On Graduate Sunday Consider Looking Forward

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By Scott Barkley

NASHVILLE (BP) — Over the next month, churches will hold the annual event known as Graduate Sunday. Those days may include tables of photos in the foyer, graduates in their caps and gowns, a meal for seniors, and a sermon by the youth pastor, leaving parents to wonder about the science behind the speed of time.

Those elements usually tend to reflect on the past. While there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, what if there were glimpses into the student’s future?

“My philosophy is to treat it as an opportunity more for commissioning rather than recognition,” said Chris Trent, NextGen catalyst for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

“It’s a huge opportunity to focus on sending kids out.”

Trent hosts a weekly Zoom call to help student leaders dialogue on effective ways to disciple students.

His counterpart for the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana agrees.

Scooter Kellum serves as the team leader of Leader Empowerment and Mobilization, which includes children, youth and collegiate ministries. Previously he served for seven years as a student ministry strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.

As graduations are seen as marking the completion of something, it’s unfortunate that most teens also see that as when they’ll stop attending church. Kellum pushed for a change in approach in a recent post for Alabama Baptists.

Sent with a purpose
“Commissioning is the opposite of graduating,” he said. It is not a sign of completion. It is the very essence of sending for a purpose or calling. We should be sending our 18-year-olds from our youth ministries into the mission field, wherever that may be, with the purpose of living out their faith, leading others to Christ, and teaching and training up others for the sake of the kingdom.”

The way to go about doing this can be as varied as the number of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention.

First Baptist in Kerrville, Texas, will recognize each student and give a brief account of their time in the student ministry. That includes their testimony and ministry service, but it also includes a look at what’s next.

“I believe that it is important to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of our high school seniors as they transition from youth to adulthood,” said Andrew Williams, youth minister.

“This isn’t about seeking praise for a job ‘well done’ but rather about fostering their credibility within our church and acknowledging their growth as individuals and disciples.”

Daniel Buckhannan had a successful career in advertising with a trucking company before he and his family began attending Northport (Ala.) Baptist Church nine years ago. He and his wife went through an “Experiencing God” study and began to look where they could serve.

Buckhannan became a sixth grade Sunday School teacher and answered a call to the ministry in January 2023 when he became the church’s student pastor.

While Buckhannan loves traditional aspects of church, parts of Graduate Sunday will look different this year. For instance, seniors will be celebrated, but not while wearing their caps and gowns.

“We want it to be more about their next steps,” he said. “We’re going to introduce them and pray over them. Questionnaires have been sent out so we can share where God is leading them.”

Graduate Sunday also tends to be a day that includes students who have not been active in the ministry for some time. Trent’s advice to student pastors is to not dwell on it.

“In my 30 years of ministry, that hasn’t changed,” he said.

The type of Graduate Sunday Kellum suggests would not be for every graduate, just those who are believers and invested in the ministry.

“I believe that every senior should have an opportunity to be celebrated, but that might not come on a Sunday morning in front of the church,” he said, adding that such events for all seniors can take place at a separate dinner or banquet.

“We must stop creating a rhetoric of success by how many students come through our ministry, how many people are there on a specific night, how many kids we baptized, or how many graduate,” he said. “Our churches should be creating disciples for a lifelong ministry. I believe that commissioning students instead of graduating them is just one step to helping us get to that point.”

Scott Barkley is a national correspondent for Baptist Press.