More and more parents and churches are recognizing that students are not prepared for the challenges that college brings. We want them to continue in the faith that they were raised in. A few years ago George Barna conducted a study revealing that “65 percent of high school students stop attending church after they graduate.”
First, students who walk away from the faith succumb to temptations they haven’t faced before. Many students may have been exposed to the temptations of alcohol and sex in high school, but in college, being away from home and parents makes the challenges more difficult to withstand. As one student recently said to me, “I didn’t know it was possible to go to college and not drink!” Parents and youth workers must work diligently to remind students of the dangers of alcohol abuse and promiscuous sex, while also casting a better vision for what college can and should be. It is possible to find a caring community on campus that fosters a healthy social life, but it requires intentionality. Help students to make the needed college connections before they head off to college. Visit www.liveabove.com to see a listing of ministries available on campuses across the country.
Second, students who walk away from the faith didn’t learn to think. The problem that Wilberforce diagnosed over 200 years ago is still with us today. Many students lack critical thinking skills, failing to take what knowledge is at their disposal to form their own beliefs and convictions. We must continually create space for students to wrestle with the big questions of life. College should not be the first time that students engage in abstract or deep thinking, but for many students it is. Critical thinking and Christian discernment are spiritual disciplines that need to be developed. Like anything worthwhile in life, the developmental process takes time and is difficult. A youth group devoted to these activities may not draw the biggest crowds, but if we are serious about preparing students for life after high school, helping student to “learn to think” will be a mark of our ministries.
Third, students who walk away from the faith are consumed with the demands of making a living and the desire for success. It is so easy to get caught up in the world’s definition of success, and it’s often difficult to understand how faith relates to day-to-day choices and career decisions. In contemporary American culture, the chief end of man is often expressed as: “He who dies with the most toys wins!” The student who mentioned that he didn’t realize that it was possible to go to college and not drink could easily add: “I didn’t realize it was possible to go to college and not follow the American Dream!” The temptation to live a life based on material possessions and upward mobility is pervasive, and many students find it too difficult to live a counter-cultural life based on following Christ. The attitude becomes: “You can’t follow Jesus in the ‘real world.’” Once again, community is essential to withstand the challenge. College students need to be surrounded by other people who live life differently than the world around them. Teenagers need to be continually exposed to examples of what it looks like to be in the world but not of it. For Christians, calling is more important than career.
Fourth, students who walk away from the faith see right through the charade of those who profess the faith but don’t live the life. It was true in Wilberforce’s day, it is true in our day and it will be true until Jesus returns: the problem for most people who walk away from the faith is not Christ, but Christians. Students who are contemplating leaving the faith are longing not to be around perfect people, but to be around people who are perfectly honest about their own shortcomings and desire to change. Honesty must always trump superficiality.
Wilberforce’s words remind us that the problem of students leaving the faith after high school is not new, and the reasons for why students drift away are unlikely to change. Learning from the past can help us in the present to ensure that our ministries are addressing the central challenges students face. If Wilberforce’s timeless diagnosis is correct, youth ministries that focus on community, discernment, calling and honesty will prepare students for life after high school.
The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding grants permission for this article to be copied in its entirety, provided the copies are distributed free of charge and the copies indicate the source as the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.