The church I attend has an outstanding youth ministry. No question. And intentionally inter-generational worship. The staff is intent on building relationships. The church is thriving, even growing. The number of families with young children is increasing. And yet …
My daughter graduated from high school this year. She has been in this church since we moved here just after her first birthday; she “belongs.” There was a big graduation luncheon – complete with video and moving remembrances (we had known roughly half the 15-20 seniors since they were in preschool); the whirlwind of graduation ceremonies, family visits, and open houses. And the next Sunday as we prepared to leave for church she informed me that she was now supposed to attend one of the adult education communities … and as she put it “No Way!” For a time perhaps she no longer belongs.
This leads to the question I would like to address today.
What does your church do to intentionally reach, walk along side, and disciple 18-25 year-olds?
The above incident – while true – also gives a bit of a wrong impression. We are in a University town and have a growing church based campus ministry reaching college students, graduate students, and beyond. June, July and August are slow months for campus ministry (and other ministries). Nonetheless this incident is telling — our 18 to 25 year-olds are entering a strange new world. They are not children, or even youth – but neither are they full-fledged adults. The expectation that they will smoothly enter the adult program (even for the summer) is unrealistic. Emerging adulthood is an excellent description.
Church based college ministry – ministry to the college-aged adults is the focus of Chuck Bomar’s new book College Ministry 101: A Guide to Working with 18-25 Year Olds. This book is what “101” implies, an introductory guide and overview. I found it an easy read with a number of excellent insights. There is little detailed analysis, although he is clearly familiar with much of the literature. I will highlight a few of his points to start a discussion.
Why College-Age Ministry? This may seem obvious to some, but certainly not to all. The drift of college-age people from church is a well documented phenomenon.
If our goal is to develop mature believers (and I hope it is!) we can’t afford to watch college-age people detach from the church. Developing ministries that nurture and disciple college-age people isn’t optional for churches. It’s part of our calling as the body of Christ. (p. 21)
Ask Scot if we have a problem and stand back – we’ll get an earful (a well researched and articulated earful). We have a problem.
Identity formation. Many of the reasons for a church to invest in an intentional college-age ministry arise from the specific features of this age, amplified by our modern society where higher education of some form is becoming the norm. Bomar stresses the importance of identity formation for college-age people. They are exploring, taking ownership. and becoming. It is an exciting, challenging, and unsettling time.
I want to say once more that identity formation isn’t just a big issue for this age group. It is the issue. I know some leaders who wonder why they need to understand identity formation. They believe that if they simply teach the Word of God, then identity will take care of itself. But this search for identity is so all-consuming that it greatly impacts the way a young person understands the Word. Identity is where our concern ought to lie. (p. 37)
A successful college-ministry will emphasize relationships, discipleship, and mentorship, not numbers and programs. We need to meet people where they are – and college-age people are not, for the most part, settled and suited to our standard church model.
Teaching and Discipleship – one of Bomar’s best sections.
Our traditional approach to spiritual formation isn’t really forming people as much as it is indoctrinating them. The simple articulation of conclusions we’ve come to doesn’t prepare college-age people for the intellectual challenges they’ll face as adult Christians.
Let me put this another way. College-age people who were raised with one perspective on questions of identity and meaning and life eventually become aware that this perspective isn’t the only way of thinking, that the answer might not have been as simple as the church made it seem. They start to wonder why we never told them about these other perspectives. And then they question all the conclusions we’ve taught them, wondering if the church is hiding something. (p. 129)
According to Bomar a good college-age ministry should break away from the educational model. We shouldn’t teach our conclusions, we should teach the method used to reach our conclusions. A good college-age ministry doesn’t provide answers, it develops people “passionate about thinking correctly, asking questions, and seeking answers for themselves.” (p. 131)
This is a frightening prospect for some. It seems safer to provide the right answers up front. After all, if we don’t some of their conclusions and answers may differ from ours. But this we must leave in the hands of God, in the humble realization that some of our conclusions, answers, and positions are likely wrong.
Bomar suggests three significant changes:From teaching the law to teaching the faith; from knowing facts to understanding truth; from surface assumptions to deeper connections. We must realize that difficult questions often have ambiguous answers – and become comfortable with this.
Well, this is enough to give a taste – Bomar’s book contains practical wisdom and insight. It is a good start, but only a start to spur deeper conversation and thinking about college-age ministry.
What do you think? What should we be doing to reach, disciple, and mentor college-age Christians?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.