Learning From College Students

January 14, 2021

I was given an awesome opportunity by Twin Lakes Camp Director, Jon Beight, to spend a few hours with some serious-minded (but fun) college students. Our primary objective was to study and prepare for the biblical theme for this summer of camp. Their insights into the Scripture were refreshing and challenging!

A secondary goal was for me to be able to pick their brains on how I could connect to that age group as a small church pastor. The majority of churches in America are 100 people or less, and most of those churches would probably say they struggle to connect to young people. What can be an additional detractor from the church is when it has had big problems (division, public sin, abusive leadership, etc.). Small church America has many self-evident charms, one being that developing close relationships is much easier. But this also means when problems arise, everybody knows about them and everybody is affected by them, leading to the painful exit of people from an already small church.

Once young people leave high school, if they go to church at all, the majority of them are attracted to the larger more exciting churches, and, understandably so.

My question to these young people was:

How can small church America connect to their age-group?

We had this conversation over lunch, and unfortunately I had left my notepad in my vehicle. So, I am going to go off my memory.

First, A Clarifying Question

One of the first questions I received was what I meant by reaching their age-group. This was closely tied with what I mention in the next section - what my top priority should be. In my case, I am seeking to connect to students in three different ways:

  1. Those who are already at a nearby college to our church.
  2. Students who are looking to fulfill internships in the church
  3. Students who are looking to start their careers after college.

Young people who choose the trades route instead of a college route are often more likely to stay in their own communities they already grew up in. This leads us to what we talked about next.

They Told Me What My Top Priority Should Be

I was happy to hear, right out of the gate, that they pointed me to evangelism and outreach. The best way to grow a church is through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I agreed, but our church, at this point, has no one who is there on a regular basis who falls within the 20-30 age range. We are blessed with several children and a fairly balanced spread of ages in the church with the exception of this age range. One of the challenges small churches can face is you need some people that age to attract some people that age. But, since you don't have people that age, it can be hard to get anybody that age.

The next few things we talked about were intermingled together, but I am breaking them into separate sections here.

Getting Students to Consider Moving to Your Church After College

I mentioned that the college I went to used to encourage students to put their career on hold for a couple of years and go find a small church to help. This did not seem practical to these students primarily because of college debt. Most students need to land in their career ASAP so they can begin to knock this out.

So how can I get their attention to come to my small church in small town USA?

I asked them if I came with a list of possible jobs in the area if that would make a difference. They concurred that this would make a huge difference. Jon Beight, the camp director, weighed in and mentioned that I could serve as something like a headhunter for them.

For context, I have done something like this before. But it is a difficult process. We had a young couple right out of seminary who moved out and helped us with our church plant. We helped them find a place to live and a place to work. But, in that case, it was backwards. They were willing to move out without a place to live or work. That does happen, but it is not the normal way it happens.

Next, we will look at something I have had the least success with - connecting to students at a nearby college.

Connecting to Students at a Nearby College

Our church is in a small town of 4,000 people, and it is not a place that attracts college-age young people. College-bound young people are leaving our town, and in many cases not coming back. We do have some professional career jobs in town, but we also have a lot of factory jobs in the area. There is nothing wrong with a factory job, but as I look to connect to this age group, I am looking for ways to get a few 20 somethings in the church so that we can begin to cultivate an outreach to that age-group. So right now, my starting point is the Christian colleges.

We have two Christian colleges within a 40 minute drive. Although I have not had success getting currently enrolled students to come to our church during the semester, I can be thankful that is at least an option. Some small town, small churches don't even have that as an option.

Several of these students I was talking to said they like small churches because of the love and sense of community they can get from them. I know our church excels at this, so that gives me hope.

My challenge is how to actually connect with those students so they know our church wants them to come. As I have talked to colleges, I am not finding that they are connecting their students to small churches in the area. I am sure there are things I don't know about, but I have a strong sense that this is an area that Christian colleges need to level up on - connecting their students to small church America.

One great suggestion I received was to develop relationships with the professors because they see their students daily and have a great influence over them. If a prof encourages their students to look at a small church in the area, it could make a big difference. I have begun to develop relationships with the two Christian colleges close to me, but this was a good reminder to keep at it.

Somebody mentioned that I could also have a prof. come and speak at my church, and that really got me to thinking. I have already started to put that in motion.

Two-Year Pastoral Internships

Both guys that I spoke to that day were working on their Master of Divinity. I asked them what their interest would be in doing a two-year internship at our church ending with us ordaining them. (This is something that I have had success at before.). They both said that sounded really appealing to them. As we got into more detail, some foreseeable challenges began to arise - the main one being financial package. They would want to be able to do at least 20 hours a week at the church and then the other 20 hours working a non-church job.

For a small church, that may not be doable. Our church doesn't have a place for a guy to live. And most 20 hour a week, non-church jobs won't cover enough of the expenses. I am a firm believer in paying an intern some sort of stipend; however, our budget could not afford to pay someone enough for them only to work 20 hours a week and then pay rent on a place to live.

I am not up-to-date with how medium-to-large-sized churches are doing this now. The way I see small church America participating in this is if they are blessed with a place for a young man with his family to live rent free in. Then, they could pay him $100 a week, and he could work a part-time job in addition. Otherwise, the young man would need to work a full-time job and then fulfill the internship at the church at maybe five to six hours a week (this is how I did it previously).

If a young man looking for an internship like this is able to find a medium-to-large-sized church that could pay them to work at the church 20 hours a week or even a full-time salary, then I wouldn't blame him for going that route. I am not sure how many of those are available though. I wonder if many of these young men will end up starting as a youth pastor or an assistant pastor and then get ordained a few years in. Even then, you have to find a church that can afford a youth pastor or an assistant pastor. I suspect that Bible-centered churches in America more and more are going to have bi-vocational pastors. Hopefully I am wrong.

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