(Originally Published in Christian Renewal.)
Leaders and writers in the Reformed and evangelical world are wrestling with what seems to be a growing crisis: the waning commitment of twenty-somethings to the church. In the book To You and To Your Children, Mark Sumpter (pastor of Faith OPC in Grants Pass, OR) seeks to diagnose part of the problem, writing of the “success” of youth ministry in Reformed and evangelical churches, a success when measured in numbers and busy-ness and programs, but a success that he argues has had unforeseen consequences:
“This ‘success’ has allowed young people to grow up in a youth ministry program of nurture and teaching, but sadly this is done with an emphasis that isolates the younger age groups from the rest of the community of the congregation. Therefore, we have seen a growing absence of young adults in the local church when they arrive at their early and mid-twenties. We lose our youth in their young adult years because the church never had them” (251-252).
When our youth leave the church, it’s because we never really had them in the church in the first place. To be sure, we had them busy in all manner of programs – many of which have their value and importance – but often while neglecting the difficult work of simply living with them in the every-day, inter-generational life of the church.
This is a widely acknowledged phenomenon in the broader evangelical world, and while it can be debated to what extent it has affected Reformed churches, the anecdotal evidence and the concerned conversations among parents and church leaders are growing: our young people often have difficulty transitioning from childhood to mature participation in the life of the local church. Some of our churches even speak of an absence of young adults in their early and mid-twenties, similar to what Mark Sumpter describes.
It is important that we ask the question of why this happens. Even if we are not yet convinced it is a crisis in the Reformed churches – and I think it is nearing that status – we need to be asking what we should be doing to avoid the mistakes of the broader evangelical world. There are many areas of the church’s life in which we need to work against this trend; the one that I will be focusing on in this series of articles is the relationship between college students and the church. This is one of the most formative times in life, and it is a time when an individual’s connection with local church life is often at its weakest.
In American culture, the presence of a “generation gap” is an assumed inevitable reality, and too often our church life conforms to that assumption, at precisely the time when our young people and young adults most need to be plugged in to the broader life of the church as a whole. Over against a culture that divides the generations, we in the church need to begin with the deepest truth of our unity together: that our fellowship is not based on shared demographics or generational sameness, but on our shared union with Christ. More than that, God intends that our inter-generational life together be a means of discipleship and spiritual growth. When we are united to Christ by faith, we are united to each other as his body, and that union should be reflected in our we love, serve, and live with each other – regardless of age or demographic differences.
My goal in this series of articles, then, is to challenge us to think more creatively – and, in some cases, to re-think from scratch – about how we can better express that shared union with Christ in our life together with the church, especially during the formative college years. We all have a responsibility to pursue this shared life, and this series of articles will be addressing three centers of responsibility in turn: college students themselves, their home church, and the congregation with whom they worship while in college.
College Students: Commit to, love, and live with a local congregation.
When in college, we face the temptation of treating those four years as an ecclesiastical no-man’s land, an in-between time of sorts, with little commitment to a local church. Especially if it’s a Christian college or the campus ministries are robust and flourishing, it is easy to feel like “adult” church life is unnecessary.
But I want to challenge college students to pursue a real-life relationship with a local congregation, not as a mere additional benefit for one’s spiritual life, but as something that is fundamental and essential for spiritual growth. This is not easy; indeed, there are many forces in college life and contemporary church life that conspire against such a commitment, and so I will be suggesting several ways to pursue a connection with a local church.
This challenge will raise a difficult question for some: what should you do if there is no faithful church near your college? That certainly is a problem. And so I want to suggest that when choosing a college – much like choosing a job – the location of a faithful church should be an important criterion. Indeed, there are situations where the availability of a church can be more important than the spiritual health or faithfulness of the college. Even in Reformed churches, we have fallen into the bad habit of underestimating the importance of one’s relationship (or lack thereof) with a church during the college years.
The Home Church: Get connected, and stay connected.
The first challenge for the college student’s home church is to get connected – in a real-life, inter-generational way – before our young people leave for college. Pastor Sumpter identifies what I am increasingly convinced is a real problem, the danger of keeping our young people on a separate track of church life such that, when they leave for college, the absence of their peers back at home means they don’t really feel like part of the church anymore. Youth ministries can have an important and valuable place in the life of the church. But we need to be careful to preserve a both/and approach in which we intentionally and creatively live with our young people as a genuine part of the broader life of the congregation.
That way of life helps with the second challenge: to stay connected with our college students while they are away. If we have lived together as we should, our young people should feel like they are away from their family – their church family, the household of faith – when they are away for college. We should be thankful that this often does happen; but we must not stop there. Home churches need to be more consistent and intentional about maintaining contact with students while they are away: encouraging commitment to a local congregation, and providing guidance and discipleship through these formative years.
The Church Away From Home: Welcome and include college students, not as a separate category, but as an integral part of the life of the congregation.
Here is the place where we may need to do some creative thinking from the ground up. Sometimes the way we structure our lives together in our churches can discourage college students from integrating into the broader fellowship. Our bible studies and fellowship groups are typically demographically segregated, and that sort of thing can certainly have its place. But if our church life is exclusively or even primarily segregated, it is difficult for a student to pursue inter-generational relationships with the rest of the congregation, at precisely the time when such relationships are most needed.
To be sure, a college-and-career group or young adults group can be valuable. But it can also be a distraction from what is really most needed: older men being an example for the younger, older women teaching the younger, all in the course of real everyday life, following Paul’s instructions to Titus.
We need to think more deeply about how we can order the life of our churches so as to encourage mentoring and discipling relationships between our young adults and the rest of the congregation – both older and younger. This is needed for everyone in the church, even as it is particularly needed during the college years.