This past weekend, I had the privilege of helping my brother-in-law move in to his freshman college dorm room.
To be honest, it made me feel old, knowing that most of the kids on campus were a good ten years younger than me. It also made me feel claustrophobic. I mean, have you seen the size of dorm rooms these days?
It brought me back to my days in college and how different times were - just a mere 6 years ago. I watched these incoming freshman bring in their Mac Book Pros, their high-tech refrigerators, and their 52" plasma TVs. I quickly recited the tenth commandment.
Ironically, I didn't see many backpacks, alarm clocks, and pencils. When I asked my brother-in-law about it, he responded, "My backpack is my computer bag, my alarm clock is my phone, and I haven't owned a pencil since the 5th grade." Duly Noted.
It is more than just technology that has changed since my days in college. Students these days are facing more and more challenges emotionally and spiritually, than even my generation did, and unfortunately, statistics are proving it.
According to recent research somewhere between 70 and 88 percent of Christian teenagers are leaving the church by their second year in college (Voddie Baucham, Family Driven Faith, 10).
As I sat on that campus last Saturday, I couldn't help but ask myself, someone who is devoting his life into making statistics like that disappear, where am I failing? What am I, and my fellow youth pastors doing wrong?
I wish the answer was an easy one. I do think, there are some changes that the American church can make, however, to see this number dwindle. And it must first start at home.
As stated earlier, the importance of colliding ministry and family is key to any successful student ministry. We as youth pastors, must reach out and minister to the student, and extend it further to mom and dad. At best, I might see a student three times a week. Twice at our weekly meetings and once at a function, sporting event, or other gathering. This leaves a lot of room in between. But imagine the impact if mom and dad were on God's side. If a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a healthy relationship with the church is important to mom and dad - chances are, they will have a strong sense to pass that along to their child.
Now before you starting calling me naive and simple-minded, I know that not every family situation can be like that. But shouldn't we try? "Well, he doesn't come from a good home, and mom and dad don't stress that as important at home..." I bet I hear something like as an excuse for a child's behavior on a daily basis. And while some of that is true - let's get in the business of changing the home then! Give me an address and let's go make a house call. If nothing else, you will have begun a relationship with a parent and further gained trust and support.
So, how else can we keep those college freshman in the pews?
Get them out of the pews.
Or in my case - get them out of the horribly uncomfortable metal folding chairs that seem to follow me to EVERY youth ministry I have been a part of.
With every passing generation, it gets to be a little more "me" focused. What can you do for me? What can I get out of it? Well how is that going to help me? Me Me Me....
But, I can't say that American church does much to change that.
Over the past few months, as my family and I have been searching for God's next place for us, we have had the awesome opportunity of visiting several thriving, growing churches and it is our desire to learn from as many places as we can. We take notes, pick up the brochures, hold on the the flyers, etc. We especially love to pour over the calendars, scouring ideas for events and functions. We love to get new ideas on how to reach the unreachable.
After investigating these calendars, 90% of these functions are over the top, crowd-pleasing, flashy events that individually probably cost more than my first house. Now don't get me wrong, I love big events. I love Summer Camp, Disciple Now, and the annual Back to School Bash. Not only do I love them, I think they are a great addition to any student ministry. The problem doesn't lie in these events, but rather the absence of other events. Where are the service projects? The volunteer nights? Or the mission trips? They are minor additions to these elaborate student ministry calendars, and it is affecting our youth.
When these graduating students leave the comfort of their "bubble" youth group, and are thrown into a world in which they have to find their own NEW church, it is, well...uncomfortable. And let's face it, we have conditioned these kids to be anything but uncomfortable. Instead, they come to these free events (to which they rarely bring a new guest), sit back, relax, and enjoy the hard work that someone else put in. And honestly, they don't think twice about it.
We, as youth leaders, must encourage these students to get off their rear end's and do something. Schedule a day for all the youth to put on a back to school bash for the entire incoming 7th graders. Encourage students to provide lunch for the staff. Host a Valentine Banquet where students set up, cook, and serve a meal to their well-deserving parents. Sign the kids up to come and spend a summer afternoon painting the worn down men's bathroom in the back corridor. These are just a few examples of the kind of activities that need to be plastered all over the grids of the student calendars.
I believe when students see the importance of serving and are taught to serve, they will be more willing to get plugged in and be used at a new church. I will admit, though, it is something I am working on improving, and something I want to see take great strides within my new ministry.
Lastly, and single-handedly the most influential piece of the "don't drop out of church when you go to college" puzzle, is this: Students have to own it. It is our obligation as impacters of the next generation, to teach students to ask tough questions and find out for themselves. We must encourage students to not take our word as fact, and point them to the answers in the Scripture. Answers from their Heavenly Father. Answers they will need to know for themselves, as they will be questioned on a daily basis.
One of my favorite tools to be used as I strive to get students to take on Christianity as their own is Youth Evangelism Explosion. It is an excellent foundation of Scripture memorization that builds and eventually acts as a tool for students to relevantly share his/her faith with a peer.
Let's face it. Going to college is hard. These once sheltered teens are inundated with new pressures, big decisions, and tough professors. It can often be a recipe for disaster. And professing Christians, walking away from the church, is a disaster. Should we be surprised? Probably not. Should we do something about it? Absolutely. So get on it. Let's all work together to change this daunting statistic, and instead, make Generation Y one that stands firmly and leads courageously - in the name of Jesus Christ.