Something is wrong with our churches today. We are failing to care for our youth as they transition into their college years. New research by The Barna Group suggests that as many as 7 out of 10 young adults will drift away from the Church during college. How do we save this next generation of believers from “checking out” before they graduate? The best answer to this question is nothing new: discipleship.
One of the myths The Barna Group points out is that the college experience itself is a key factor influencing dropout. However, evidence shows that many students are disconnected from church before they ever reach college. And those who aren’t disconnected are not well prepared for the challenges of college. David Kinnaman reports, “The problem arises from the inadequacy of preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group.” He goes on to say, “only a small minority of young Christians has been taught to think about matters of faith, calling and culture. Fewer than one out of five have any idea how the Bible ought to inform their scholastic and professional interests.”
I do not believe this evidence pushes the blame on church youth groups (though there is a challenge to youth groups here). Rather, this is a challenge to rethink how we disciple young adults during college. The college campus isn’t spiritual kryptonite. Young adults need help adjusting to life beyond their youth groups. Kinnaman says, “most (young adults) lack adult mentors or meaningful friendships with older Christians who can guide them through the inevitable questions that arise during the course of their studies. In other words, the university setting does not usually cause the disconnect; it exposes the shallow-faith problem of many young disciples.”
Older Christians meeting with younger Christians to study scripture together, pray together, and help them meet the challenges of their environment—this is the answer. This personal apprentice model of passing on the faith is nothing new. This is how Elijah raised up Elisha to carry on his prophetic work. This is also how Jesus raised up leaders during his ministry on earth. Jesus invested his best time and teaching into 12 disciples. He gave even more attention to Peter, James and John. Paul followed this model in his ministry as well, most notably with Timothy. If it worked for Elijah, Jesus and Paul, I am guessing it can work for us.
The other day I sat in a coffee shop with Boston, a freshman in college. Even though he grew up in a Christian home and has gone to church his whole life, he was unprepared for the realities of campus life. Just months into college, he struggled with money, drunk neighbors, insensitive teachers, and pressure to compromise his moral standards. We meet every week to study Scripture, pray, and talk about what it means to live out his faith on campus. And he has stayed strong.
The next generation doesn’t need more programs, louder music, or newer church buildings. They need someone to walk with them and help them grow in their faith, modeling what it looks like to be a Christian in an unstable, constantly changing world. All the church marketing in the world cannot replace discipleship. Hip worship music cannot build faith like discipleship. The message here is clear. We need to stop trying to “reach” young adults with what we do at church and start sitting down with them at the campus coffee shop to study the Bible. If you or your church want to learn how to invest in college students, contact a local campus minister. We are more than happy to help churches reach students more effectively!
Turns out Jesus’ way of raising up followers is best after all. How is your church investing in the next generation?
Patrick Langan is an InterVarsity Campus Staff Member at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and blogs at No Rights.