Relationships are vital part of keeping college students in church
Research differs on severity of problem, but there is no denying the dilemma
Aug 14, 2014
Florida Baptist Witness

CELEBRATION College students from North Central Baptist Church in Gainesville at a going-away lunch in April 2013 for Francis Shin, who moved back to Korea after becoming a believer in the United States. Courtesy/Matt Seitz

There’s no question college students approach life differently. Their constant engagement with technology, their community and the diverse global environment in which they live and work have shaped them in ways the rest of us are still coming to grips with.

So, it’s no surprise that their approach to life and faith has veered from the conventional.
The apparent disconnect is causing a good number of college students to stop coming to church.
According to the Barna Group, nearly 59 percent of millennials who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away from their faith or the institutional church at some point in the first decade of their adult life. More than 50 percent of 18-29 year olds with a Christian background say they are less active in church compared to when they were 15.
LifeWay Research surveyed 18-30 year olds who had indicated that they had attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year in high school and found that 70 percent of them between the ages of 23-30 stopped attending church regularly for at least a year between the ages of 18-22.
While there are various reasons this age group has stopped attending church, a few reasons stand out.
One reason is the student’s lack of connection to the church through service or discipleship. 
“In some cases students graduate from a great youth program and then they are on their own trying to find out where they fit in [church life],” said Kevin Busse, student pastor at Fuel Community Church in Lakeland.
At Fuel, they have set up environments designed to get their students plugged in to ministry as early as middle school. High school students work as apprentices in the children’s ministry, and college students serve in the middle school ministry. Busse says getting the students tied into the church is a key factor in keeping them.
Keeping millennials connected through meaningful relationships is important in creating a positive church experience for a majority of the group. Barna reported that 59 percent of students who stayed involved in their church reported having a close personal friendship with an adult inside the church and, according to LifeWay, 20 percent don’t feel connected to the church at all. This disengagement is translating to a feeling that the church is irrelevant to them. Most millennials don’t list church as a reason their faith grows. In fact, it doesn’t even make the top 10.
Another significant reason millennials are walking away from the church and, in some cases their faith, is that they haven’t cultivated an authentic faith of their own.
Eddie Gilley, Baptist Collegiate Ministries director at the University of Florida in Gainesville, has seen this in his work with college students over the last 25 years.
“The kids we’re losing are the ones whose parents made them come to church in high school,” he said. “The kids whose parents have modeled discipleship are the ones who stay involved.”
Matt Seitz, college/career director at North Central Baptist Church in Gainesville, agrees. He believes that churches need to be more intentional about giving high school students the opportunity to learn how the Bible intersects with life.
BONDING College students from North Central Baptist Church in Gainesville on a trip together overseas in May. Courtesy/Matt Seitz
“Some students leave the church in college because they think the culture is smarter than the church,” Seitz said. The reality is they have not been taught how their faith is relevant to what is going on in the world around them. Seitz says they need to be taught the Bible—not just entertained.
Barna’s research indicates that only a small minority have been taught to think about matters of “faith, calling or culture.” When students enter a university, which can be spiritually adversarial or at least spiritually neutral, their faith may be challenged for the first time. If they have not been spiritually prepared, a superficial knowledge of their faith can leave them frustrated. Fifty percent of 18-29 year olds report that they have been “significantly frustrated” by their faith, according to Barna.
These statistics by themselves paint a dire picture and may have many wondering if we have raised a godless generation. 
But many college ministry leaders believe there is still hope.
Gilley says the statistics do not bear out with what he sees on the campus at the University of Florida. He asserts that less than 10 percent leave the church or their faith if they get involved in a campus ministry or church as a freshman.
Further, the dropout statistic, while measuring church attendance, does not necessarily speak to a crisis of faith because it is not taking into account students who get involved with parachurch organizations like BCM or students who change denominations. 
“Just because they’ve left the Southern Baptist church doesn’t mean they have abandoned their faith altogether,” Gilley said.
