All over America, and I would guess worldwide, Christian churches lose quite a few of their young college- and career-age members to lack of attendance. This is not a new phenomenon; this age group, the very age group I’m in, is a difficult age to reach, because many of us go away from home to college and are in a totally new environment, or we’re busy with beginning our careers. But even the churches in college towns can’t often get much steady attendance from students who attend the local college(s). I should know–my church is right near a college town, and it’s rare for more than 5 people to attend either our Sunday School class or our coffee shop fellowship meetings.
Church officials and writers have been researching and writing about this issue for a long time; one recent article I found, College Students and Church Attendance: The Facts, states that church attendance by college students falls drastically as they get farther along in their degrees. Other articles seek to explain this phenomenon: Why Students Abandon Their Faith: Lessons from William Wilberforce and Why Teens Leave the Church Upon Entering College are two examples.
Many people who examine this issue blame several factors for this phenomenon:
- The young adults are not “strong enough” in their faith to keep attending without parental guidance
- Higher education’s atheistic teachers/”Godless” standpoints are influencing them
- “Worldly” influences, such as drinking, partying, or peer pressure, keeps them from going to church
I admit, all these negative influences do get in the way of faith; I would add that the heavy mental load of pursuing an education (and later a career) also keep some of my age group away from the church during these years. BUT I also believe that the church in general falters when it comes to reaching college/career-age people. It can either fail to recognize or refuse to believe that its behavior toward this age group could be pushing their young adult members away, too.
An Unresponsive, Uncaring Church: A Major Part of the Problem
What do I mean by this? Think about a child, being brought up regularly attending church. He or she grows up, moving from level to level in the children’s program and then in the youth program. But once that young person graduates from high school, there is suddenly no real “place” for them in the church. There is no dedicated “young adults’ area” in most churches, not the same way there are dedicated “children’s areas” or “youth areas.” There are likely far fewer of their church friends left in the Sunday School class they get assigned to next, since so many kids leave their homes (and home churches) and go to college somewhere far away. In short, their church experience becomes far less inviting, far less familiar, just because their age changes. It’s almost like the church forgets about them, or forgets to have a ministry waiting for them and their friends when they return home.
I saw it happen to friends during college; one of the girls on my hall was very sad upon returning to the dorm one Sunday night. I asked her what happened, and she said “I went to my home church this morning, but it didn’t feel like home anymore.” There was no “group” of people her age to meet with, no one who greeted her as if they had missed her; it was as if the church had closed their minds to her when she started college. Though she attempted to reconnect with her home church a few times, she eventually quit trying to go to church altogether by the end of the year.
I’ve felt that same sort of isolation, that same sort of “twisting in the wind” feeling, as a college and career-age person myself. What if you walked into a church, even your “home” church, and had no idea where you belong, and no one greeted you or helped you, but looked at you as if you had been judged and found lacking? Would you ever want to come back? That is what many of my age group face when they go to church–they feel like they are an unwanted presence. When the church makes a college student or young career person feel like he or she is insignificant and unwanted, they do the age group as a whole a major disservice.
It’s important to remember that not all of us are out drinking every night, partying every Friday, and having random sex with strangers, nor are we all “losing our religion” because of being taught by atheist or open-minded teachers. And not all of us are so weak in our faith that we can be torn away from the church within a few weekends of being in college. True, these influences are out there, but being rejected by the church or being shoved aside is a bigger threat to college-age faith than any of the influences I just named.
My Solution: Help Us Feel Useful and WANTED!
The best way for college- and career-age people to be included in the church is to help them begin to serve in the church, assisting and even taking over ministries which need attention.
This might seem a strange suggestion at first. Why give the charge of ministries over to people who might not even be able to be there every Sunday? Why take ministries away from people who have handled them for years?
Actually, I think this line of thinking is part of the problem.
The Church Needs Young People to Serve, and We Need to Feel that the Church Wants Us
Firstly, if young people are the future of the church, as we so often like to say, then they must have experience in helping with the church’s various ministries, so that they know how to run the church when the elders have passed away. Not trusting younger folks with any assistant positions because they’re somehow “vulnerable” and “immature” will only cripple the church in the long run, because you’ll end up with a generation or two of people who simply do not know how to run these ministries at all.
Secondly, it seems at least to me that people tend to hang on to their volunteer ministry “jobs” within the church for a long time, even refusing to have any help with it at all, because it’s somehow “their” ministry. The problem: when that person dies or leaves the church, there is no one there to take up the torch and carry it again, because no one else knows how to handle that ministry. This is a HUGE problem for church longevity, not to mention the sin of pride. (Think about it: if you can’t let go of a ministry because you believe you’re the only one who can do it “right,” then are you doing it for God, or doing it for pride’s sake?)
I am most certainly not advocating the removal of dedicated and faithful church members from their long-held volunteer posts simply because younger people want to take over a ministry–that would be no kind of reward for their years of Godly service. But, perhaps as part of that Godly service, these longstanding, mature believers could use their experience to mentor and guide younger ones. It’s not about “training your replacement,” necessarily, but about creating a legacy of service and passing it down to the next generation of church members.
College/Career Age Class: Church Assistants and a Mentoring Program in One
My suggestion is: what if the older youth had something like a “shadowing” program to learn about the various ministries of the church? By asking those who run the various ministries, like the Children’s Ministry, the Music Ministry, Outreach, Sound Booth, Wednesday Night Supper, Men’s Work Day, etc., the youth could learn more about what it takes to run those ministries. Then, they could individually figure out for themselves which one they’d like to help with.
Then, once the students reach college/career age, they could begin assisting with those ministries, and even take some of them over if deemed necessary by the church leadership. Along the way, they would be mentored and guided in these ministries and in their faith by mature believers, receiving a spiritual higher education at the same time they are aiding the church itself. Not only would such trained young people be a boon to their home church, but they might even feel confident enough to help out a church local to their college area as well because they have this past experience.
Why do I suggest this course of action? Because personally, my position as a Sunday School teacher has given me more confidence within the church, and has made me accountable. If I’m not there every Sunday, it affects others negatively, and people miss me; if I want to be a good teacher of the Word, I must be knowledgeable about it and be able to point others to interpretations of it. I am one of the rare few college- and career-age people who has stayed within the church, precisely because I feel valuable and vital to the church’s workings. And I’d feel safe in guessing that others of my age group would feel the same way if given leadership or assistant positions in church ministries.
I recognize that not all college/career-age people have leadership skills, nor are all of us necessarily the most dependable. But God gives each of us a gift to share in ministry. If a church takes the time to help a young believer develop that spiritual gift and use it to aid the body of Christ, then it’s ultimately for the betterment of that young person as well as the church they attend. And it all glorifies God in the process.
Bottom Line: Connect with Us, and We’ll Connect with You
To combat these negative influences that so many church writers speak of, the church must be a vibrant presence in a college/career person’s life. The church must welcome my age group, must be willing to mentor and nurture such believers at a time when we need our church family the most, when we need a body of believers to be a part of. I think this is one of the best ways to make the church essential and relevant to my age group. Serving and being a vital part of the church has helped me grow in my faith, and I believe it can help my whole age group come back to be part of the body of Christ, too.