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The college years are a critical season in young people’s lives. For most, it’s the first time they are really out from underneath mom and dad’s roof, and thus the first time they confront the issues and pressures that come with adult life. It’s a time when they often grapple with philosophical questions about life, such as who they are, what they value, what they want to pursue in life, and what kind of person they want to be. It is an exciting time when they can explore new interests, learn about fresh possibilities, develop a vision for their future, and be challenged and stretched in good ways.
Sadly, it’s also a time of life when many young adults leave the church. This is not a new trend. Many scholars and journalists have noted—and many of us have witnessed firsthand—the prevalence of young adults removing themselves from participation in the local church during their college years. Research by multiple parties indicates that of the young people who are in the church in high school, more than 60 percent are no longer in the church by age twenty-five.
The likely explanations for young people’s leaving the church are multiple. Perhaps they follow the example of one or both parents while they are still living at home but are not yet mature in their own faith. Perhaps they lack a role model who is truly committed to participating in a local church. Perhaps they become overwhelmed with their newfound freedom in this season of life when they often have less accountability and more discretion than they did previously.
the challenges of college
While each person’s situation is unique, a vital factor that contributes to the likelihood of young people’s remaining committed to the local church is the presence in their lives of meaningful relationships within the church body—and not just relationships with parents or siblings. This makes intuitive sense, given what the church is: a people, a body of believers, the family of God. The church cannot be a family without close ties, and if young adults are not truly invited into the family and are not living as integral members of the family—enmeshed in all the glorious and messy things that accompany any family life—then their weak ties to the church body can be easily broken when new temptations and challenges appear on the horizon. This is a potential threat to students regardless of what college they attend.
At Covenant College, where I serve as president, we strongly encourage students to join a church congregation and be actively involved in the life of that church during their college years. Equipping young men and women to be faithful, lifelong members of a local church is, in fact, one of our primary aims. We acknowledge in this aim that the call we all receive as disciples of Christ is not to a life of rugged individualism—God does not sanctify us in our own personal silos—but instead to a life wherein we join the fellowship of believers that spans generations, sexes, classes, ethnicities, and cultures. It is not always easy, but this is how God chooses to refine us and make us like Christ.
The college years are no exception to this rule. It is a distinct time of life—a time when one’s primary vocational calling is to study and to prepare for future callings. But it is not a four-year time-out during which one is exempt from the responsibilities and benefits of church membership. On the contrary, the college years count—and count a lot—as is demonstrated by the research mentioned above on college-age defection from the church. The habits of heart, mind, and hand that are practiced during this season often become normative for one’s attitudes and behaviors throughout life. It is hard to overstate the formative impact of this transitional period.
This is true for students at Christian colleges just as much as it is true for students at secular institutions. At Covenant, we are careful to communicate to students that our college is not the church. Though they are being taught and discipled by Christian professors and staff, are worshiping together in chapel services, and are learning to think critically about biblical perspectives on all of God’s creation, we make it clear that we are not a substitute for the church and would never attempt to be. No other institution can replace the church. Thus, I am deeply encouraged every time I see or hear about our young men and women worshiping side by side with our faculty and staff on Sundays, sharing meals with them after church, or meeting in homes together with them in their fellowship groups. And it delights me that our research suggests that this engagement with the church in the college years typically leads to a lifelong commitment to the body of Christ.
In light of the critical nature of the college years for young Christians, I offer two appeals to those of us who are older believers. First, we need to develop relationships with children and youth in our church bodies before they head off to college. We ought to be mindful that these covenant children—though they are young, and may have interests and tastes vastly different than ours—are no less a part of the body of Christ, and hence are brothers and sisters whom we are called to disciple and invest our lives in.
Frankly, the earlier we can form meaningful relationships with them, the better. Many Sunday school teachers and youth leaders never fully understand the extent of the influence they have on the lives of dozens or hundreds of young people they serve. We need to guard against viewing children simply as “John and Jane’s kid”; we need to know them as individuals, learn what makes them tick, what excites them and what worries them, and have real conversations with them.
We ought to pray for them regularly. In light of the reality that existing relationships in the church are a highly determinative factor in whether a student will remain in the church during his college years, we can pray that our investments in young people’s lives are not only affecting them now but are contributing to their future commitment to the church.
Second, as churchmen and churchwomen, we need to be particularly attuned to the college-age young adults in our midst, and we need to be intentional about inviting and welcoming them into the life of the church. These students are often experiencing a number of transitions and challenges at this stage of their lives, potentially including navigating a new city, not living with or having family nearby for the first time in their lives, not having any or many established friendships locally, learning the ins and outs of college life, building new relationships, looking for part-time employment or a summer internship, and determining what course of study they want to select and what career they want to pursue. These can be trying situations regardless of age.
It can be easy for those of us who are older to remember the degree to which those in college are free from many of the responsibilities of adult life. At the same time, we can easily forget that, though they may not have a mortgage to pay or children to feed, these young adults are nevertheless wrestling through many decisions that will likely shape the course of their lives and the people they become. As older brothers and sisters in Christ, we ought to see them with an empathetic eye, pray for them by name, and invite them into our lives with generous hospitality.
join with the body
And a word of exhortation to those currently in college or headed there soon: Love the church. As imperfect as it is, being made up of a motley collection of sinners, it is nevertheless the bride of Christ and a great gift to us. Every believer is called to be a part of Christ’s church, and so too are you—regardless of how temporary or permanent your current living arrangement is, how many other Christians you regularly interact with, and whether you have crossed the threshold of major life decisions. You are invited and called to worship together with the body of Christ and to seek ways to edify fellow believers. God has ordained growth and joy for your life through His church; you don’t want to miss out on that.
Know also that the church needs young adults. It’s not just that you benefit from the church, but the church also benefits from you. We each bring our own unique talents and characteristics and needs to the body, and a congregation is weakened when it lacks any segment of members, or even any one believer. The vitality and perspectives and needs that young adults often bring to the body are blessings without which the church is not whole. The church is blessed to both minister to your needs and to be ministered to by the gifts you bring.
So, to those who are older: Do not neglect opportunities to invest in and care for the young adults and college students in your congregation. Forming meaningful relationships with them is an investment in the future of the church. And to those who are in college: Do not neglect the church. It is the body of Christ, and in it there is life to be had that will sustain you for all your days.