When I was growing up, my family went to church almost every Sunday. We were faithful servants. But, when I went off to college, I had more responsibilities. My parents weren’t there to insist that I go so Sundays became another day I could sleep in and do what I wanted. I didn’t have the same community. I was surrounded by a bunch of dispersed students, who were all experiencing the same new freedoms I was. We were independent — or trying to be.
Every now and again, a friend of mine would invite me to go to church with her. And I did, but Catholic services were really different to me and I was too introverted to attend the local United Methodist church by myself. Finding a new church home was out of my comfort zone, and it wasn’t a top priority.
It took me a long time to return and become a regular churchgoer again. I lived abroad for a year, and I lived in New York City for over a decade. Through all of this living, traveling, and growing up, I went to church on holidays or whenever I made the decision to go. It just didn’t become part of my lifestyle until I moved back South, to my hometown.
My husband and I attend regularly, and we help with the toddlers one Sunday a month. I’m still not involved with church the way I’d like to be, but we were recently asked to help with the college group. While we haven’t started with this ministry yet, my husband has two daughters in college and a son who will graduate high school this year. This is a very important stage in all of their lives. It’s a time for self-discovery, growth, and for many it is filled with fear and doubt. It’s the time when most fall away from the church and when they are likely to need the church the most.
The latest statistics on students dropping out of church say that 70% of college-aged students leave the church when they go off to school or join the workforce. Of that 70%, an estimated two-thirds don’t return. Interestingly, surveys done in 2007 and 2011, reported very similar statistics. By and large, the majority who don’t return to church didn’t have a strong-hold in their faith before they left and/or didn’t come from a family that went to church regularly.
While statistics show that students are likely to disconnect from church initially, I’m more concerned about those who are less likely to ever return. That is the faction of young, striving-to-be adults who have little experience or understanding of faith and God in their lives.
I tend to think that as time moves forward, life may look differently, but things remain relatively the same. We develop new ways to communicate, create new activities and interests. The things you worry about for your children have always been here, and they always will. None of your concerns would worry you as much if you were confident in their faith in God.
We pray that each child is equipped with a Christian compass when it’s time to leave the nest. But, we can do more than pray. We can develop a ministry that is attractive to them. Many work part-time or full-time, and on the weekends. Find a time to meet that is agreeable to most and do something where they can have some fun and fellowship. Many of them won’t be early Sunday morning risers, so invite them to bowl or get together at someone’s house to swim on a Thursday night. Listen to them and encourage them. You may be the only one who does. And share your testimony and experiences with them. They haven’t really started seeing adults as regular people yet. You’re either old or someone’s parents. Those are the two categories. Period.
These young people need guidance, support, and love with all of their new responsibilities and choices they have to make. Mentoring through a ministry can make a tremendous difference in their lives. I hope to have a chance to help guide our college group this year and in years to come. If your church doesn’t have a ministry for college aged students — maybe it should.
Allison Tanner is a technical editor with ACS Technologies.