The very fact you’re asking if your kids will go to church in college reveals a couple things. First, you care. Within your heart is a profound longing for your kids to stay tethered to the local church and to continue to make their faith their own. This is honorable and right.
Second, you sense something is awry in the culture. You’ve detected trends in society that aren’t leading your kids toward the local church in college, but away from it. You’re spot-on. If worshiping consistently at a local church has ever been an uphill battle, it’s now. And our kids are in the thick of it.
But let’s not complicate things. Kids do what they like. Why can’t that be church?
Upon graduating from high school, our kids will see going to church in college as naturally as eating food and taking showers if we take care of a few things on the front end. Although we know there are no guarantees.
Still, consider these 7 questions as guides for helping you launch your kids toward cherishing church in college too.
1. Is Christianity real in your home?
Your kids can sniff out poser-Christianity quicker than you can say, “Amen.” If the gospel of grace isn’t found in the home, there will always be a disconnect between your student and church.
In their minds, church wields no power if it can’t even affect your day to day at home. Not if the “Christian stuff” done on Sunday isn’t consistent with the rest of the week.
This doesn’t mean Bible studies twice a day, every day, or “household corporate worship time!” Please, don’t check off more formalities in place of true, and sometimes messy, faith modeled in your home.
Are we, the parents, quick to confess our temper-flares? Do we display growth (however slowly) in our own spiritual walks with Jesus? Do we let our kids in on that? Are we interested in making our lives about us or about God? As evidenced by how we spend our money, how we spend our time, how we view others …
If kids see real faith, they notice. It’s irrefutable, attractive, and they’ll want to follow.
2. Is church a priority to you right now?
It’s standard leadership advice that our followers (in this case, our kiddos) are always three steps behind. They’re never quite at our level. This means if we’re only making 35 Sundays each year, they’ll (instinctively) make 20 when they are on heading to church in college on their own.
In other words, to expect our kids to improve on the church attendance model we showed them is, frankly, fantasy. That said, it is possible. But don’t count on it.
I, for one, am one such an anomaly. In God’s goodness, a few fantastic friends surrounded me in the first few weeks of college. It’s hard to sleep in on a Sunday morning when someone is pelting your face with a pillow, screaming, “Service starts in eleven minutes! C’mon!”
3. Who surrounds your kids?
I forgot who said it, but it’s worth repeating: you are the average of your closest five friends. Parents, it’s our duty now to help filter our kids’ friends.
While the hammer should be used sparingly here, an apathetic mindset could lead your kid down a destructive path. This isn’t to say your kid shouldn’t befriend nonbelievers—quite the opposite!
But they need an A-team friend group. It’s difficult to argue with Proverbs 13:20: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise.” Practically, communal belief is a real thing.
There’s this undeniable social phenomenon that if the people you’re surrounded with believe X, so will you. In his book, Evangelism in a Skeptical World, Sam Chan says, “People will find a story more believable if … their trusted friends and family … also believe the story” (p. 43). Help surround your kids with characters in the story of God’s incredible mission through the local church.
4. Is church a safe place?
Honestly, if your church has an air of legalism about it, where the rules are crushing and the self-righteousness is repulsive, fresh birds from the nest are going to scurry for the hills. Teens have no palate for gross religiosity.
If, however, the free gospel of grace in Jesus is both preached and felt, life without it feels wrong. Our kids will crave it. How can they not? There’s nothing else like it!
For this reason, position your family in a church where the gospel is in the doctrine and in the culture. This takes precedence over location, music-style, or “but my friends go here!” This will make them yearn for a church in college like this too.
5. Are your kids engaged in church?
I attended an Arkansas Razorback football game last season. Does that make me a Razorback? Of course not! In the same way, sitting in a chair every Sunday morning doesn’t make your student a Christian. Nor does it tether your kid to the local church.
However central Sunday morning worship is to your student, they need to serve, participate, and engage, too. Are your teens serving in children’s ministry? If you’re renting a space, are they helping set up? Are they active in the youth group? What’s the last mission trip they served on?
Here’s the truth: the more your kids are engaged in church, the more they are engaged with God, God’s people, and God’s mission. If your student can get the why of church—as opposed to, “It’s just that tradition we have for Sunday morning”—they’re more likely to engage in church in college once independent.
6. Do you prioritize your kids’ spiritual growth?
Often, students aren’t engaged in church (see #4 above) because of their busy schedules. Parents, this is something we need to deeply consider.
The chief struggle for today’s youth pastors is that parents aren’t prioritizing their kids’ spiritual lives. I know, I know. This is coming from a youth pastor (hidden agenda, muhaha). But, truly, in my experience, the almighty college resume is bowed to over spiritual growth nine times out of ten.
Sorry, Justin, but Curtis will miss the next three zillion youth groups because of debate team. No, Madeline can’t do the Honduras trip this summer … she might make regionals in ballet!
I get it. I’m not trying to combat the world here. It’s always good things on the schedule. But with this model, why are we appalled at the statistics? Kids leave church because they don’t value it … because they weren’t taught to value it. Will you be different?
7. Are their big questions being answered?
Your kids do have big questions. Who am I? Where did I come from? Do I matter? What is my identity? How should I view others?
And someone is giving them answers. Is it you or the culture?
We, the church, must lean into the hairy questions rattling around in their heads. Let’s strive to create an environment where it’s safe to express doubts, fears, and questions. Faith rots when doubts and questions are kept silent.
Parents, start now. Ask them what they are asking. If they stump you, go study up and come back. You aren’t the Bible Wizard. But you are the caring parent, tenderly hushing the chaos inherent to growing up in a fallen world.
Read through these questions. Pray fervently as you do. Consider your lifestyle, their lifestyle, and take a step today. With His gracious help, all the hope in the world is yours for the taking.
Copyright © 2019 Justin Talbert. All rights reserved.
Justin serves as the student pastor at Christ Community Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. He has a Biblical Studies degree from Belmont University and an MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary. He and his wife, May, have three sons: Soren, Aksel, and Isen. Find him on instagram: @justintalbert.