Sixty-Six Percent of Christian Kids Walk Away from Faith in College: How Marvin UMC is Discipling the Next Generation of Leaders
By: Sherri Gragg
The lights burn late into the night on Wednesday evenings at Marvin UMC. It isn’t a prayer vigil, board meeting, or a pastoral intervention.
It is an invasion.
Every Wednesday night, more than 40 college students descend on the campus of Marvin UMC. They eat together and hang out for hours, regularly lingering until 11:00 p.m. But first, they have Bible study, and whatever you do, don’t try to serve them any fluff. These kids want solid Biblical teaching.
“I had what I thought was this great idea for a Bible study, ‘Life According to The Office,’” said Director of Student Ministries, Jake Womack. “The idea was to watch clips from The Office and base a study and discussion around them. After the first night, the students were like, “No, this is not why we come here.’ They wanted solid Bible teaching that was convicting and relevant. I said, ‘Awesome. Thanks for keeping me in check.’”
According to a recent Lifeway Research Study, 66 percent of young men and women who were raised in the church walk away from faith completely in college. The reasons behind this abandonment of faith are undoubtedly complex. Womack describes a generation of young men and women who searching for authentic ways to feed their hungry souls, and he believes the secret to keeping kids in the pews is found in simple expressions of what Jesus would have called, “feeding his sheep.”
The Hunger for What is True
Womack has served in student ministry for many years. Over the course of countless Bible studies, lock-ins, retreats and youth services, he has watched as a dramatically changing culture has shaped the young men and women coming through his doors. Today’s students, he says, are deeply confused by the shifting cultural landscape, and long for a solid theological ground upon which they can build their lives. “They are searching for something real,” he said, “and they can smell a gimmick a mile away.”
Today’s students are hungry for what is true, and Womack has committed to feeding them with solid Biblical study. Gone is his failed experiment, “Life According to the Office.” It has been replaced with heartier Biblical fare. Recently, his college students began a 12-week study on the life of David entitled, “Lessons from a King.” “They want to be challenged,” Womack said.
The Hunger for Grace
Womack recognizes that some college-age students who are walking away from the faith have been burned by the church. He describes a “Camelot” culture of wounding churches, one in which everything looks great on the outside, but is falling apart internally. In these churches, kids struggle to find a safe space where they can find grace for their weaknesses. He feels it is vitally important to help reframe church for those individuals by modeling authenticity. “I try to communicate that we are all broken here- you, me, all of us. You don’t have to be perfect. When we do that, it allows everyone to drop their guard and have the deep conversations we wouldn’t normally have.”
The Hunger for Authentic Community
The freshman college class of 2019 was 12-years-old when the first iPhone hit stores, changing the way the entire world communicated and developed relationships. It even changed the meaning of what it means to be a “friend.” Womack believes that along with the incredible benefits of the technology, the smartphone planted dangerous seeds of comparison and isolationism in an entire generation, yielding a harvest of depression, drug abuse, and suicide. “It is about identity,” he said, “the terrible weight of trying to look perfect.”
The college ministry at Marvin UMC strives to create an environment in which students can cultivate deep, meaningful relationships with Christ and each other beyond the arid landscape of “likes,” “streaks,” and “followers.” As the prevalence of suicide and drug addiction have actually lowered the life expectancy of Americans, college students are hungry for the life-giving truth of God’s love and Christian community. “Over the next five years, I think we will really begin to see the impact of social media on this generation,” Womack said, “The weight of it all has become so crushing.”