College transition is a hot topic in youth ministry circles. More and more parents and churches are recognizing that students are not prepared for the challenges that college often brings. Anecdotal evidence is easy to find. There are many stories of students who have grown up in the church, have made commitments to follow Jesus, but have walked away from the faith during the college years. There have been numerous research projects that support these stories as well, making a strong case that the college years have not been good to those raised in the Christian faith.
The research is important and worth reading, to be sure, but I’m not sure it matters all that much. We can debate the statistics, trying to convince ourselves that it is not as bad as some say it is; or tell personal stories to make it seem even worse; or we can recognize that the challenge for students to make the faith their own is a perennial one. The challenge will always be with us. As the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” This verse gives perspective. In all times and in all places, at some point, young people have to take ownership of their faith. This is not new.
I was reminded of this recently when I read Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, the member of the British Parliament who worked to abolish slavery. Written in 1797, Wilberforce makes keen observations about why young people often walk away from the faith. We can learn much from his insights regarding the human condition:
“Think about what happens to many young people who are raised with all the benefits of prosperous parents who are cultural Christians themselves. As children, they are taken to church, where they hear the parts of the Christian message that their particular church embraces. Although it is rare in our times, maybe they even receive some measure of religious instruction at home. Eventually, they leave home, and launch out into the world. Some go to work; some go to college. They face temptations that they have not faced before and give in to them. Their lives might get out of control with the use of alcohol, and they might give in to sexual indulgence. At the least, they never read the Bible or make any attempt to develop a spiritual life. Most don’t even attempt to take what knowledge is at their disposal and form their own beliefs and convictions. They don’t learn to think.
Maybe they travel to a foreign country. Things are even worse there. They begin to embrace the ideas to which they are exposed. By the time they return home, they are further away from faith than before. Along with their previous frivolous way of life, they now begin to be consumed with the demands of making a living in the workplace and the desire for a career and success. Most of what they hear about Christianity is in a negative context. If they go to church at all, they hear things that either make no sense to them or that they find offensive to the way they live. They have no grasp of the Bible to compare with what they hear.
The result is an attitude toward Christianity that is not only negative but also one that is rooted in a faulty sense of intellectual superiority. The young also have a way of seeing right through the charade of those who profess the faith but don’t live the life. What began as a vague, almost imperceptible doubt soon grows. By slow and steady degrees, the doubt becomes most fixed in their minds. In a twisted kind of way, the young men and women begin to hope their doubt is well founded. Any reason that reinforces it is welcomed. Doubt becomes greater, not based on evidence, but merely by dwelling in the mind. This is certainly not always how it goes, but in general you could think of this scenario as the genesis of unbelief. This is not always the process, but generally speaking, it is the natural history of skepticism. If you have carefully observed someone you know drifting into unbelief, you have probably seen something like this occur.”
Wilberforce perceptively describes the process by which young people walk away from the faith. His hypothetical scenario may not be true for everyone who leaves the faith, but I think his words offer four “timeless” truths concerning those who walk away. Being attentive to these areas can help us as we prepare students for the challenges ahead.
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.cpyu.org/collegegroups 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. 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. 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 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 Jesus. 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.
William Wilberforce reminds 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.
Click here to download this article as a PDF handout.
Is it taking longer for young people to “grow up” in today’s world? I hear this question often. Two of the stated goals for the College Transition Initiative are to provide information on emerging adulthood and resources for developing lasting faith. In order to help young people develop a lasting faith, the church needs to have an understanding of the cultural conditions in which young people live. Examining the “cultural conditions” of young people ages 18-29 has produced a new body of research known as the study of “emerging adulthood.”
1. What does the gospel have to offer emerging adults as they are formed through the adult transition?
2. What do emerging adults shaped by the gospel have to offer to the church and the world?
Their stated desire for writing the book is “to provide a ‘practical theology’ for college and young adult ministry, one that combines important scholarship, a Christian theological vision, and attentiveness to concrete ministry applications.” I highly recommend this book for church leaders, college ministers and parents who desire to see young people embrace and live-out faith during the formative, young adult years.
Derek: What motivated you and your friend to write this book?
Setran: Ultimately, we have a passion to see 18-29 year-olds flourish in Christ, developing as adults who are increasingly able to serve as agents of hope, healing, and renewal in church and world. Chris and I have both worked in a variety of church, parachurch, and campus ministry settings with collegians and young adults. We are convinced, more than ever, that this is a pivotal stage of the life course, a gateway to spiritual formation, vocational commitment, and Christian identity. While a number of books have been written for those working with children and youth, we wanted to help equip those of strategic importance in emerging adults’ lives: college and young adult ministers, professors, pastors, para-church workers, student development professionals, chaplains, parents, relatives, and friends. Hopefully the book will help to awaken interest in this critical life stage!
