The Other Gap Theory

The full length version of this article appears in the November/December issue of Voice magazine.

When we walk into a local grocery store in the U.S., we face an abundance of choices unlike anywhere else in the world. The cereal aisle alone is a great example of how companies strive to offer something for everyone. We see cereals for the health-conscious and sugary cereals with cartoon-filled boxes promising delicious taste, unique shapes and hidden toy prizes. We see cereals for those who like fruit, for those who like sweetness, for those who need fiber, and for those who just like their breakfast plain and simple.

American churches have also adopted this trend of specialization. Almost all churches strive to have something for everyone. Babies and infants have a nursery. Toddlers and preschoolers have their own class. Many churches offer Children’s Church for grade-school kids. And youth ministries have been developed to meet the needs of adolescents as they progress through junior high and high school. Many churches also offer adult women’s and men’s ministries and classes for married couples and senior saints.

But this church structure has flaws.

The gap for singles

A gap exists in this common ministry structure—one that poses a danger to the future of many churches. Churches provide ministry for children and young people from birth through high school, and beyond that age, adult ministries usually range from young married’s classes through ministries to the elderly members.

This structure would be perfect for young people who get married right out of high school; they can transition from the youth group to the young marrieds group. But what about the vast majority of high school graduates who move on to college or enter the workforce and remain single?

I have come to the conclusion that if a church lacks ministry to college-age young people, it is risking its future.

Five years ago, George Barna published “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years.” The article revealed a number of alarming trends:

  • Only 20% of twenty-somethings maintained the level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school years.
  • 61% of twenty-somethings had been churched during their teen years but were later “spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying).”
  • Only 1/3 of twenty-somethings parents took their children to church compared to 40% of parents in their thirties and 50% of parents in their forties.

Granted, a church without a college ministry may be able to stay open for years, but those churches will increasingly find themselves fighting an uphill battle against dwindling membership and diminishing ministry effectiveness, as generations of college students grow older and find their place in the surrounding communities.

Building bridges

The St. Louis Arch is known as the “Gateway to the West.” Visitors to the Arch learn of the pioneers who crossed the Mississippi on their way to settle the vast wilderness that lay before them. I am thankful that I no longer have to cross those great rivers in canoes or rafts. It is truly a blessing that those who came before me built bridges to make transportation to the west so much easier.

When teens come to the end of their high school years, they are facing changes that are just as daunting as crossing the Mississippi River was with the technology of the 1800s. Churches need to provide bridges to help these young people better navigate their journeys. So what can we do to build these bridges and fill the gaps in our ministry structures? From my experience, here are a couple key ideas.

1. Recognize who they are and where they are.

Recognizing who these twenty-somethings are goes way beyond appearances. In fact, if we evaluate them based on appearances, we will totally miss great opportunities for ministry and discipleship.

This past June I performed a wedding for a couple who had been involved in our college ministry for about a year. The guy was pretty laid back and often wore an earring and khaki shorts to church. He was also a member of an athletic team that didn’t have a very positive spiritual reputation on our local Christian college campus. Yet as I got to know him through college ministry and pre-marital counseling, I was encouraged to see that he was a great guy who is focused on the Lord and is truly a faithful follower of Christ. We need to look past the earring and other externals and recognize the true heart of these students. If our churches can’t do that, we have bigger problems than a lack of college students attending on Sundays.

At the same time, Christians who work in college ministry also discover a not-so-positive characteristic of a large segment of this generation—they are often hypocrites.

I was at a conference recently and attended a break-out session on college ministry. About fifty of us packed into a classroom and discussed various aspects of college ministry. The discussion intensified when someone brought up the blatant sin many of these young people allow in their personal lives. Many in this generation find it acceptable to attend worship services on Sunday but live like pagans the rest of the week. Leaders of college ministries must strive to help these young people connect what they say they believe with how they live. (For more on this, see Scot McKnight’s article in the July/August edition of Relevant magazine.)

Where they are in life

Recognizing who these young people are requires that we understand where they are in life. The college and post-college years are so formative as young people make spiritual decisions and own or disown their faith. Going to college or getting a first serious job provides an opportunity for independence. Some use that independence to continue to embrace their faith. But others—especially those who have grown up sheltered, and pressured—relish the chance to get out on their own and enjoy their freedom.1

The nature of an individual’s upbringing greatly affects which direction he or she goes. If home life was dominated either by excessive rules or excessive permissiveness, that can have costly effects. Legalism often encourages students to rebel when they obtain their freedom. But twenty-somethings from overly permissive homes are prone to try to make their own rules according to whatever they themselves desire. Without a foundation of truth, they have no sense of morality other than the changing whims of our culture.2

It is crucial that our churches recognize who these young people are by seeing past the externals and personally connecting with them to do the hard but necessary work of discipleship. It is also crucial that we understand how vitally important this time is, given the decisions they make and the influences that can affect how they use their freedom.

