Keeping College Students in Church

Sam Rainer

August 22, 2007

Most know anecdotally that the church is not assimilating college students. But perhaps not known is the gravity and pervasiveness of the problem. A new study reveals that 70% of young adults ages 23-30 said they stopped attending church for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.

At my own church, the college-age slice of the church population is a relatively low percentage. And eight miles away is a large extension campus for Indiana University. We are just beginning a college ministry. I look forward to what God may do in the future.

At present, however, churches (mine included) are struggling to retain those within this age group. Children grow up in the church only to fall away once they go to college. While some go to a different state or town for college, when they leave, they do not attend another church in that area. And many who remain local just fall away without much of a battle from inside church.

What are some ways to keep these students?

Make the church essential in their lives. Two-thirds of those who stay do so because the church is “a vital part of my relationship with God.” Ed Stetzer says it best: “Teens are looking for more from a youth ministry than a holding tank with pizza.” Too many churches maintain a passive attitude with those in the younger to mid-teen range. If these students do not take ownership of their church, they will see no need to stay. Start recruiting teens to be greeters and ushers within your church. Train them to teach Sunday School for the children, and challenge them to volunteer for outreach events and VBS. You might be surprised at how receptive they are to helping. One of the greatest ways to assimilate this age group is to go on a church-wide mission trip. All ages side-by-side – young and old working in unity for a common missions goal.

The pastor must connect the sermon with the students. Of those teens who stayed through their college years most stated that their pastor’s sermons were relevant to them. Surprise, biblical truths must be conveyed to all – not just the adults. As a pastor, I make it a point to speak directly with the students during my sermons. They typically all sit together, so I’ll step down from the pulpit and address them specifically, telling them how my sermon applies to their lives today. I’ve never heard any complaints from them, only compliments.

Get the parents involved. Parents that attend church with their children help assimilate them in their church. Not all students who attend church have Christian parents. Parents that do are to be considered a blessing. For those students without Christian parents, the church should actively seek out mentoring relationships. In fact, 20% more students stay in churches where parents are authentic in their faith. If you’re not convinced that parent involvement is critical, then read the latest AP poll. Spending time with family is rated as the top answer to an open-ended survey in which 13-24 year olds were asked what makes them happy. The poll also revealed that half of this age group state that religion and spirituality are important and that being involved in an organized religious group makes them happier.

Looks like the old excuse that teens and young adults just aren’t interested in church, or that they are simply rebelling from their parents, doesn’t hold water. It’s time churches started an intentional plan to disciple this age group. What is your church doing?

14 comments on “Keeping College Students in Church”

  1. kdb1411 says:

    It appears that the young people in this age group are leaving because they do not see the church as essential for their lives. And if they were not grounded in the Word and in sound doctrine early, they have no reason to stay. Thanks for the wake-up call!

  2. toddthomas says:

    Right on, Sam… We need to solve this problem in the church. If we continue to lose this generation, we will probably lose our denomination. If we lose the denomination, the rest of the North American churches won’t be far behind…

  3. Leanna says:

    I am a college student, and I am attending a secular school on the other side of the country–far away from my family and from my home church. It’s been around three or four weeks and I still haven’t found a church. I haven’t been looking. Until today. But I’ve found that the churches in my area really don’t have college ministries. It typically looks like this: Children’s ministries, Youth Ministries, and Adult Ministries. I want to attend a church where there are other young people who desire a relationship with God. Where is it? Well, it’s just another Sunday without church.

  4. Sean Benesh says:

    Thanks for bringing this to the forefront. I know I’m a year late in responding to this blog but I’m putting together a class on collegiate church planting and have been scouring the web for stats on churched percentage of college students when I came across this site. I know that stats are super low here at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Have you seen any numbers on this topic?


  5. Sam Rainer says:

    Sean – my book, Essential Church (see link above), is based upon research on the subject of students and the church. It might be of some help to you.

  6. Little Bob says:

    Thanks for writing. Your article greatly contributed to my blogs next post. It should be posted in 1-2 weeks. – Little Bob

  7. Little Bob says:

    Thanks for writing this. – Bob

  8. Tiffany says:

    I am a leader in a college ministry at my church and am trying to educate my church on what college ministry looks like and the importance of the ministry. The youth pastor seems to be anti-college ministry because he wants to keep the youth with him…any ideas or tips would greatly help. Anything that would help to educate the church on the importance of this group. Leading this ministry is different than leading any other ministry in the church and it looks different, Bible study is different…everything…but the church as a whole doesnt get it.

  9. Heather says:

    This may be a bit off, but we just moved here and are looking for a good church. We’re 24 and 25 and wanted to figure out where all the people our age go- something a bit more fresh I guess. We’re only finding older, VERY traditional churches with people stuck in the same way for years.
    Any suggestions for the Bellingham area? Preferably non denominational, we just want a bible based church that doesn’t water down the message to avoid scaring people.

    1. Richard says:

      If you want a Church that preaches Bible (KJV), then find and Independent Fundamental Baptist Church!!! You have to stand for something or you will fall for anything!!!

  10. Sam Rainer says:

    Heather –

    I am assuming your referring the the Bellingham, WA area? I’m not very familiar with that town, so I can’t give you a good recommendation. Sorry ’bout that.


  11. Stefan Em says:

    Great review! You actually touched some great things in your post. I came across it by using Google and I’ve got to admit that I already subscribed to the RSS, will be following you on my iphone 🙂

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