Every year, we have an opportunity to create rites of passage that celebrate our high school seniors and propel them forward into their unknown futures.
Senior celebrations happen across the country during this time of the year. At some churches, a senior is nominated to share how much the church has meant to her over the years and to thank them for being a part of her faith journey. At others, a senior (or seniors) gives the sermon or they all lead the entire service. Sometimes, all the seniors are recognized during the service and the church politely claps for them. Some churches have a special senior luncheon or youth group night. All of these are fine, but I’m not sure they create a rite of passage. These types of celebrations often feel like just one more event along with the awards banquet and graduation parties. Can we do something that leaves a mark or gives them a moment in time when they realize that something has changed?
Senior celebrations should both remind them where they have come from and where they are going.
I am a firm believer in the church coming alongside secular rites of passage and anchoring them with our faith. Here are four big and small ways that you can to integrate these traditions for your seniors:

1. Prayer

Invite the seniors and their families to come forward so that you and other youth staff can pray over them. You can pray over them during Sunday morning worship, at the senior luncheon, or during a special youth group time. I believe the most powerful way for this to happen is for individual prayers to be prayed over each youth. Have the senior kneel and allow family and mentors throughout the years to lay hands on him. Invite her parent or another significant adult to pray a prayer over her (this request is best made in advance rather than on the spot), thanking God for who she is and that God goes with her as she begins this new part of her journey. If the adult writes the prayer, then it can be given to the senior to keep. I think it is worth making time for this moment, but if time does not allow, then have parents and others lay hands on each youth while someone prays a prayer over all of them as a group.

2. The Chair

Affirmation is one of the most powerful tools a youth minister has. One of my favorite traditions is having seniors take turns sitting in a chair at the front of the room while the youth ministry–adults and youth–affirm how they have seen God in each senior. If you can keep your group focused on the statement, “John, I see God in you …” instead of a long list of statements that begin with statements like, “I remember when we were in 6th grade … … … I really will miss you,” then you can make this a Holy exercise. You’ll want to set a time limit for each senior so as to be fair to everyone and so that it doesn’t last forever. You can conclude each senior’s turn by having one of their peers pray for him or her.

3. Senior Book

In the same spirit as The Chair, you can create a Senior Book for each senior, which is simply a notebook in which youth can write a note of affirmation to their friends. The goal of each note would be for other youth to share how they have seen God in that person. They might  also choose to write a prayer for the senior as she begins the next chapter of her life. Additionally, you can invite volunteers, small group leaders, or other significant adults to write a letter to be included in the book. Encourage parents to write a letter as well, and don’t forget to include one from yourself!

4. Night of Blessing

Create an event for seniors and their parents to allow parents to bless their children, an event which could be combined with a dinner. Parents will have the opportunity to speak a special message to their senior of their great love for him and their hope for her future. Give parents some guidelines on what you’d like for them to share. Each family will have five minutes to bless their senior. The blessing can include:

  • Stories from his childhood that speaks to his character and personality
  • Three or four Godly traits she possesses
  • A scripture passage that reminds the parents of him or is a prayer they pray for him
  • A statement of hope for her future and what God can do through her life

This can be an incredibly powerful event for families. Keep in mind that if you have more than 12 seniors, the blessings will take more than an hour, so you might want to break the group up into smaller groups. This night of blessing can also be done as a Dad/Son event or Mother/Daughter. For more on blessings see The Blessing by John Trent and Gary Smalley.
How have you celebrated seniors and created a rite of passage moment for them? Please add to the conversation below.
For more on the theology and importance of  rites of passage read this article by Brad Griffin of Fuller Youth Institute: Through the Zone: Creating Rites of Passage in Your Church.