How College Ministers Can Bring Young Adults Back to the Church

Young adults are leaving the church at troublingly high rates. 66% of young adults who regularly attended worship during their high school years are dropping out of church for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22, according to a 2019 Lifeway Research study. With the pause in  in-person church services and activities over the past year, the pandemic is accelerating that rate, according to Barna

A 2019 Barna study found similar results to Lifeway: Nearly two-thirds of U.S. 18-to-29-year-olds who grew up in church said they have withdrawn from church involvement as an adult. Now they are finding that the effects of the pandemic on the church might “push larger numbers of young people to abandon Christianity or churchgoing.”

Young adults who are apathetic to faith become adults who are apathetic to faith. Less than 40% of Americans today say they have strong religious affiliations. If we want to create a new generation of Americans who are connected with their faith, we need to look at our young adults. 

College ministers have a key role to play in their development as Christ followers. 

Why are young adults leaving the church?
Most young adults leave the church because when they go to college, they lose the structure and community of their childhood church. They can have a difficult time entering a new church community. It can be difficult to feel connected to new people in a new church while also navigating the challenges of classes, dorm life, friendship, and dating.  

Young adults leave the church because their priorities shift, and other aspects of their life take center stage. According to Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, “There was nothing about the church experience or faith foundation of those teenagers that caused them to seek out a connection to a local church once they entered a new phase of life.”

They also leave because they don’t see church as a social experience, according to Barna. Despite efforts by many college church communities to engage students, most students are finding their social groups elsewhere.

This is why it’s more important than ever for college ministers to show students why a strong relationship with Christ is so valuable. 

Young adults aren’t leaving because they stopped believing in God.
Only 10% of young adults are leaving the church because they stopped believing in God. “Most are choosing to keep many of the beliefs they had,” according to Lifeway. Only 3% identify as atheists. 

This is good news, because it means that engaging them in the right ways can lead them to the faith community once again. 

They are leaving because they are going through a normal development growth stage experienced by 18-to-22-year-olds. They are no longer bound by their parents’ faith. They now have the opportunity to decide what they believe in for themselves, and this can be daunting for many students. 

A Pew study found that “Teens are just as likely as their parents to say they regularly go to religious services, but when it comes to more personal forms of religious expression, teens appear less religious than their parents.”

Teens are still connected to God: Half of U.S. teens feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least monthly, while 46% say they think about the meaning and purpose of life, and 40% report feeling a deep sense of wonder about the universe. Additionally, 77% say they regularly experience strong feelings of gratitude or thankfulness.

College students are asking important questions about faith, identity and purpose.
Young adults are looking for a sense of belonging and a higher purpose. They just aren’t sure where to find it. They are looking for answers to important questions such as, “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” They’re also asking themselves, “Do I believe in the stories of God in the Bible that I learned growing up?” They want a faith that feels unique, personal, and meaningful to them—not just the faith instilled in them by their parents or their childhood pastors. 

Having a sense of belonging, purpose, and identity at school is important to academic achievement and greater mental and spiritual health.

Young adults are being introduced to new ideas at a faster rate than ever before. During this time, they are trying to figure out what they believe and why they believe. They are turning to their work and other avenues. A 2019 report from Gallup and Bates College, for example, shows “most students want to find a sense of purpose in their work, but they aren’t always succeeding.” 

And a New York Times article notes that research has shown that finding purpose and meaning in life is directly related to greater overall wellbeing, not just greater happiness: “Only about a quarter of Americans strongly endorse having a clear sense of purpose and of what makes their lives meaningful.” 

Why do young adults stay in the church?
In order to help college students navigate and keep their faith, it’s important to know why faith is important to them. According to Lifeway, students who stay in the church do so because: 

  • The church is a vital part of their relationship with God.
  • They want the church to help guide their decisions in everyday life.
  • They feel church helps them become a better person.
  • They are committed to the purpose and work of the church.

In order to foster strong connections with the church, it’s important to find experiences that address these feelings. This especially means finding ways to take students out of their comfort zones and even beyond their communities; we have to think bigger to get bigger results. 

It’s not too late for college ministers to reach young adults.
Now is actually the best time for college ministers to reach young adults. The dropout rate for young adults accelerates with age, so the earlier the better. And among those who dropped out for at least a year, it’s encouraging that a third do return. College ministers can help increase that number. 

This time of questioning and transition is the ideal time to share the gospel, instill Christian values, and create lifelong disciples—but you have to make faith relevant to their lives today. This isn’t about adjusting faith to fit their culture; it’s about showing students how their culture fits their faith. 

College ministers have the unique role of being able to guide students deeper into their faith at a time in their lives when they might be feeling the most alone. They are also raising up the next generation of Christians. 

