokenness and the better chance we will have to see the conviction or lack thereof that is deeply rooted in their hearts.

Not knowing them well and at any point settling for the assumption they are believers can be detrimental to our motivation to share His gospel. The dangerous assumption that they are following Christ is what allows us to focus uselessly on the excellence of events or the profundity of our next topical teaching instead of the powerful, mysterious present reality of Jesus Christ transforming the souls of people.

If our students are not truly our brothers and sisters in Christ, the family of God can be an easy family to walk away from after graduation.

An Essential Undertaking
Although there is no neat and clean human solution for how to make sure the hearts of our students are absolutely transformed by the good news in a way that makes them lifelong followers of Christ by the time they leave high school, there is a simple and clear strategy to which we should be adherents. We should be wholeheartedly, intentionally and constantly teaching, nurturing and manifesting the gospel and praying God would perform a salvific work in the souls of our teenagers.

If you are truly concerned about the students who walk away from high school youth ministry not being seen again in any church, reevaluate what you are teaching and how you are training while you have them. Is the gospel the backbone of everything you are sharing and doing with your students? Then desperately and tirelessly implore Him in His mercy to apply His grace to the lives of our teenagers and to ours.

I'm certain that some of your students already may be fully devoted followers of Christ. However, pre-existing faith is never a reason not to share the gospel. In fact, it is quite the opposite. What's truly great about leading a group of students who have put their trust in Christ is that nothing could bring more spiritual rejoicing or godly humility in them than the ceaseless declaration of the gospel.

The gospel is beneficial for those whose lives are not submitted to Christ. No other words you have the privilege to share could bring a greater, actual redemption in a teenage heart or a more valuable perennial transformation.

If you want to see teenagers develop lifelong, incomparably intimate relationships with Jesus that can survive past high school, stop assuming you know where they stand with Christ and start ferociously sharing the gospel while incessantly seeking God's grace for them and yourself.