2. Respond by pursuing relevant, biblical ministry.

Recognizing who they are is half the battle. We need to respond to who they are with ministry methods that speak biblical truth in their language. I cannot overemphasize this group’s absolute, essential need for vibrant teaching of God’s Word. That must be the foundation!

The twenty-somethings generation gravitates towards two things: music and service. Their musical language is the contemporary worship style, but they do appreciate hymns as well. They just prefer to sing “Jesus Paid It All” with guitars. The fact that they love to serve can be an incredible blessing to a church.

The college-age group at our church has often lacked a large Sunday School because so many of them were serving in children’s ministries. This generation’s willingness to serve can benefit churches in so many ways, including missions and outreach teams. They are excited about causes and meeting needs.

A plurality of leadership is important to the college ministry. Making people feel welcome, taking prayer requests, and hosting events should not be the sole responsibility of the person who is the primary teacher. Students should take leadership in teaching, organizing, and planning also.

Whatever other leaders are involved, a “Connector Couple” is essential. This couple encourages fellowship, greets people during Sunday School classes or other activities and carries much of the burden for the main leader. During my years as Intern/Director of College and Young Adult Ministries, our ministry grew stagnant until we had a dynamic just-out-of-college couple join our ministry. Having that plurality of leaders is vital.

The leaders must also connect with whatever college campus is near the church. Through Facebook messages, care packages, email, and dinners together, a little effort can go a long way in connecting with college students. If your local college is a non-Christian school, the local Campus Crusade, Youth For Christ, or Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative can help you connect with students who are looking for spiritual support. This generation is craving real discipleship and authentic relationships. The false intimacy that can develop when Facebook and texting are the main methods of communicating creates an opportunity for us to give them real, life-on-life, godly encouragement.3

Responding with relevant and biblical ministry may also mean you try “outside-the-box” ideas. Understand ahead of time that failure happens, ideas flop, and sometimes no one shows up. The more I have interacted with other college ministry leaders, the more I have realized that this is the nature of this kind of ministry. But it is sometimes effective to use methods outside your comfort zone, such as asking questions and promoting discussion in a Bible study rather than lecturing or such as having people text in questions during your sermon.

Change is unavoidable

Accept change as a reality, but try to fill the gap anyway.

Change and turnover is part of the DNA of this age group. They go to school for a few years, get jobs, often move away, and often pursue relationships and get married. The school year itself can create two separate college groups in a church’s ministry: those who come for the school year and leave during the summer and those who do the opposite. Accept and anticipate these changes. Every few years, you will have a new group to work with.

Change is a reality but should not scare us or frustrate us to the point that we give up. These young people need personal relationships that will serve as examples of how to live the Christian life. They need guidance and direction. As one leader put it, our college ministries should be like rest stops on the highway, places where young people can stop for a while, rest, refuel and be refreshed before continuing on the busy highway of life. Many of them have lost all sense of direction and are not sure where they are going on this highway. May our churches help them, not to find their own way—but to find His way!


1 Howe, Neil and William Strauss. Millennials Go to College. Lifecourse Resources. 51-63. This book deals primarily with the Millennial Generation usually identified as those born after 1982 (see p. 19), though many, like Elmore, see an additional generation being born around 1992.

2 A helpful resource on this point and the entire discussion is Chuck Bomar, Worlds Apart: Understanding the Mindset and Values of 18-25 Year Olds. Zondervan. 2011.

3 Hetzler, Bob. “Eight Quick Tips to Starting a College Ministry.”…. Accessed 12/15/11. Tips #3 & #5 specifically relate to this point, though the entire article offers good insight into how to develop a college ministry.

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Susan R's picture


I like my former (now retired) pastor's philosophy- "What do we have for the young people? Church- that's what we have for the young people."

Proof in the puddin'? The married-with-family families in that church while he was pastor are still there. All of them. Serving faithfully. But when he retired, the pastor that took over and started ministry upon ministry for each age group. All of the programs were wonderful. The teachers were great. Nothing wrong with any of it to the naked eye.

But now that crop has come in- those young people have grown up, and without exception, every single one of them has imploded spiritually. Most express a disdain for church and are not in church at all, and some are actually criminals. They are all hip-and-thigh immersed and/or struggling with the world of substance abuse, fornication, and the party scene. A couple of them seem to be climbing out of the hole. But I believe with all my heart that this dynamic crippled what their parents (all of whom I know personally, and two of them are my dh and I) were trying to do with their children. They didn't leave when they got to college- they were already gone long before they hit 18.

