Why Campus Ministries Don’t Appeal to College Students

Written for Acculturated

August 28th, 2017

College is, in general, a time of challenges, but it is even more so for Christians than their secular peers. Without parents to hold them accountable, and with the broadly accepted view that college is the time to sow wild oats, even the goodiest of goody-two-shoes can fall prey to the Bacchanalian social life that is so prevalent on campuses. In order to prevent a mass exodus from the faith, and with traditional methods failing to resonate with millennials, many have decided that in order to be attractive to younger audiences, the church needs to change. With change comes that age-old question: How much can you alter something before it loses what makes it special?

Campus ministry leaders invariably answer the question incorrectly. Many of them have removed the traditional worship structure, loosened dress codes, and replaced hymns with songs that, with slight lyrical changes, wouldn’t seem out of place in a grungy, hipster coffeehouse or rock concert. Christians are called to make the outside world like the church; why are campus ministries striving to attract people to the church by making it like the world?

I’m a college student, and I once attended a contemporary worship service where the minister went so far as to proclaim that it was the mission of the church to remove anything that would make people feel uncomfortable during worship so that they’d be able to walk off the street without noticing they had entered a religious worship space. The major issue with this attitude is rather obvious. Worship isn’t supposed to be a typical experience. It should be unlike anything else you do during the week, completely different from the outside world. It should be, dare I say, a holy occasion, with a matching ambience to drive home that difference. You shouldn’t sing music that sounds like something you’d hear on the radio. You shouldn’t feel comfortable pulling your phone out in the middle of the service. And you shouldn’t wear your normal day-to-day clothes, because worship isn’t a normal day-to-day experience. Church should be awe-inspiring and beautiful, and yes, if you’re not accustomed to it, that might seem a bit intimidating or formal at first. But perhaps if you feel out of place in a church the change shouldn’t come from the institution but from you. It’s far less arrogant to simply be introspective and consider why you feel the way you do than to attempt to change the church to better suit your proclivities.

For all the arguments against contemporary worship services, perhaps the most convincing is this: There are more contemporary services today than there ever have been. And yet churches still cannot capture the great white whale of Millennials. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that there are even fewer Millennials who identify as Christian than there were in 2007, with those who are unaffiliated with a religion rising a full nine percentage points to thirty-four percent. The younger Millennials who were not eligible for the study in 2007—those born between 1990 to 1996—are even less likely to be Christian, with thirty-six percent not identifying with any faith. We have the contemporary services, so where are all the new Christians they’re supposed to create? They don’t exist, because the reasons people don’t go to church have less to do with how services are performed than with a fundamental difference in ideology that prevents them from embracing the faith.

It is true that the church needs to make changes in order to bring more young men and young women to Christ, but those put in place by campus ministries have not worked. The changes to be made aren’t in how churches encourage the worship of God, but in how Christians engage the secular world. The church needs to promote real discussion and debates on the major, and sometimes controversial, topics the world is facing. We need to bring people to God by showing the strength of our faith. Rock songs and looser dress codes don’t change minds. Only earnest discussion can do that.