Off to College…Out of Church?

Maximized Leadership: Off to College…Out of Church?

In John Dickerson’s book The Great Evangelical Recession, you will find a sobering statistic about the students who grew up in your church and graduated in May. If they fit the typical profile of today’s college age young adults, two of the three will be leaving the church. I am writing this article in mid-summer because now is the time for your church to take action. As Tom Crites and I conducted research for our forthcoming book, Why They Stay which addresses how to help parents and church leaders make investments that keep children and teens connected to the church for a lifetime, we learned a valuable lesson that you should know about. The next 120 days are critical to the faith journey of those youth group members who just graduated.

Our research unveiled the importance of making the transition from “home church” to “a new church” in college for those who moved away from home. Almost 70% of High School graduates will enroll in college and what happens in the fall semester has a huge influence over whether they will still be attending church a decade later and beyond. Our research revealed that a student who moved off to college and immediately connected with a new congregation during the transition was 138% more likely to still be in church a decade later than one who moved and did not make the connection. I said that to say this. When students graduate from High School and are members of your congregation, the discipleship responsibility of the church has not concluded. I fear too many churches wash their hands at the conclusion of the High School career of their youth group members as if the “job is done.” It is not and the four to six months following graduation are critical. What is the strategy of your church to help those who graduated to connect with a new church in the place where they will be moving?

I don’t think the answer is complex but it does require some initiative. Here are a couple of quick thoughts:

  1. Someone has to take responsibility. Who in your church will take the lead in following up and ministering to the grads who move away in the next few months. It could be the pastor, a staff member, a Bible Study leader, or a volunteer. The key is that someone must take responsibility.
  2. Plan several forms of personal contact with the student who moves away in the summer and fall months. The object is not to “hound them” but to maintain a connection. They are more likely to get involved with another church if they are receiving ministry and encouragement from the home base.
  3. Send (or communicate) to those who move away recommended churches to visit. Many, if not most, have never had to look for a church before. Their parents have always taken care of that aspect of their lives. Orient them, prepare them, and take one step out by providing good recommendations in advance.
  4. Make occasional personal contacts and ask the question(s) straight out: What churches have you visited? Are you connected with a church yet? Even if the answer is “no,” you are keeping the subject on their spiritual radar and they are more likely to be in church next Sunday than if no one posed the question.
  5. Send “care packages” and remind them of the value and blessing of a faith community. They will have distractions but a taste of the past can serve a glue to keep them bonded.

Parents can apply these same principles. Look for the book, Why They Stay, coming in October. To learn more now, view a sermon I recently preached on this subject at Why Thy Stay Sermon or listen to this podcast which provides an in depth discussion and interview at Why They Stay Podcast.