WHY ARE COLLEGIANS LEAVING THEIR HOME CHURCHES?
JUSTIN WONG | JAN 18, 2018 | 14 MIN READ
One of the hardest parts of youth ministry is walking with students for years and then watching them walk away from their churches and never return. And no, I’m not talking about those who leave the faith altogether (though that is excruciating), but rather those students who drift away from their home church and never consider coming back.
It isn’t so much a steep drop off immediately after our students graduate from high school. Instead, what I’m noticing is a mass exodus with our former youth usually around junior or senior year of college. Again, these are not the nominal Christians, but those who are dedicated and equipped as youth and yet feel like they can’t or don’t want to come back home.
So, as we watch our students slip away, we have to ask: Why is this happening? And furthermore, is this a problem that needs our attention or something we should encourage them to do? Let’s explore some of the reasons our students leave and how we can best respond to them.
THEY GROW UP
First, we should recognize that our students are growing into adults. As they enter college, they start fresh in a new world of self-identification and self-dependence. They make their own decisions, order their own food, and pick their own churches. In essence, they are well on their way into adulthood.
Their “home church” becomes a relic of their pasts, a reminder of their childhood and what once was. Oftentimes our students come back and, almost in awe, note that things haven’t changed at all. The rapid inner change of these students is a stark contrast to their steady, seemingly unchanging home church.
What’s more, some students no longer see the need for the safety and comfort of what was once “home” for them. Coupled with a lack of a deep ecclesiological understanding of church and church membership, students feel their old churches are safe and boring with nothing to offer them. So now they feel drawn to other churches and or parachurch ministries.
THEY CRAVE COMMUNITY
College is a unique experience in which you can literally live next door to your best friends and hangouts happen regularly and spontaneously. Our students are coming back from some of the deepest, most meaningful community that they’ve ever encountered.
So when our students return home during the holiday breaks, they find the community there lacking. While at school they have a community full of fellow college students, at home they are now immersed in a multi-generational community, oftentimes focused on the family, and it feels foreign to many of them. Their idea of “community” seems to be missing when they come home.
THEY DON’T FIT IN
Within an ethnic context, the aspect of fitting in becomes massive. As students are immersed in the college setting, they become more aware of their identities as Asian-Americans. Many first and second-generation students leave the Asian church bubble that protected them in their youths and are exposed to people from vastly different backgrounds and philosophies. It expands their understanding of the world and society, but it also allows them to recognize that their stories and their ethnic backgrounds are not the norm - indeed, it is unique.
And so, they yearn for a church to speak to both their Asian AND American identity, not just one or the other. When they return to their very Asian home churches, they often confess that they feel out of place, and sitting through services requiring translation makes them want to roll their eyes. And what’s more is that perhaps they have been exposed to other philosophies of ministry, theologies and doctrines, and policies and procedures that seem alien and even attractive.
THEY WANT TO TAKE LEAD
Asian-American congregations tend to be highly service-oriented. But our expectation for “young people” is often based on our cultural understanding of family: younger members of the family should be subservient to the elder ones, they should speak only when spoken to, and they should wait their turn.
But on campus, our students see firsthand that young people can step up and change the world. At school and in campus ministries, they are the ones shifting the vision, planning events, and driving the change. They are the leaders.
And yet, when they come back they are greeted with a stack of chairs that need to be set up or directed to help with youth (again). They are willing to serve in that way, but at the same time, they want to take lead and take a seat at the table. They want their voices heard, even at the highest levels of church leadership.
THEY EXPECT MORE
I vividly remember talking with so many of our college students after their first semesters of college and hearing all the new, fresh ways they had experienced worship or about the amazing, powerful preaching by their new pastor. And what an encouragement it is to know that our students are continuing to be shaped and challenged by dynamic, gospel-centered teaching, even after they leave our doors. Praise God for these churches and for these campus ministries!
I know it’s difficult for our students to sit through what they perceived to be a sub-par performance when they rejoin their “home” church. And look, I get it. I make it a habit to follow their churches, their pastors, and even their parachurch campus ministries. They are pumping out solid content and great material. And it is so hard not to compare the home church to what some of our students are receiving from their college ministries or local churches in their area.
But we must help our students understand that church is more about the people and less about the performance. Church, or the biblical definition of community, is first and foremost predicated on the Gospel. Where the Gospel reigns, there you have biblical community. We have to help them see the ministry that is being done, despite the lack of lasers and fog machines. We have to show them that the gospel we preach is one and the same that they hear on campus.
We also need to make plain the truth that the purpose of the church is not to fulfill their every need as a member. The college parachurch ministries on campus, and sometimes even the churches nearby, are oftentimes totally devoted to serving their college students, offering myriad ministries targeted specifically at their life stage.
But when they return home, the students realize that they are no longer the center of attention. Sometimes, there IS no specific college ministry for them! And yet, we must teach them that this is not the signal to leave for greener pastures.
And to be fair, let’s face it, sometimes the Asian church is a bit behind the times. We are set in our ways and resistant to change. We may need to re-examine the way we do worship or the way we teach Sunday School. At the very least, the ethnic church must listen to the voices of their younger congregants on how to grow. We cannot wholly reject or dismiss the perceived needs of this new generation. We must adapt where needed, stay firm on what’s important, and work together for the sake of the gospel.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
The sad part about this observation is that it surfaced so late in my ministry. While I saw glimpses of the need as a member, I couldn’t really see the gaping hole until I pastored past year 6 and 7. But the good part is that the situation is not hopeless.
1. Ministers and leaders need to be resolved to commit to this demographic especially in the Asian American churches
There needs to be robust dialogue and a humility to listen to the real needs of this group of young adults. Church leadership should start conversations with their college students earlier. Historically, the solution for many of our churches was to simply hire college pastor, but there needs to be more. We must answer the question, “Are our students returning? Why? Why not? How do we equip these young saints for the work of the ministry?” And senior church leadership must begin to put into place development paths for these younger students to be trained and given a seat at the table.
2. The Asian American church needs to address a better understanding of biblical church membership
From the pulpit to the implementation of discipline, this is a weak spot for many our churches. Starting from the youth (and their parents) they need to understand what is expected of them as members of their church and the church needs to come alongside and shepherd these students towards maturity. We do ourselves and the Gospel as massive disservice if church attendance is all that is wrapped up in being a Christian.
3. Finally, champion the Asian American home church
While there are numerous challenges to an ethnic specific church, there are still people that continue to show up. There are so many who need to hear the Gospel for the first time as well those who need to hear a clear version of the Gospel. There is still so much discipleship that needs to be done.
It’s easy to flee to a “healthier” church without so many problems. I’ve always challenged my students, by saying “Why not come back and seek to build, repair, labor for the sake of the Gospel within the context you’ve grown up in? It is no coincidence that God created you as an Asian-American, even second generation, for a reason. Perhaps he is raising you up for such a time as this?”
I love being able to serve in the Asian American context, not because it’s easy by any stretch of the imagination, but because there is such a need for the gospel to be made known and proclaimed in this context. There are many who need shepherding towards maturity, and yet many have fled to “greener pastures.” Let us help students come back to their home church not because of nostalgia, comfort, or numbers, but because we want them to find their places in this gospel story with their home communities.
Justin Wong has been ministering with youth for the past 18 years. He currently serves in Houston, Texas at Chinese Baptist Church where he grew up under the pastoral leadership of his dad. He received his MDiv. and DMin. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.