Derek: Define “emerging adulthood” and briefly describe the social factors that have led to this new phase of life.
Setran: “Emerging adulthood,” a term coined by psychology Jeffrey Arnett, refers to the period in the lifespan between age 18 and the late 20s. In most industrialized nations, typical adult transitions—leaving home, completing education, financial independence, marriage, and parenting—are happening much later. Many careers have expanded educational requirements, forcing those in this age group to pursue advanced degrees. Combined with student loan debt, this delays the financial independence and job stability often desired before pursuing marriage and parenting. In addition, parents seem a bit more willing to help finance these delays, funding educational ventures and providing a place to live for children who return home after college.
Many emerging adults also postpone marriage for personal reasons, wary of commitment in a divorce-ridden culture or happy to pursue sexual intimacy without the relational costs. While those beyond age 18 are quite different from “adolescents,” they are also not quite “adults” in the traditional sense implied by these social markers. Thus, Arnett and others have described this period as “emerging adulthood,” a phase characterized by identity exploration, relational, vocational, and geographical instability, self-focus, an “in-between feeling,” and the exploration of seemingly endless possibilities. While such a time can be exhilarating, it also tends to produce a great deal of anxiety. Few social scripts exist to help emerging adults navigate the major life decisions and personal identity formation that mark this period.
Derek: You describe emerging adulthood as a “formidable challenge” but also a “great opportunity” for the church. What are some of the challenges and opportunities for the church?
Setran: The challenges are obviously great. According to the research, emerging adulthood marks the low point of the life span for key spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible reading, and evangelism. When compared with adolescents, emerging adults are less likely to adhere to key Christian doctrines like the divinity and resurrection of Christ. Moral convictions and boundaries seem to erode during these years as well, leading to increased risk behavior and heartbreaking life decisions. And perhaps the greatest challenge is that many of those in this age group are making decisions about belief, life, morality, and vocation apart from the local church.
Yet there are great opportunities as well! Many emerging adults have demonstrated a growing passion for social action and compassion for the poor. Many cultivate a sense of global awareness and responsibility and are willing to take great risks to bring the hope and healing of the Gospel to locations across the globe. Importantly, many recognize their need for mentors, guides who can help them make sense of life and call out gifts and passions for vocational use. While it is common for older adults to see those in this age group as a “challenge” (read “trial”) to the church, I think it is critical that we also see them as a “challenge” (read “inspiration, motivation, and stimulus”) to contemporary church life.
There are 15 million 20-somethings in the United States. According to clinical psychologist Meg Jay, the 20s are not a developmental downtime, but a developmental “sweet spot.” The “benign neglect” of this formative phase in life, by some, is a real problem with real consequences. In this TEDtalk, Dr. Jay explains why the 20s is the “defining decade” and what steps young adults can take to “claim their adulthood.”
“Somewhere along the line we’ve failed students. We haven’t listened to them enough. We’ve told them what to say and how to say it, but we haven’t listened.” – Lacy Crawford
Lacy Crawford was an independent college counselor for fifteen years. Her specialty was helping wealthy families get their children into elite universities. During this time she was also “coming of age” herself, going to graduate school, bouncing around working in different non-profits, living in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and London.
Her novel, Early Decision, basically tells her story and the stories of many of the families she worked with over the fifteen year period. It follows five Chicago-area high school students from August to January, as they enter the competitive college admission process. But the book is about much more. In an interview, Crawford explains her motivation for writing:
“I began to write Early Decision to understand how thoughtful, dedicated parents can be so driven by fear of their children’s futures that they are willing to place enormous value in a system that is reductive with regard to character, and that is, if taken to its current extremes, harmful to a child’s development.”
Crawford is a gifted writer. Her writing style and story-telling ability, alone, make the book a delight to read. That she cares deeply about her students and youth culture, as evidenced in the quote above, gives the book added value, especially for those who desire to see young people grow into healthy adulthood.
If you are a person who cares about youth and families as well, perhaps a parent, teacher, coach, pastor or youth leader of some kind, here are three reasons why you should read this book:
First, the novel exposes the competitive nature of the college admission process and the place of “college” within American culture. The main theme of the book is college, after all. But, of course, college is about much more than a degree or even an education. For many, it is about status. It’s about future ambitions and a symbol of success.
While the book does focus on the elites (elite families trying to push their kids into elite schools), all parents and youth workers will be able to relate to these wealthy families in some way. The parents want what they think is “best” for their child. They have the means to provide resources to get what they want. But the book should give us pause, no matter our financial situation, because it forces us to ask bigger, better questions about the place of “college” in our culture. What is college for? Why do we send our young people to college? What are good reasons for going to college? Do teenagers we know and love even want to go to college? How should we define success and the “good” life? If asking these kinds of questions makes you uncomfortable, don’t read Early Decision!
