More than 70 percent of church-attending high school students will lose their connection to the church during their college years, according to a recent study by The Barna Group, a Christian market research firm. Only about 20 percent will ever return. 

Pastor Howard Dudley, campus minister at University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), is on a personal mission, battling each day to help reclaim studens from becoming part of this statistic.

“College students will try anything once,” says Dudley, “whether it is sex, drugs, and rock and roll; or faith and church. We must have a voice on campus to make a difference. If we aren’t there, we simply can’t reach them.”

For Dudley, ministry revolves around one-on-one time with students. He takes each of his students to lunch and gives them a clear message: “I need you and your commitment.” He believes that when college students are asked to invest, they do.

And it seems that they have. Dudley is the leader of UKirk Ole Miss, a Presbyterian Church, (U.S.A.) student faith community on campus. Participation in UKirk (a new network of PC(USA) collegiate ministries meaning “university church”) has increased tenfold since Dudley took over in February 2013. The group meets Tuesday nights on campus for Bible study or Wednesday nights off campus for a shared meal with time for fellowship and worship. Dudley is building it, and they are coming.

 In addition to weekly meetings, Dudley will join fifteen students over spring break on a mission trip to work at a clinic and school in Bongnotte, Haiti. Also on the schedule is a UKirk regional retreat including Ole Miss and five other colleges and universities. The retreat will be hosted September 20-22 at Hopewell Camp & Conference Center in Oxford, Miss. UKirk expects fifty students to attend this first weekend, and hopes the retreat will become an annual event.

UKirk at Ole Miss—students worship using a prayer map, placing candles over different locations as a way of praying for those around around the world. —Howard Dudley

“You would be shocked at who will walk through the doors. That’s all we are doing — inviting people,” Dudley says.  

The membership of UKirk Ole Miss includes students from all walks of life — they come from sororities and fraternities, the band, a variety of majors, and some aren’t even enrolled at the university. Dudley opens the doors to all students and local young adults ages 18-24.  

Mary Frances Yeilding, a freshman from Birmingham, Ala., says, “I have grown up Presbyterian and UKirk felt like home. It was nice to have a place where everybody knows about Montreat.” 

A sophomore from Jackson, Miss., Catherine Carroon admits, “If there wasn’t UKirk, I don't know that I would be connected to the Presbyterian Church. I was really close to joining other groups on campus.”

With a vibrant ministry in its infancy stage, Dudley has many hopes for the future. He expects to one day offer multiple mission trips, not only during spring break, but also in December and May. Other wish-list items include a having permanent facility for his UKirk group, scheduling additional nights for Bible studies and fellowship, and opening positions for interns.

Igniting others with his passion and gifting them with his knowledge are important to Dudley. “I would love to give hands-on experience doing campus ministry — the more we can train young people, the better,” he says.

The statistics showing those who leave the church in college, most to never grace church doors again, are discouraging. However, another statistic provides a ray of hope. About 85 percent of young people who maintain their connection to the church during college say they do so through some kind of campus ministry.

As Dudley says, “Our job is to provide a space for college students to grow, challenge their faith, and understand what it means to belong to God,” and that is exactly what he is doing.

Editor’s Note: Presbyterian Mission Agency is working with the office of Collegiate Ministries (through UKirk) to encourage and support 101 new worshiping communities focused on the college/university campus community. UKirk Ole Miss is one of seven campus communities already started this year.