Anecdotal? Okey-dokey. But it is one of the most important and powerful things I have seen happen in a church in my lifetime. These young people were often treated as if they were regenerate when often they probably weren't, and yet they memorized verses and were awarded recognition for their 'spiritual' behavior. However, they did not feel any connection to the other people in the church. They never learned a sense of "It ain't about me" because every activity and program WAS about them- keeping them happy, engaged, entertained. They sat there while everyone bent over backwards to reach them, and they never learned to reach out to anyone else.

What does our church have for the young people? Church, that's what we have for the young people. It's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

Rev Karl's picture

I was given a statistic many years ago that 90% of the churches in the USA average attendance of 100 people, or less.

If we choose to implement all these programs, where are all the leaders going to come from? Does the church facility have enough places for all of these groups to meet?


The young people who tend to stay within the church are the ones who have grown up in the church. In my "home church", we had a very strong youth group, very active, comprised mostly of children of long time church families. When those aged out of the youth group, a college and career group was started. But we also had a church of 600+ people with a very capable church facility. Most of those of my generation (not all, but most) are still in church somewhere.

In our current situation, we have a strong, growing youth program. But the ones who continue on in church when they age out of that program are the ones who have grown up in the church. Most of the young people who come into the program as a part of the evangelistic outreach do not continue in church when they age out. (With a few notable exceptions!)

[Side note: my observation. The teens coming from the youth group to adult church tend to experience culture shock. In the teen room, it's all about them (as so aptly stated above). Multimedia presentations, the most current CCM music, Bible teaching that is geared to their level in terms of topic and presentation. When they come into the adult services (IF they come into the adult services - many come only for the Wednesday night youth programs), they excperience music that the adults consider to be "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs", strong Bible teaching (meat, not milk), more focus on the Bible and less on the effectiveness of the media presentation, a lot less singing, a lot more Bible, none of the youthful frivolity of a Wednesday evening (indoor basketball, ping-pong, musical jam sessions, lots of conversation and social interaction)... it's just a lot less FUN. And, after all, isn't that what kids want today? ]

IMHO, It's not so much the *program* that prepares the kid for entering the adult worship function: it's the *family*, and the way they approach worship, fellowship, Bible study, doctrine... Yes, Praise the Lord! We have had some kids come to our children and teen programs, and eventually their entire family came to the Lord and joined the church! But most of the teens come by themselves, and do not get the family support that turns into a long life of worship and discipleship.

Wow. All I was gonna do was make one comment and get back to work...

Ed Vasicek's picture

We have, on several occasions, over the years tried to get a college-age ministry going. We could never get a steady commitment of more than one or two people.

Churches in a town with a large university can have success, as, for example, Kosuth Street Baptist in Lafayette, IN, with their ] Salt and Light fellowship. Those of us in towns with a community campus find it a whole lot more difficult. Campus ministries like IVP are so compromised that I cannot recommend them; the Navigators is more solid but anti- local church, it seems. Campus Crusade is probably the best of the bunch, but, again, that varies by campus. So solid churches in university towns have a much-needed opportunity to do what these ministries used to do in their better years: disciple, train to evangelize, and provide lots and lots of opportunities for fellowship and music.

But ours is not a college town. We have tried things with other churches combining efforts, and, while the pastors might be motivated, it is hard to get the young adults to actually and faithfully participate.

One of the large churches in our areas (3K plus) had a youth group of over 200 steadily for years. When they launched a 20-something ministry, they had as bit more than 20 people, but more than half were from other churches. After a few years and many problems, that group disbanded. In another church in another state, a large church I know of had a similar ministry in a big suburban metro area, but they had to deal with a lot of immorality and things there fell apart.

I am almost thinking that a one-on-one mentoring with an older adult is a better approach in most instances. If a twenty-something solid Christian can find even ONE solid Christian friend his age to do things with, etc., that is a blessing. It seems as though the zeal Christian teens seem to show during the high school years frequently (though, PTL, not always) dissipates during the college-age years.

I think we train people to behave as teens, get married and raise families. Yet I think we lack know-how in teaching people how to live as single Christian adults, especially when it comes to sexuality, finding friends, and developing social skills. In metro areas, it is not unusual for people to marry at about 30. The whole delay thing is unnatural, which is part of the problem. Yet, because people are maturing (emotionally) slower yet sexually faster. and because of the complexity of educational requirements, etc., we have a mess on our hands.

I do not have answers, but i think connecting younger adults to older ones is probably the best solution. Making that happen, however, is nice in theory but more difficult in practice.

As far as regeneration goes, we are left with a quandary: we cannot see the hearts of others, so we must assume that those who have made a profession and are making some attempt at godliness are regenerate. We do not know; some people I thought were lackluster have become faithful pillars while younger zealots have fizzled out. The older I get, the more I realize how blind and limited I am at separating wheat from tares.

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