Having attended a Lutheran grade school, a Catholic high school, and a Methodist church, I grew up with very ecumenical influences. Even so, as an 18-year-old heading off to college, I considered myself to be Methodist. So upon going to college, I immediately looked for the local Methodist church, located only a block away from my dorm.
I went there the very first Sunday I was at school, knowing I was going to love it.
Instead, I hated it. No one greeted me, the music was terrible, the sermon even worse, and despite being on a college campus, there were no other college students present.
I never returned. I spent most of my freshman year not going to church.
The stories I hear from my college students often echo my own.
Part of the problem is, I think, that as youth workers, we often fail to equip our teens to find a church in college and beyond. In fact, according to Sticky Faith, “Less than 40 percent of students felt like their youth ministry actually prepared them to find a new church.”
Knowing this, make it a priority to teach often about the value of church. One of my favorite ways of doing this is to study the Acts 2 church and then have students imagine they were a church planter and design their own church. Doing so reveals those things that teens most value about church; The things that are truly non-negotiable for them.
Also tell your students two things:
- Our church isn't perfect.
- Your new church will NOT be like ours and that's OK.
Finally, remove the fear of other denominations. Talk frequently about the similarities and differences between denominations. As a youth group, go and worship in other congregations. Teach teens to see and find value in different faith traditions. Then, give students permission to try a variety of churches, regardless of their denominational affiliation. Had someone done this for me, I suspect I would have gotten plugged into a college church much sooner.
I recently shared this philosophy while leading a youth ministry workshop. There, an older youth worker pushed back. He talked about the importance of “brand-loyalty” to his denomination and the fear that unless youth workers encouraged students to stay within that denomination, it would soon die. He also condemned those churches he considered to be “too conservative”, suggesting he'd rather have his students stop going to church all together than have them end up in such an environment.
To be sure, I know people who this man would have labeled “too conservative” who would say the same thing, only their fear would be their students might end up in a “progressive” church like this man's.
To me, all this tribalism is heartbreaking. It makes us lose sight of the bigger picture: That many of our students are having a hard time finding a church home when they leave our communities of faith.
To be clear, young people need the church, just as the church needs them.
Maybe that's why I'm proud to say that graduates from my Lutheran youth ministry have found homes in Lutheran and Catholic campus ministries, as well as in parachurch ministries like InterVarsity and Axiom.
Had our youth ministry's focus been on teaching teens to find a church like ours, there's no doubt in my mind that many of these students would have simply become church dropouts. But instead, we've tried to instill in them a bigger view of church. We've tried to teach them to see other denominations not as evil, but as part of our family in Christ.
It's true. Some of my students who have found church homes elsewhere may never return to our denomination.
But you know what?
I'm OK with that.
I'd much rather see a student actively following Jesus surrounded by a Christian community – even one that's not from my tradition – than have students say they're part of our denomination, even though they last thought about their faith and attended church when they were still in high school.
As a youth worker, my allegiance is to Christ.
I care far more about cultivating followers of Jesus than of any one particular denomination.