We’ve tried the programs. We’ve started life groups, community groups, cell groups—you name it. We’ve even created a contemporary service. So why are college students and twenty-somethings still leaving the church?
We have some of the answers. Many highlight the need for faithful parents. Others point to premature baptisms. Some counter that “they went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19a). And I’d agree. But I also know college students and twenty-somethings that love Jesus. They love Christians. They just don’t love the local church. What’s going on here? A lot of things. But here’s one possible explanation: what if believing students leave the church because the church never exposed them to the church? What if believing students find the church supplemental to the Christian life because they never got to see how critical the church is to the Christian life? What if the church is strange to them because, well, it is strange to them? And here’s a question for you: what would happen if college students and twenty-somethings came to church with decades of exposure to the church? Would they stay? I think so.
Fellow youth pastors, parents, church members, let’s talk for a minute.
Youth pastor, your church does not need you. And before you get mad and throw your Hacky Sack at me, the same goes for my position as the Youth and Families Minister at Desert Springs Church. God could fire me today, and the teenagers at our church would be just fine. They would. If I was lucky, a couple tears would be shed, and by God’s grace, the Lord may have used me to impact a handful of students. But our students don’t need a youth and families minister. They don’t need a thriving youth ministry. They need the church to expose them to the church.
Two reasons. First, believing students need other church members just like every other Christian does (Romans 12:4–8; Hebrews 10:25; 1 Peter 4:10–11). Jesus has promised to care for his church through the church (Ephesians 4:1–16). He has not promised to care for believing teens through a youth group. The gates of hell may prevail against Desert Springs’ youth ministry. I may tank our youth group, but I can’t do anything to stop Christ from building his church (Matthew 16:18).
Second, unbelieving students need the evangelistic witness of the church. They need to witness a college student having a long conversation with an elderly woman. They need to watch a man sing of God’s faithfulness right after his wife’s funeral. They need to see the church’s bright, salty, compelling good works (Matthew 5:13–16). They need to encounter a gospel-shaped, compelling love (1 John 4:7–21). Whether your students believe or reject the gospel, expose them to the church.
Now, how do we do that? Here are three suggestions.
First, encourage professing students to consider baptism and membership. Notice I said “consider” and not “tell them to get baptized and join the church.” As the elders, parents, and you consider the credibility of their profession, it may be too early. Maybe it’s wise to wait and watch for more clear gospel fruit. But start the conversation early, because it shows that choosing to love Jesus means choosing to love his church.
Second, don’t schedule youth meetings during the Sunday morning service. I don’t really have much more to say about that.
Third, recruit church members to serve in youth ministry. And I don’t just mean recruiting volunteers, although I expect youth volunteers will be very close to Christ’s eternal throne. I mean, have non-volunteer church members share their testimony to the youth group. Let aspiring elders preach. Invite members to speak on a panel. When members invite your family over for dinner, ask if you can bring a student along, and sure, bring your Hacky Sack too.
Parents, I’ve got one encouragement for you: be indiscriminate in your hospitality. If your church life only revolves around your friends, it shouldn’t surprise you if your student’s church life revolves around the same thing. Consumer parents tend to raise consumer children. And what happens when the church stops providing what they want, in this case, friendships? They stop going. They leave the church, until the Holy Spirit convicts them, or they find a church that provides friendships.
But what if your student grows up around a diverse dinner table? Meals with older members? Boring members? Struggling members? What if your church life orbits around members like that? What happens when your believing student leaves for college and friendships at the church are lacking? God only knows. You and your student are dependent on his grace. But I’ve got a pretty good idea—they keep going. They stay at the church, reaching out to members who don’t look like them and receiving spiritual encouragement from all types of Christians.
Because that’s what Mom and Dad did. Because that’s what normal Christians do. Because while they may not have known what the word “ecclesiology” meant when they were fourteen, they had a front row seat to what you thought it meant. Because their parents exposed them to the church.
Church member, students are watching you. You may not believe me. I’m not sure if Ms. Pat would believe me either. But as I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, I watched her. I watched her love her unbelieving husband, and I saw how God saved Mr. Ronnie through the ministry of his faithful wife (1 Peter 3:1). I saw how she trusted God when Mr. Ronnie got cancer, and how God sustained her as I stood next to his deathbed. I saw how she used widowhood for the glory of God, and how God loved me through the weekly bags of produce she gave me during college. I saw her at my wedding, and how God has used her to strengthen Leah and I’s marriage. I’ve seen her hold my first child, and how God has given Jane a spiritual grandmother. I watched Ms. Pat.
Because my parents and my church exposed me to Ms. Pat. They exposed me to the church. And why would anyone want to leave that?
 I still remember when Greg Gilbert made this point about our campus ministry while I was in college.