Second, the novel is about the relationship between parents and teenagers. More specifically, Crawford does a masterful job at helping the reader see why it is often so difficult for parents and teenagers to have meaningful conversations. Parents are scared their kids won’t succeed in life. Teenagers are terrified to fail and not live up to parental expectations. While reading Early Decision, I was constantly reminded of Chap Clark’s important ongoing research and book Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Clark’s research has shown that the defining issue for contemporary adolescents is “systemic abandonment.” Parents can be over-involved in the wrong things, and un-involved in the right things, both at the same time! Clark writes:
“We have evolved to the point where we believe driving is support, being active is love, and providing any and every opportunity is selfless nurture. We are a culture that has forgotten how to be together.”
At one point in the story, Crawford’s narrator makes a keen observation:
“Something came into clearer focus about the way the [wealthy family] had raised their girl, about the gifts they had attempted to give her, while overlooking the most ordinary things: taking her to visit refugee camps, for example, though they were never home for supper. As though they had taught her hand gliding while neglecting that boring bit about walking.”
Crawford is able to write in a way that is critical but not cynical. Her protagonist often empathizes with the parents’ primary concern (wanting what is best for their kids) while exposing the deeper pain the culture of achievement and abandonment has wrought. This makes the satire and criticism even more persuasive and ultimately more scathing. No one is innocent here. After reading this book, we all are forced to (re)assess our priorities and do a better job listening to our kids.
Early Decision is about as good as it gets. The subject is important, the characters are authentic, the dialogue is believable, and the metaphors and analogies are literary without being snobby. I highly recommend it and anxiously await another novel from Ms. Crawford.
Two of the stated goals for this website are to provide information on emerging adulthood and resources for developing lasting faith. If the church is going to help young people develop a lasting faith, we need to have a good understanding of the cultural conditions in which they live (emerging adulthood).
From their extensive background in college and young adult ministry, the authors were motivated by two questions:
(1) What does the gospel have to offer emerging adults as they are formed through the adult transition?
(2) What do emerging adults shaped by the gospel have to offer to the church and the world?
Their stated desire for writing the book is “to provide a ‘practical theology’ for college and young adult ministry, one that combines important scholarship, a Christian theological vision, and attentiveness to concrete ministry applications.” Baker Publishing Group invited me to read the book ahead of time and offer an endorsement. Here it is:
“Young adults need guidance and so do those who desire to help them mature into healthy adulthood. This book provides a lucid overview of the current research regarding emerging adulthood as well as accessible guidelines for reaching this generation with the Gospel. The authors make a strong case for why the church should take emerging adulthood research and emerging adults more seriously. Most refreshing, the central motivation behind Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood is not the desire to grow a church or young adult program, but to see young people grow up in Christ.”
I highly recommend this book for church leaders, college ministers and parents who desire to see young people embrace and live-out faith during the formative, young adult years.
It’s no secret. Many young adults are no longer finding a “home” in most churches. This common trend used to be dismissed with the pithy response: “They’ll return when they get married and have kids!” But that’s no longer the case. For one thing, more and more young adults are prolonging marriage. What’s more, waiting for people to get married in order to have them fully participate in the life of the church is not an effective or biblical strategy. The church needs to disciple people regardless of their marital status. In fact, the young adult years are considered by many to be the most formative years in a person’s life. But why has it become so difficult to reach emerging adults? What can the church do to more effectively connect with the next generation?
Equipping the church to wrestle with these questions is what inspired the authors of The Slow Fade: Why You Matter in the Story of Twentysomethings (David C. Cook). Reggie Joiner, a senior pastor, Chuck Bomar, a college pastor, and Abbie Smith, a twenty-something, offer insight into the often hard to reach college aged crowd. When many churches seem to be looking for the latest and greatest program to attract young people who have slowly faded away from church, these authors provide a simpler, more biblical approach: mentoring. Their plea is for the older generation to take the younger generation more seriously by investing their time in developing meaningful relationships with young adults. According to the authors, “Halting the slow fade happens when adults start investing in the college-aged people.”
Most notably, they are suggesting that the church re-think its finish line. For too long, the church has seen graduating from high school as the big “finish” before moving off to college. The authors ask a perceptive question: “If the slow fade in someone’s faith begins to occur at the point he or she goes off to college, then why don’t we focus some of our best energies on the first few years of college?” What would it look like if the church pushed back its finish line to age 20, or better, didn’t have a finish line at all? It would require a major paradigm shift in the way most churches think about youth and youth ministry.