College ministers fill a role no others can fill.
About 25% of college professors are professing atheists or agnostics, and 51% described the Bible as “an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts.” This means that college ministers have a unique role in students’ lives that no one else can fill. 

Students need spiritual guidance and leadership to help them answer the big questions. And college ministers need to be prepared with creative and proven ideas to help students find those answers. 

There is room for this influence to grow. In 2016, Campus Renewal Ministries recently discovered that, on average, just five percent of the student body is reached on campuses in the United States.

There is a way back to their faith.
Young adults need a spiritually defining event— a real, tangible, impactful experience—that fosters their faith.

Faith becomes relevant to students when the past becomes relevant to their present. This is why students’ faith can be especially touched by experiences that integrate the past—Christian history—into the present. 

71% of those dropping out of the Church weren’t planning on it. But most of the time, they’re not finding their way back through words alone, or even social media. They’re finding their way back to God through life-changing events, powerful discipleship, connections with peers, and meaningful experiences. 

Mission trips are one common way college students learn more about their faith. But they can be expensive, intimidating, and sometimes isolating. Fewer college students, however, consider a pilgrimage, mainly because they don’t know what it is or that this is even an option for them. 

College ministers can educate students on how a pilgrimage can transform their faith. 

A pilgrimage – a journey of personal transformation, seeking new meaning about self and the higher good – can be a life-changing experience. Pilgrims are different from tourists because there is a driving spiritual purpose behind their trip. Because of this intention, pilgrims typically come away much more inspired and changed by their experience. 

Most people, when they hear the word “pilgrimage,” think of either Plymouth Colony, or Muslims traveling to Mecca. But there is a new kind of pilgrimage happening today—young Christians visiting the Holy Land and coming away with a renewed faith. 

Pilgrimages give young adults a greater sense of purpose and identity.
Pilgrimages give young adults a new sense of awareness and wonder. They help illuminate the journey of life by focusing on what really matters. 

A pilgrimage can also allow students to connect with their peers in a new way. It re-energizes them mentally, physically and spiritually. And it allows them to connect with their origins in order to refresh their faith and help them find their spiritual direction. 

When students take a break from the busyness of their ordinary lives, they become more mindful. They ‘walk through’ their questions about faith by literally walking where Jesus and others in the Bible walked. This isn’t always easy. Students step out of their comfort zones but ultimately come away with a greater understanding of themselves and of Jesus. The term ‘sacred’ takes on a whole new meaning. 

Students also develop a more personal relationship with Christ. When they understand Christ as a real man—someone who walked on this earth, ate, drank, loved people, and suffered for them—students begin to realize just how amazing his life was and how amazing it is that the story of his life continues to be relevant even after 2,000 years.

Students can develop their faith by learning about the roots of Christianity.
Most students think of places like Capernaum, Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Mount of Beatitudes as words in a book. It’s hard to imagine them as real. But they are. When students can physically see these places, they realize that so many other words they’ve been reading in the Bible all their lives are real too. 

Learning about history creates resilient disciples. According to Barna, resilient disciples understand how Jesus connects with the world they live in, and that “God is more at work outside the Church than inside.”

Today’s Christians should understand Jewish-Christian relations in modern Israel.
Pilgrimages to the Holy Land create Christ-centered leaders. It can sometimes be hard for students to connect this history to the events of today. When they hear about Israel in the news, it is typically in a political rather than religious context. 

And so Israel becomes split in their minds, between the world’s Israel today and Jesus’s Israel of the past. Israel becomes two different places. When they are able to connect the two, it is transformational for their sense of understanding how the past fits into the future. 

It is also essential for students to learn how religions coexist, and how they can apply this to their modern lives, where not everyone believes the same things they do. The people of Israel today are navigating extremely complex and important issues that will have an impact on the world far into the future. And, unfortunately, most Americans aren’t fully informed on these issues. In 2019, for example, Americans’ support for Israel fell to its lowest point in a decade. Much of this support is determined by narratives crafted by media and politicians, not by personal experience.  

Understanding the complexity of the geopolitical environment of Israel is a valuable tool students can use in their future leadership. 

More now than ever, our society today needs a new generation of Christ-centered leaders, who are personally familiar with the Holy Land. As students walk where the first leaders of Christianity walked, they gain a new perspective of the sacrifices, challenges, and rewards of leadership. They come to understand their place in history and in the world in a way they have never thought about before. They become informed, humble, and thoughtful leaders. 

Young adults today need college ministers and their ministries more than ever before. They need people who can guide them through the challenges not just of adulthood, but of the complicated issues in our world today. Most importantly, they need to understand God’s presence in their lives. He never left them. He is waiting patiently to rejoice at their return.