How to keep college students in church amid high dropout rates? Lifeway director responds

College students worship at Passion, founded by Louie Giglio.
College students worship at Passion, founded by Louie Giglio. | (Photo: Passion)

To combat the growing number of young people who leave the church, leaders must invest in student ministry and make an intentional effort to focus on individuals during traditional college years, the director of student ministry at LifeWay has said.

A 2017 LifeWay Research survey released on Tuesday reveals that 66 percent of Americans between 23 and 30 years old said they stopped attending church on a regular basis for at least a year after turning 18, compared to 70 percent in 2007.

The five most frequently chosen specific reasons for dropping out were: moving to college and no longer attending (34 percent); church members seeming judgmental or hypocritical (32 percent); no longer feeling connected to people in their church (29 percent); disagreeing with the church’s stance on political or social issues (25 percent); and work responsibilities (24 percent).

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Of the 66 percent who left the church during their college years, 71 percent didn’t plan on taking a break, the study found.

Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at LifeWay and author of Within Reach: The Power of Small Changes in Keeping Students Connected, pointed out that for the most part, young people aren’t leaving the church out of “bitterness, the influence of college atheists, or a renunciation of their faith.”

“What the research tells us may be even more concerning for Protestant churches: there was nothing about the church experience or faith foundation of those teenagers that caused them to seek out a connection to a local church once they entered a new phase of life. The time they spent with activity in church was simply replaced by something else,” he said.

Trueblood explained to LifeWay that there are ten strong predictors of young adults staying or dropping out of the church after high school, including parental influence, regular Bible reading, and the investment of adults.

“One of the most influential aspects of a student’s spiritual development is the investment of multiple adults speaking into their lives,” he said. “Since that’s the case, church leaders need to make an intentional effort to regularly train the volunteers who work with students. Equipping adults to serve in student ministry is vital to the spiritual health of students.”

Trueblood advised church leaders to be “willing to spend time digesting what is and isn’t working in student ministry, according to the research, and make adjustments that will keep students grounded in their faith and committed to the church.”

The LifeWay study found that church attendance peaks at age 15, with more than three-quarters regularly attending at that time. At 18, however, that number fell to 58 percent, and by 19, only 4 in 10 former regular-attenders still attended church.

But LifeWay also found that about two-thirds of dropouts return to services once they get older and by 21, one-third attended church services regularly. That percentage remained constant through age 30.

The common reasons young adults returned to church were the encouragement of family (37 percent), the personal desire to go back to church (32 percent), and the feeling that God was calling them back (28 percent).

“On some level, we can be encouraged that some return,” said Trueblood, “while at the same time, we should recognize that when someone drops out in these years there is a 69 percent chance they will stay gone ... There are steps we can begin taking with those currently in student ministry that will keep them connected from the beginning of these years.”

Trueblood urged churches to focus on young adults during those traditional college years, adding: “In many places this is a forgotten, under-resourced ministry area. Focus is placed on children, students, and then not again until someone enters the ‘young family’ stage. This needs to change.”

In a op-ed for The Christian Post, Greg Stier, president of Dare 2 Share Ministries International, advised church leaders to pour into “a handful of serious young leaders” to revolutionize youth ministry. He pointed out that instead of primarily investing in the crowds, Jesus invested in the few — and it was those disciples who carried on his work and led the "revolution" after he was gone.

“This means developing a high caliber student leadership team filled with teenagers who don't just set up the chairs for your youth group meeting but fill those chairs with the friends they are seeking to reach for Christ,” he said.

“These teenagers are the bar you are setting for the rest of your youth group. They are the ones you and your high caliber team of adult volunteers (who, of course, should be modeling a Gospel Advancing life as well) are investing in on a regular basis. Like Jesus, minister to the crowds but pour your life into the few.”

Stier also encouraged church leaders to have a “disciple multiplication strategy” for their youth ministry.

“It's crucial because it is the only way the tide will be turned and the ‘revolution in youth ministry’ will take place,” he said. “We need an exponential strategy that focuses on multiplying disciples relationally, not just adding converts through events. This means our teenagers must be equipped, not just to evangelize, but disciple their own friends, at their own schools.”

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