The authors realize that mentoring is not easy and offer wisdom and guidance to be more effective and authentic disciple makers. Church leaders who care about seeing young people grow in faith should not miss this book. Confused parents who are struggling with their young adult son or daughter will gain valuable insight into why he or she is no longer apart of the church. The Slow Fade will open your eyes to the needs of young adults and provide steps forward for reaching them with a faith that lasts.
It’s that time of year: Jubilee! The annual Jubilee Conference is held in Pittsburgh, PA in February and brings together 2,500+ college students to “talk, learn, think, and dream about the public implications of their personal transformation… Whether students are interested in engineering and science or art and music, law and politics or medicine and mission, justice and families or college life and the years to come, Jubilee will have someone speaking about what it means to be involved in those places faithfully.” The conference theme this year is “Transform Everything” and along with my emcee duties, I will be co-leading, with my good friend Keith Martel, a breakout session entitled “Transform Learning: Renewing the College Experience.”
The Jubilee Conference is part of the mission of the Coalition for Christian Outreach. The CCO is a campus ministry that partners with churches, colleges and other organizations to develop men and women who live out their Christian faith in every area of life.
Here’s what I love about Jubilee: the Jubilee Conference is committed to helping students better understand and live out the biblical story. In his important book, After Virtue, the renowned philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre wrote, “I can only answer the question: what am I to do? if I answer the prior question: of what story do I find myself apart?” College students are asking big questions:
What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? What kind of career should I pursue? Where does my identity come from? What difference does it make to believe in Jesus?
All of the main-stage presentations at the Jubilee Conference invite students to answer that prior question: “of what story do I find myself apart?” On what story is their life based? The presenters than explore the implications of the biblical story (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration) for academic pursuits and future vocations. There really is nothing like the Jubilee Conference and it’s an honor to be a part of it each year!
Check out this video to encourage students to “sign-up maybe?”
Click here to download (.pdf) my interview with Dr. Clydesdale, first published in 2007. Feel free to pass it along, especially to parents and youth workers who are thinking strategically about how to help young people develop a faith that lasts.
During a seminar for transitioning high school students and their parents, a parent made a comment that was very helpful. I was discussing the place of doubt within the life of a follower of Christ. One of my main points I really wanted the students to grasp was this: “It is okay to ask questions and to have doubts about faith.” In fact, I explained, doubting is part of the normal process of taking ownership of their faith. I challenged students with these words:
Faith does not deepen through being allowed to stagnate, but through being applied. In this respect, doubt is a positive thing. It is a stimulus to growth in faith. It snaps us out of complacency. – Alister McGrath
The reason many of us do not ardently believe in the gospel is that we have never given it rigorous testing, thrown our hard questions at it, faced it with our most prickly doubts. – Eugene Peterson
A parent raised his hand and made an insightful observation. He turned toward the students and said, “If you come across a difficult problem in algebra, you don’t have a math crisis. You go to someone for help. And you start with the assumption that you will be able to find an answer. Do the same thing when questions arise about the Christian faith.”
Now that’s a great point! Questions and doubts will come. The question is what will students do with them? Will they go looking for answers: asking pastors, reading books, taking them to God in prayer? I hope so. Here’s my advice in Make College Count: “Just know that when you hear a powerful argument against Christian faith, chances are pretty good that you can find a thoughtful Christian response.”
A report from the Barna Group revealed “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” Reason #6 states: “The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.” Now that shouldn’t be the case. Here are a few resources to help us better prepare students for the doubts they will face and for helping the church to be a more welcoming place for those who are wrestling with faith:
Research from the Fuller Youth Institute reveals surprising insights into instilling lasting faith in young people. It is estimated that around 50% of students that grow up in the Christian faith walk away from the church after high school. Many church leaders have known about this growing trend but have not been sure what to do about it. The Fuller Youth Institute, under the direction of Dr. Kara Powell, conducted a ground-breaking, four-year study of this phenomenon. This “Sticky Faith” research followed teenagers from their senior year of high school until their senior year of college, hoping to discover what helped them to make their faith stick. Dr. Powell explains, “As many churches and denominations experience decline, and as anxious parents wonder about their children’s futures, the Sticky Faith research has the power to spark a movement that not only changes youth, but also families and churches.”
Here are three key findings to consider: First, while most U.S. churches focus on building strong youth groups, teenagers also need to build relationships with adults of all ages. Teens need intergenerational community. Second, churches and families overestimate youth group graduates’ readiness for the struggles ahead with dire consequences for the faith. Most teens are not ready for the challenges and temptations of life after high school. Third, while teaching young people the “dos” and “don’ts” of Christian living is important, an overemphasis on behaviors can sabotage faith long-term. Teens desperately need a Gospel of heart transformation, not just behavior modification.
Visit the Sticky Faith website to learn more about the research and to discover helpful resources that equip parents and churches to nurture in young people a faith that lasts.