Almost 90 percent of students raised in an evangelical home will leave the church during their college years.
Let that sink in.
In perhaps the most impressionable four years of their lives, students will abandon the faith foundations instilled in them by their parents and churches. Furthermore, less than half of practicing Christians are engaged in discipleship activities
like attending small groups, studying the Bible, or meeting with a spiritual mentor. Students living on campus at University of Mobile eat, breathe, work, study, play, think and discover with their peers in the context of a Christian community. They have ample opportunities to engage with their faith on a daily basis. But it’s not enough for significant spiritual growth.
“College students can exist in an echo chamber – you hear the same things, affirm many of the same things,” says Dr. Neal Ledbetter, vice president for student life. “But there’s wisdom in surrounding yourself with people that are older, wiser and have more life experience than you do.”
Enter the Local Church
In Mobile County alone, there are over 500 Protestant congregations. Over 100 of those are Southern Baptists. The challenge is getting UM students integrated into the lives of these churches – by focusing less on programming on campus and more on forging stronger partnerships with local churches.
“A lot of our approach (in the past) was in direct competition with the local church,” says Chase Alford ’12, director of university ministries. Now, “we are a supplement to the local church – not a replacement. If all we do is connect them to university ministries, we haven’t prepared them to go out into the world.”
Making the church connection begins the first Sunday morning of fall semester, when freshmen students are bussed to local churches as part of Ram Rush. Each week during the semester, a local church is invited to interact with UM students by feeding them, serving them, speaking, or participating in panel discussions. This encourages students to connect with leaders and find a church community that will mentor and disciple them.
“We want to give students as many opportunities as we can to rub shoulders with local pastors,” Alford says.
Student discipleship is also built and initiated by local churches. Current students are recommended by their pastors to disciple other students on campus. “It takes four years to change the culture of a college campus,” says Hannah Stokes ’16,
assistant director of university ministries. “Our idea is that we get freshmen to buy in, be discipled and get plugged into a church. Then by the time they are seniors, everyone here has experienced that kind of investment.”
AJ Nipper, a sophomore from Daytona Beach, Florida, believes that his involvement in a local church has been “critical” to his growth as a believer.
“I’ve been able to walk alongside mature believers who push and encourage me to continue seeking Jesus – and witness firsthand what community looks like in the body of Christ,” he says.
“I am truly grateful for the local church and for a university that recognizes the importance of it.”
Weekly chapel services are a foundational component in the life of a Christian university. Not only are they designed for spiritual growth and formation, but to also give students exposure to outside voices and perspectives.
UM Chapel has been revived to incorporate local and nationallyrecognized pastors, theologians, and authors that are, in Alford’s words, “theologically-grounded and Gospel-centered.”
Some of these speakers include D. A. Horton, pastor of Reach Fellowship, a church plant in North Long Beach, California, and chief evangelist for the Urban Youth Workers Institute (UYWI); Danny Akin, president, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Kate Yates, college and youth director for Open Doors USA.
University Ministries continues to offer Tuesday night worship services, or True Spin, and students can take guys-only or girls-only weekend trips throughout the year to build stronger friendships and grow in community. But the days of inadvertently competing with churches is over.
“We were creating a system that kept people busy instead of making them holy,” Alford said. “But there is an expiration date on what we do at the university in a student’s life. There is no expiration date on the local church.”