by Amanda Wood Williams
When it comes to church attendance among college students, statistics are concerning: many young adults don’t attend church, even if they attended as children.
According to a 2007 study by LifeWay Research, 70 percent of young adults stopped attending church for at least a year between ages 18 to 22—during the time when most Americans attend college.
Further, a Pew Research study from 2008 indicates that church attendance drops—drastically—as young adults move forward with their college careers.
According to the study, almost 44 percent of first-year students attend church frequently. By their junior year, however, most college students choose to stay home on Sunday mornings—frequent attendance drops to around 25 percent.
A recent study of Christian college students by Dr. Donald W. Caudill, professor of marketing at Gardner-Webb University, and Benjamin J. Payne, a marketing major at GWU, offers a few insights into why college students leave the church.
More importantly, their research offers hope for winning these students back—while they are still in college. In fact, what Caudill and Payne discovered just might surprise you.
A New-Old Approach
The top reason students stay home on Sunday mornings, according to the survey, is not surprising: they are busy balancing academic responsibilities with social, athletic, and work demands.
More than 76 percent of students surveyed indicated that the busyness of college life greatly affects their level of church involvement.
In an attempt to attract college-age members, churches have tried everything from free rides to their services to free meals to alternative service times and styles.
While these tactics have proven successful at attracting college students for initial visits, the tried-and-true benefits provided by the local church for centuries are what college students say will make them return to church, again and again.
According to the study by Caudill and Payne, published this year in The Culture & Religion Review Journal, 97 percent of college-age students surveyed indicate they would be more likely to return to a church that provides an overall “good” experience.
Based on the survey, here are eight steps pastors and church leaders can take today to provide that “good” experience and keep young adults coming back on Sunday mornings:
1. Be strategic about welcoming young adults to church.
Not surprisingly, more than 95 percent of students say feeling welcomed at church is very important to them. College students are looking for a safe place to relax, away from the stress and busyness of life on campus.
More than 70 percent of the students indicate their schedules prevent them from attending church regularly. The solution? Offer a stress-free, welcoming home-away-from-home for young adults.
Keep in mind most college students surveyed, almost 84 percent, indicate they would prefer for other students to be present when they attend church, and that same number indicate they enjoy social events outside the church.
Consider offering worship services at alternative times—but don’t assume those alternative times should be scheduled for a weeknight. More than 50 percent of college students surveyed say they would attend a Sunday service before 10:30 a.m.
Also, remember that follow-up is key. Almost 77 percent of students surveyed say they would prefer contact from church members after they visit.
2. Reach out to your young adults who live near your church.
In a culture that moves at the speed of the Internet, it seems young adults—those who are most familiar with new technologies—would be willing to travel to attend church.
However, what was true a hundred years ago is still true today: young adults are looking for churches close to their homes.
In fact, more than 94 percent of those surveyed say they would prefer to attend a church located near their places of residence.
Thirty-six percent of students say they would appreciate free transportation to services, but most say that free transportation would not influence their decision to attend a church.
3. Recognize what young adults are looking for in a local church.
Young adults are looking for excitement at church—but the survey indicates they are seeking that excitement from a surprising source.
Most students, almost 89 percent, say the sermon—and their perception of it as exciting—would motivate them to attend church. By contrast, only 53 percent indicate that they prefer rock music, professional lighting, and engaging media in church.
4. Allow young adults to help.
Today’s young adults are famous for their focus on bettering the world around them. In fact, millennials have gained a reputation for being one of the most altruistic generations in decades, and what better vehicle for helping others can be found than the local church?
Most students surveyed, almost 86 percent, say that volunteer opportunities at church appeal to them, and more than 60 percent say they look for opportunities to participate in mission trips.
5. Teach the Bible.
Almost 84 percent of students report they attend church to learn more about the Bible.
Students are hungry for the Word of God as they grapple with new ideas and challenges to their faith; it is imperative to provide them with the beacon of biblical teaching as they navigate these unchartered waters.
6. Spend time getting to know young adults.
College students attend class hours away from their hometowns, and any new environment can be a scary place. Familiarity—a sense of belonging—is something young adults are seeking.
Personal relationships are foundational when building that sense of belonging, and the most important relationship is, perhaps, the relationship between young adults and their pastors.
Almost 79 percent of the students say that knowing their pastor personally is important to them.
7. Encourage diversity.
It’s crucial to recognize, especially for millennials, the world is just a click away. Almost 76 percent of students surveyed indicate they like churches where they can meet people from many cultures.
Consider partnering with other churches for special events that encourage cultural awareness. This would be a great opportunity for college students to volunteer.
8. Offer free food.
Poor college students may seem like a cliché; nevertheless, free food is a huge draw for young adults. More than 68 percent of students surveyed say that all things being equal, they would attend a church that offered free food on a regular basis.
When it comes to attracting young adults, consider all the factors that could keep students away from church—from the mundane busyness of college life to deeper spiritual issues of doubt that often correspond to reaching adulthood in today’s culture.
Try the above solutions and keep track of young adult attendance to see if your congregation is making progress attracting—and retaining—young adult interest.
Most importantly, shower the college-age students in your congregation with love, understanding and prayer, knowing that you are planting seeds that will produce spiritual fruit in their lives for years to come.
AMANDA WOOD WILLIAMS is a freelance writer and budding marketer with a deep interest in helping local churches attract new members who become passionate followers of Christ.
About the Researchers
Dr. Donald W. Caudill is a professor of marketing in the Broyhill Undergraduate School of Management in the Godbold School of Business at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. For church marketing consulting, contact Don by phone at 704-406-2105 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Benjamin J. Payne is an intern youth and worship director at Putnam Baptist Church in Shelby, N.C., and a marketing major in the Broyhill Undergraduate School of Management in the Godbold School of Business at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. Contact Ben via email at email@example.com.