David Patterson, lead pastor at River Cross Church in Gainesville, says the para-church organizations are essential. “There’s no way churches can spend the time or have the access to the students that the campus ministries have.”
A collaboration between churches and campus ministries meets the needs of students no matter their spiritual maturity level. Gilley says one of the things BCM focuses on is getting students plugged in to a local church.
Patterson says he is constantly blessed by the commitment he sees among the college students who attend his church. “God is doing amazing things in these kids’ lives.” He says the kids who really understand the journey they are on with Jesus have bright futures. And he sees quite a few of them.
There are things that churches, parents and youth pastors who want to reach college students can do to help keep them engaged with church and, ultimately, their faith.
Gilley believes the foundation is built years before they reach the college campus—in the home. “If parents are disciples and living out their faith, their children will be more likely to continue on with their faith once they reach college.”
Busse has some advice for parents, as well. He cautions parents not to overreact to a student who doesn’t want to attend church, because that can push them further away. Rather, find out why they don’t want to go and help them find a church that fits their needs and personality. 
The next line of defense takes place in the youth ministry. Giving students an authentic faith that will carry them through real-life situations is invaluable to anyone, but especially to millennials who are striving to be articulate in their beliefs and apply the teaching they receive.
Another thing Seitz suggests is helping students come up with a specific plan for becoming engaged in church or campus ministries once they start college, especially if college takes them away from home. It’s harder to be swayed from church or campus ministry involvement if you have a plan in place.
Finally, the churches reaching out to college students can do several things.
Gilley recommends investing in college freshmen. “Within the first 21 days on campus, students have set the course for their collegiate experience.” 
The BCM at UF invests 70 percent of its resources in freshmen. Gilley says in his experience if students get involved in a campus ministry or church during their freshman year, they are more likely to stay connected throughout their college experience. 
The discipleship relationship is another way to keep college students engaged. This meets their need to be relational as well as their desire to see what it looks like to live out their faith.
River Cross Church is very intentional in its discipleship effort. Twice a year it offers “Pod Groups.” These groups put together three individuals from different stages of life or different generations in an effort to build real relationships over a 12-week period. Patterson says he has seen students really grow during these times as they learn life skills that teach them how to biblically deal with situations like trusting God in difficult times or forgiving someone who’s hurt them. “It’s an environment where people can get together and talk about their struggles,” he said.
Seitz has also taken some steps to help college students in his church feel more connected to the church and to each other. Understanding the church as a community makes a big difference in how students see their church experience. If they see it as an obligation they tend to quit, Seitz points out. 
Commitment can be hard for millennials in a society that teaches them to do what makes them happy. When a commitment no longer fits their needs, this age group finds it easier to walk away, Seitz explains. “We want them to see that being a member of the church is like being a member of a body rather than a club.” When one person drops out, the body as a whole is affected.
Seitz has a unique perspective on the issues surrounding millennials and their faith. He is not only the director of the college/career group at North Central Baptist, but he is a millennial who came to faith in Jesus during his freshman year at college. His experience affirms the research in many ways.
When Seitz arrived at the University of Florida, he was invited to a BCM Bible study. Raised in the Catholic church, his main reason for attending the study was to meet people and make friends. As his relationships grew in the BCM, he began to notice that the friendships he made there were different than the ones he had with friends in his dorm or in classes, and he began to wonder why. The authentic faith of his friends at BCM caused him to realize it really mattered whether God existed. Seitz began to ask questions and study the Bible more deeply. He looked at other religions, but discovered that the faith he saw displayed in the lives of his friends at BCM was something he wanted to have. 
While there are no easy answers, it is apparent that there are mind-set changes that need to take place in order to reach millennials. Seitz believes that if churches keep a one-size-fits-all mentality, students will continue to fall through the cracks.
FOOD AND FELLOWSHIP Young adults from River Cross Church in Gainesville enjoyed a spring picnic this year at Jonesville Park. Courtesy/David Patterson

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