By Tess Schoonhoven
As new freshmen arrive at college this fall, they may find a campus ministry different from what reached previous generations.
Historically, college and student ministry was done in a way that targeted the already churched and assumed the majority of young people already knew of the gospel and Jesus Christ, says Bill Noe, collegiate ministry specialist at Lifeway.
But in the changing climate of today’s culture, that can no longer be the approach or assumption.
“We’re beyond the point where we can just assume most college students know who Jesus is and what that should mean in their life,” Noe says.
Since the 1970s the number of first-year college students who identify with a religion has declined by 25% according to an annual study done by University of California Los Angeles of American college freshmen.
In 1977, 93% of college freshman identified with a religion. The latest study, done in 2017, found that number has dropped 23 percentage points to 70%.
Similarly, the number of college freshman who at least occasionally attend a religious service throughout the year has recently decreased. In 1987, 81% of college freshman said they attended a religious service. In 2017, the number is down to 70%.
With a college demographic that is becoming increasingly non-religious, how can college ministers and church leaders reach the next generation with the gospel and cultivate a thriving student ministry?
Deep relationships instead of big events
“It’s still important and good to have programming at your church that targets those students who are Christians and pours into them so they can be leaders in the church in the future,” says Noe.
“But churches must also take that step of evaluating their ministry and ask themselves, ‘How are we connecting with and ministering to those students who don’t have church on their radar?’”
The “big event” approach, which Noe describes as putting on large events in hopes that students will attend, no longer yields fruit in a generation that is increasingly irreligious.
When college ministry leaders set up events and gatherings it creates an attitude that the students are expected to overcome barriers to come to the church, Noe says.
That attitude needs to shift to where church and ministry leaders take on the responsibility of overcoming those barriers.
What the students really want is genuine relationships and to see real faith lived out in the lives of others.
“College students aren’t just looking for a thing to go to, but they really want a genuine relationship with Christ,” Noe says. “That’s what’s going to be attractive to them in the end.”
Steve Turner, senior director of next generation mobilization for the North American Mission Board, agrees.
“Develop a strategy to build community and it’s going to win,” Turner says. “When students see authentic community played out, it’s a game changer.”
And while community in and of itself is not the end goal, he says, it’s a means to share the deep truth of the gospel.
Students need to hear the gospel in a way that isn’t programmed, which is why the culture of simply expecting events to gather a large flock can no longer be relied upon, Turner says.
True faith instead of cultural Christianity
Living in the wake of tragedies like 9/11 and hardships like the Great Recession has left Generation Z, those born between 1996 and 2014, more jaded and cautious about their lives, Noe says. This has led them to focus on things with more weighty repercussions.
Noe says the growth of students becoming non-religious is not driven by students who were extremely hurt by the church or purposefully ran away.
Instead, young adults frequently never developed a deep love for the church even if they were raised in it. The habit of attending church simply melted away.
This often happens because, according to Noe, the only Christians many students know are ones who have a superficial understanding of the faith themselves.
These cultural Christians, according to Noe, aren’t demonstrating an understanding of what the Bible says and how to apply it to their lives.
To combat this view, Noe says it’s important for believers and ministry leaders to be honest and open about the ways they struggle in their own Christian walk.
Irreligious and potentially skeptical students “really want to see Christians grappling with the gospel in a more genuine way,” Noe says.
“When you fail, say, ‘Hey I’m not perfect. This is how I messed up, but because of the grace of Christ in my own life I can overcome this and we can move forward.’”
“Lead with relationships,” says Turner. “Just be the authentic, vulnerable person who loves without condition—that’s the gospel.”
Church leaders should also display more humility when responding to difficult questions.
“Sometimes saying ‘I don’t know,’ but being willing to find an answer is a huge step towards helping a college student grapple with and see a genuine faith lived out,” Noe says.
And while Noe says churches have historically stayed away from addressing cultural issues, becoming involved can help college students see how their faith can be applied to life.
“Make the leap to say, ‘As Christians, we care about this too and this is what we’re doing about it,’” Noe says. “Using some of those things and those values that incoming college freshman have can be inroads to getting plugged in with your church in a very natural way.”
For Noe, this flows from weaving the gospel into real life instead of merely keeping it a superficial, cultural level. When college students can see a leader engaged in a genuine wrestling of their faith, those students can ask real questions that lead to a deeply-rooted faith.
“For college ministry specifically, that’s why relationships are so important,” Noe says. “If you’re just creating environments that are ‘Come for an hour, read the Bible, go through this list of questions, see you next week,’ then that probably isn’t what most college students are looking for.”
Both older adults and believers their own age need to invest in the lives of unchurched college students.
College ministers can be part of that themselves and should encourage young adults within their ministry to be involved in the lives of their irreligious classmates.
Turner says this leads us back to the basic foundations of the gospel—disciples who are making disciples.
“This is actually the best of times for evangelism,” he says. “It’s harder, but more fruitful because we can strip it back to the essence of our faith.”
Tess was an intern with the Lifeway communications team. She is a freelance writer and musician.