College age students are making the most important decisions of their lives and our churches need to step up and go after them—aggressively. These young adults desperately need us to love, disciple, and assimilate them into our faith families.
College students are indeed illusive prey and comprise the demographic bulls-eye of the giant generation called Millennials (78 mil). I am literally living my dream of pastoring in a college town. Although most of you don’t pastor in a college town like I do, you undoubtedly have college age adults around who are pursuing their careers or studying online.
Here are a few ways you can go all-out to reach college age students.
Know Your Mission Field
Your city has a distinct personality and demographic that should affect the ministry vision of your church. Good missionaries do their homework before they develop a strategy to reach their people groups.
I easily found demographic info on our city’s Chamber of Commerce website: Conway, Arkansas, has almost 70,000 residents, with a total college enrollment of approximately 14,000. Sixty one percent of those are under 34; median age = 27.3 (Millennials = 26); and 30% are adult Millennials (20s-early 30s).
Another great source of information and inspiration for me has been The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation, by Dr. Thom and Jess Rainer. This book is based on a Lifeway Research project that found 23% of Millennials attend religious worship services once a week or more, with a total of 34% doing so at least once a month. Most shocking is that 65% rarely or never attend any worship services. Contrast this generation with their grandparents, 2/3 of whom are Christians (born before 1946).
Jesus said it best, The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few (Matt 9:37).
Get On Campus Often
Jesus modeled the ministry of presence for us by going to where the people lived, worked, shopped and played. In doing so, He was criticized for being a “friend of sinners.” Of course their criticism was a complement to Him.
Our college ministry team is very intentional about getting on the University of Central Arkansas campus. This starts with freshmen on their first day in Conway in a ministry we call “Dorm Storm.” Each year we send more than 200 of our people to help freshmen and their parents move into their dorms. UCA schedules this on Sunday mornings, which means we release and commission them from our Sunday morning worship and small groups to serve as missionaries in our “Jerusalem.”
This event is followed throughout the year by various on-campus discipleship, worship and outreach initiatives. Often these initiatives are in cooperation with other campus ministries.
Speak the Truth in Love
Our college ministry team shares a conviction with me that maturing students want and need expository preaching and inductive teaching. Their passion and hunger for God’s Word is so obvious and contagious.
A Lifeway Research study in 2009 revealed that pastors have noticed 20-somethings’ responsiveness to in-depth Bible teaching. In fact, 68% agree (36% strongly) with the statement: “It seems that the 20-somethings in our church respond well to deep biblical preaching and teaching.”
One challenge to teaching college students is navigating the tightrope of speaking the truth with both boldness and compassion. Students are compelled by bold convictions, but are repelled by a lack of compassion—especially toward gays, minorities, or the poor.
But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head – Christ (Eph 4:15).
Also, Millennials in general are visual and participatory learners, so your audio-visual components should be a positive complement to the spoken Word. Social media is another important ministry tool that should not be ignored by pastors who want to connect with Millennials consistently. Good missionaries will learn the language of the people they are trying to reach.
Plug Them In or Watch Them Leave
About the only thing harder than catching Millennials is keeping them. No church wants to practice the “catch and release” fishing tactic, but without an intentional effort, that is exactly what we will end up doing. Christian Millennials are cause-driven and need an opportunity to serve and lead in your church, or they likely won’t stay.
Our college associate Eric Conley notes, “We have found that turning much of the decision making about college ministry over to student leaders is the best way to engage them in what is going on. It then becomes the role of the minister to equip and encourage the student leaders.”
I hope these ideas are helpful and would love to hear some of your thoughts about how to reach college students in the comments section of this post.