What does it take to get college/20-somethings engaged in church? I hear this question often from college pastors around the country. It doesn’t seem to matter if their ministry happens in a booming college town or a quiet suburb – this demographic seems to be AWOL in the Christian community.
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us given the recent research. Barna found that “Americans in their twenties are significantly less likely than any other age group to attend church services, to donate to churches, to be absolutely committed to Christianity, to read the Bible, or to serve as a volunteer…” While frequently active in church during their high school years, only 3 out of 10 attend church consistently during their 20’s. I know of one church which experienced 12 percent growth church-wide and a simultaneous six percent decline in 18-28 year olds.
Grim statistics like these prompt questions. Where are they? What will draw them? And how do we get them to stay? The answers are important to be sure, but sometimes I wonder if we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the answer is not in response to a question at all, but rather found in an encounter – a consistent meeting with the God who knows them personally, sees their dreams, hopes, disappointments and failures and loves them regardless.
Somewhat of a mystery even to me, theMILL, our college/20-somethings ministry, has more than 1,000 who gather to worship and hear teaching from the Bible every week — on Friday nights! They are hungry – eager to grow and be changed. They long for a foundation of truth upon which to build their lives. They desire community, to know others deeply and to be known. They come to experience the presence of God.
My goal is not to get them into church, though I believe in the community of believers. It is not to gain access to their finances or service, though I find them eager to give and help when they understand the purpose. My deepest desire is to create an environment – an experience, if you will – where they meet God in powerful, personal ways, understand how they fit into the bigger picture, and find a place to belong.
This approach reminds me of a waitress who not only attends theMILL but is actively involved in our leadership team. She fits the prototype — grew up in a Christian home, discovered doubt, drifted away from God and found less holy things instead. She developed a deep dislike of religion. Then a friend invited her to come to theMILL. It took awhile but she came and she found Jesus. Ask her and she will tell you what keeps her coming back – a dynamic relationship with God.
Or consider the story of a young man who found Christ in high school, attended church regularly and then began wrestling with depression. He became so filled with shame over his lifestyle choices that he decided to kill himself by driving into a pole. While working up the courage, he found himself heading in the direction of theMILL on a Friday night and decided to stop in for a final good-bye to his friends. The sermon that night was on the secrets we keep. He confessed his secrets and received prayer and healing. Coincidence? He doesn’t think so. He believes God rescued him.
Both of these individuals have one thing in common — Jesus. And that, I believe, is the core of the issue. It’s possible to create a college/20-somethings ministry with the most experienced worship leaders and thought-out sermons, the best graphics and multi-media presentations; but I would argue, that unless you are creating a place where people encounter the living God and find deep, healthy community, they will not stay. How do we get them back? The answer lies in the same place as it does for you and for me – God Himself.