Don’t start a “college-age ministry” [until you take these steps]

Steve Argue
October 29th, 2019

This post is part of a feature series highlighting insights, encouragement, and inspiration from many of our speakers at this year’s National Youth Workers Convention in Tampa, FL. To join us, these speakers, and thousands of other youth workers, register today!

I spend a lot of time talking with graduate students and ministry leaders about emerging adults (those ages 18-30). Inevitably the conversation turns to starting (or saving) a church’s college-age ministry.

There seems to be an automatic reflex that churches experience when their young people graduate from high school and youth groups. It’s fueled by anxious adults’ impulses to keep their kids from losing faith, falling away, or skipping church. Any inspired (or panicked) solutions typically are assigned to the youth pastor since “they’re basically your youth group kids anyway.”

Before you panic, good youth minister, let me encourage you. You don’t need to start a college-age program.

In fact, we should never be too quick to start programs. Our recent research at the Fuller Youth Institute has led us to the vital conclusion that we must start with young people, not programs.

When we start with programs we’re tempted to entice, shame, and market people to join.

When we start with people, we’re challenged to listen, leave our assumptions behind, grow our understanding and empathy, and then muster our resources to support them.

To get there, begin by taking these steps: 


When leaders refer to college-age, they evoke two ambiguous terms, “college” and “age.” But here are a few surprising snapshots:

  • 69% of high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities in 2018. That means 31% were not.
  • 60% of college students are attending full-time, one-third are attending 2-year programs. [1]
  • 4-year degrees take, on average, 6 years to complete and only 60% will complete their degree. [2]
  • 1 in 6 students are taking courses exclusively online. [3]
  • 80% of part-time students and 40% of full-time students hold part-time jobs. [4]
  • 20% of undergraduate students are over 25-years old (30% in 2-yr colleges, 70% in for-profit colleges). [5]
  • 1 in 4 have student loan debt, averaging $37,000 with a monthly loan payment of $393/month. [6]
  • 35% of high school students say they are considering taking a gap year. [6]
  • 40% of emerging adults have experienced a psychiatric disorder over a 12-month period  (e.g. anxiety disorder, mood disorder, substance misuse). [7]

Perhaps before faith communities prescribe a college-age program, leaders should pause to think about those they seek to serve:

  • Personally, who are our emerging adults?
  • Vocationally where might they need support?
  • Relationally, what might community mean for them?
  • Financially, where are their stressors?
  • Spiritually, what are they working through?
  • Humanly, what is good news for them today?


High school graduates are asking profound questions about their identity, belonging, and purpose. In other words, emerging adults want to know how they fit, and too many churches are only thinking about where they’ve gone or where they should put them. A college-age group seems like a natural solution, but it’s not.

The moment churches create yet another peer group, separate from the adult congregation, they communicate to emerging adults that their relationship with the church is no different than when they were in high school. Segmentation perpetuates separation. And resulting programming often asks little of emerging adults to “attend.”

This age-old approach creates “spiritual consumers,” rather than equipping young adults to take charge of their spiritual growth, ask faith-filled questions, and explore new social groups.

Perhaps before faith communities prescribe a college-age program, they should consider their goals:

  • How do we encourage personal ownership in their spiritual journeys?
  • How do we create space for honesty, doubt, struggle, and searching?
  • How do we encourage dialogue instead of offering solutions?
  • What support structure can we build to help them step out in faith spiritually, relationally, and vocationally?


Too often, college-age ministry turns into youth group for high school exiles–an ecclesiastical waiting room while they settle down and grow up. Any move toward serving emerging adults must be a whole-church move. This means that churches must let the lives, stories, failures, success, questions, and friends of emerging adults flow freely into the community. The church must receive them (and all of it) as part of their own story and ask themselves:

  • What can our congregation do to empathize more and judge less?
  • Where can our faith community show generosity (when emerging adults can’t pay us back)?
  • Where can our church take risks in order to be more welcoming and remove walls, even if it makes adults feel less safe?

Any church that wants a college-age program but is unwilling to be challenged by emerging adults’ lives really isn’t ready for them.


A reactive, college-age program will make adults feel good but won’t serve emerging adults. Churches can be great news to them if they start with people rather than programs. Let’s take that risk and embody the good news emerging adults are really looking for.

[1] National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics. 2019. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_105.20.asp

[2] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). The Condition of Education 2019 (NCES 2019-144), Undergraduate Retention and Graduation Rates.

[3] Lederman, Doug. Online Education Ascends. Inside Higher Education. November 7, 2018. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/11/07/new-data-online-enrollments-grow-and-share-overall-enrollment

[4] The Condition of Education: College Student Employment. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_ssa.pdf

[5] The Hamilton Project. https://www.hamiltonproject.org/charts/age_distribution_of_undergraduate_students_by_type_of_institution

[6]  Dickler, Jessica. Making the most of a gap year before college. CNBC. May 19, 2017.  https://www.nitrocollege.com/research/average-student-loan-debt[7] Arnett, Žukauskienė, & Sugimura. The new life stage of emerging adulthood at ages 18–29 years: Implications for mental health. Lancet Psychiatry 2014; 1: 569–76

Steve Argue

Steven Argue, PhD [Michigan State University] is the Applied Research Strategist for the Fuller Youth Institute and Associate Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Steve researches, speaks, and writes on adolescent and emerging adult spirituality. He has served as a pastor on the Lead Team at Mars Hill Bible Church [Grand Rapids, MI]; coaches and trains church leaders and volunteers; and has been invested in youth ministry conversation for over 20 years.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.