One thing I have found working with young people in both libraries and churches is that it is very hard to reach the college/young singles groups. A lot of time is spent at libraries trying to devise programs to bring in this elusive age group. I’ve seen churches dealing with the same thing. Trying to answer the question of how to draw in this demographic. I think part of this problem can be solved by trying to figure out how we lost them in the first place.
Most of us attend church or go to the library for the first time as children and are brought by our parents. I think most libraries and churches do a very good job of providing what families with young children are looking for. For the most part, the kids enjoy the experience and even if they didn’t, they are a captive audience. They have to go where their parents take them. I have rarely seen a church or library devoid of children. The beginning middle school age is similar. They still mostly arrive with parents(unless the library is within walking distance) and still enjoy attending library classes and church events. Sports and school are starting to get busier, but not at the same level as high school. After this, though, is when things start to get harder.
In high school, kids have more school work, a more active social life, more activities and more freedom. They no longer have to go when the parents go. The parents can be at church or the library without dragging the kids along. The kids are busy with school and friends and won’t just show up at the library or at church just because it’s there. There has to be a very compelling reason for them to show up. They won’t attend library classes or youth groups that are mostly geared toward younger kids. They won’t attend scheduled events and classes just because they are there. It takes more work to hold the interest of the older teens. Unfortunately, this means in many cases the older teens drift away and we focus our attention on the younger kids who show up.
After drifting away, the teens then go to college. This takes them even further away from the home church/library, gives them more freedom and much busier lives. They might go to the library on campus to study, but they aren’t flocking to the public library on break to pick up books or attend events. They might fall out of the habit of attending church while away and balk at attending with the family while they are home. Eventually, they graduate and start their independent lives. If we are lucky, once they have kids they will remember how much they loved church or the library when they were younger and come back with their kids, but until then they typically are hard to reach.
So, what does this all mean? I think that it would be better to take a look at the high school and college years to determine how to keep them from drifting away rather than how to get them back once they are gone. We need to look for classes and events that will keep the older teens and college students interested. Churches need to have separate classes for middle school, high school and college students. Grouping them all in to one class does them all a disservice and usually results in the material being too young for the older teens. Libraries need to hold events and classes geared toward older teens and keep at it until you find the right ones. Don’t give up and focus on the younger kids because it’s easy. Libraries should try to hold events in the summer to attract the college kids home for the summer. If we can figure this out, we won’t have to worry about bringing them back. They will never leave.