In this interview the authors of The Slow Fade: Why You Matter in the Story of Twentysomethings, Reggie Joiner, Abbie Smith and Chuck Bomar, share their thoughts about the state of college-aged ministry today and what we can do to help young adults reengage the Church.
Q: In your book, The Slow Fade, you relay that statistics show somewhere between 65 and 80% of people who grow up in church will drop out of church when they become college-aged. How long has this been going on?
A: The trend of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds disengaging from church and faith has been a growing problem for more than twenty years. While those who are college-aged are increasingly fading out of the picture, mainstream denominations and independent churches are slowly graying and declining in attendance. The sad news is that churches’ strategies to reach these twentysomethings have not significantly adjusted to respond to this issue. When you ask the average church what their plan is for college-aged people, you usually get confused looks. Frankly, twentysomethings are perceived by most leaders in churches as a transient demographic, people who don’t tithe and who need to solidify their faith on their own.
Q: What is happening in the lives of these young people as they begin the “slow fade?”
A: The one thing they have in common is they all are becoming disconnected from their communities of faith. At a time in their lives when their faith should be accelerating, it has begun to dim. At a stage when they’re developing a new network of friends, there is a relational gap. At the moment they are beginning to wrestle with what they thought was certain, they are missing voices they know they can trust. They are fading off the radar of those who were their Christian leaders during the very season when they are trying to solidify what they really believe. It is not intentional on anyone’s part. No one is deliberately orchestrating the fade. It is just out of sight, out of mind. And some of the most influential and promising leaders of faith for the next generation are being ignored and gradually fading from view.
Q: So what is the answer? Is it to simply to create more effective college ministry programs? Or a new breed of college ministries in churches across the country?
A: Not really. The issue is not to reinvent college ministry in the local church, or this book would have simply been written to church staffs or student pastors. Although there are some principles here that translate for the local church, our desire in writing this is to appeal to a different audience. If you are an adult who is interested in influencing the slow fade, we hope this book will mobilize you to build a relationship with someone who is college-aged. The real question is, who has the greatest potential to influence the faith of those who are in their late teens and twenties? Yes, we think it is the church, but more specifically Christian adults who are in the church who have a passion to invest in this age group. The strategy is simple: Recruit a new breed of mentors to invest time in those who are college-aged.
Q: You write about the value of belonging. What is the importance of helping college-aged people feel connected, feel that they belong?
A: Honestly, most college-aged people don’t know where they belong—especially in the church. If I don’t know why I belong to something, or how I bring unity to some degree, there’s little reason to stick around. To know that we belong—ultimately to God—is arguably the end we were made for and the beginning of being made whole. Though acceptance is often an external (or felt) craving, belonging is the layer that lies beneath. Acceptance is fleeting and arbitrary, whereas belonging is grounded in something more permanent. Belonging stems from the knowledge that I am intrinsically connected to a place, or people, beyond myself. I can dress stylishly, speak eloquently, or excel at something enough to find acceptance. But my acceptance will always be based on something about me—and thus up for grabs when that something changes or falls short. What I need is to be loved based on simply being me.
Q: You make this concept of mentoring sound extremely important, but I’m sure some readers will feel intrigued by the idea but not qualified.
A: Most people we’ve talked to about investing their lives in college-aged adults don’t feel comfortable with the idea. When pressed for a reason, they generally feel the task of mentoring someone is too daunting, that they are underequipped for such an overwhelming responsibility. We believe that is because Christians haven’t defined the role of a mentor very well, or possibly because we never defined it, and someone drew his or her own unrealistic conclusions.
As mentors, we have to be careful that we don’t develop a messiah complex. We can’t start with the self-imposed duty to carry people to a point of completion, a point where we know they will be invincible because they were under our care. If we are honest, that isn’t true of us, so why would it be true of them? We know that we ourselves need the grace of God to become who we need to be, and the same is true of every college-aged person. Ultimately, they need God, not you. And fortunately, God is the one who bears the responsibility to carry someone to completion, not us. So let’s breathe a sigh of relief.