Are college students leaving the church? That question has been the center of a multitude of recent studies and polls. It also, unsurprisingly, has drawn the attention and concern of many church leaders over the past few decades.
While it is not a new phenomenon for members, especially the younger ones, to drift away from the church, the increasing number of college students leaving the church (as much as 66%, according to LifeWay Research) currently intrigues Christians and non-Christians alike.
But here’s the thing: die-hard Christians will tell you that college students leave the church because the average college campus is a hive of villainy where liberals take advantage of young and impressionable freshman, taking away their Bibles and forcing Yes We Can bumper stickers and fair trade granola into their hands instead. In short: recruiting them into their Agenda.
I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it’s not the real reason college students drift away from their faith when they get to college. The real reasons are disappointingly mundane.
Lack of parentally encouraged attendance affects the doubting and believing alike. With the social and academic demands of college life, combined with a sudden and complete freedom to dictate your own schedule, many students simply allow church to fall to the bottom (or off) of their priority list.
The current epidemic of busyness – whether that busyness is real or imagined, unavoidable or personally cultivated – doesn’t just affect parents or adults in the workforce. College students fall prey to the cult of busyness as well. Classes, jobs, extra-curricular activities, and social demands all compete for top billing in a student’s schedule. As church often appears to have less tangible or immediate benefits compared to time spent with friends or classwork, many students find they cannot make room in their schedule for regular attendance.
Travel and Transition
Much of the busy college student’s (not to mention recent grad’s) limited schedule is overtaken by travel. Travel home and travel to visit friends at other universities can take up a significant amount of free time. This is to say nothing of early Monday morning classes, which force many students to travel back to school on Sundays, opting to miss church in favor of settling back in at the dorms or finishing up that paper they’ve been putting off for weeks.
Even after college, many young adults find themselves traveling more than ever before. As college and post-college are incredibly transitional periods, travel may be an unavoidable schedule hog. Many have yet to settle into regular routines or to put down roots in one location. Even those whose routines have evened out and whose roots are growing find themselves traveling, as it’s often easier for the young and single (or young and married without kids) to travel to see family members or friends.
Lack of Young Adult Ministries
Then again, you could blame the churches themselves. And you’d be right to do so. Many college students find themselves drifting because (consciously or not) they feel there’s no longer a place for them at church. Whether they’re still attending the church they grew up in, or searching for a new church home in their college town, the majority of students have difficulty finding ministries that meet their needs.
Most churches have programs for children, youth, and adults. Not many have (successful) young adult or college student ministries.
Part of the problem is (and forever will be) cyclical: students are more likely to attend a thriving program, but churches need students to attend for their program to thrive. It’s a Catch-22; you need students to attend in order for students to attend.
However, even a struggling ministry is better than no ministry. Many churches fail to reach college students because they never try in the first place.
There are many reasons why college students walk away from the church. The most obvious reason is doubt.
Doubt can arise from many different areas. Some begin to doubt as they are introduced to differing worldviews through their college experiences. Some may convert to other religions, but others turn to atheism or agnosticism (or simply become apathetic) as they begin to doubt the validity or relevancy of Christianity.
If you’ll humor me, I’m going to draw a parallel here for a moment. Suppose you were attending rehab for a drug addiction. What do you suppose would happen if you began to convince yourself of the fact that your difficult, uphill battle toward sobriety affected nobody but yourself? It’s a lie, and one that would soon find you very much off the wagon.
Spirituality and faith can fall victim to the same lies; nobody lives in a vacuum, and our actions affect everybody in our lives. Apathy is, among other things, a decision to isolates ourselves.
Many times, the foundation of apathy and doubt has been laid prior to college. Many young people attend church simply because their parents do, without bothering to make their faith their own. Without a personal investment in the Christian faith, doubt and apathy are quick to take root once church is no longer parentally mandated.
Lack of Depth
Other churches may be losing college students for the same reasons they are losing adults or seniors: lack of depth.
While surface-level sermons may sometimes be easier to swallow, they also fail to satisfy the hunger of those who are searching for meaning. Solid Biblical teaching is one of the keys to engaging college students. It’s simple, but it’s true. Why continue to sit through a service that fails to engage, fails to teach, or fails to show biblical relevance?
The So What? Factor
Even when sermons are biblically grounded and instructional, many churches still lose young adults to the “so what?” factor.
Many of the same studies that show young adults leaving the church in droves also show that college students are eager to get involved with non-profit ventures and generally try to make a difference in the world. Despite that proven desire, many churches still fail to connect Christian faith with real-world application.
That’s why every pastor, minister, and priest would do well to keep a “So what?” in mind when writing sermons.
Whether a sermon focuses on a particular book, person, value, or virtue, they should all have an answer for “so what?” So what does this mean for my faith? What does this mean for my daily life? So what does this mean for how Christians can serve their community? What can I do to apply this to my life? What can I do to apply this to worldwide needs? To social justice needs?
The “so what?” can be personal or evangelical, service-oriented or designed for personal meditation; the key is for it to be answered in a meaningful, well-integrated way. Not a sentence or two tacked on at the end; instead, the sermon should work steadily towards answering that question.
These are the reasons why young adults turn their back on the church – not because of any fabled liberal indoctrination. Because let’s face it: if you’re looking for meaning in your life, politics are a poor substitute.
Image credit: Jonathan Mueller