Blog | Topic: Faith

Why Young People Abandon Faith: Lessons from William Wilberforce

Wilberforce_slideshowCollege 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:

RealChristianity“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 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.

Click here for more articles from CTI.

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The Relevancy of C.S. Lewis for Today’s Transitioning Students

LewisFriday, November 22, 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. A few years ago I had the opportunity to interview David C. Downing, a renowned Lewis scholar, about his then recent biography of Lewis The Most Reluctant Convert: C.S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith and about Lewis’s relevancy for today’s college students. Dr. Downing commented:

“I think some students feel more defensive than they need to be about a Christian worldview. I think that, by reading C.S. Lewis, they can realize that a lot of what sounds to them like new criticisms of Christianity are actually the same issues people have been arguing about for 2,000 years: the authority of scripture, the problem of evil, the nature of the incarnation, the atonement. All of those issues have been around, but sometimes students are confronted with them for the first time in college…

In his spiritual and intellectual quest, Lewis was a pilgrim but also a pathfinder. He seriously considered atheism, the occult, various forms of pantheism and New Age philosophy. I think it is very relevant for contemporary Christians to see how he weighed each of  these worldviews and found them wanting. Even though he called himself a “most reluctant convert,” Lewis looked long and hard at the alternative philosophies the world has to offer, but returned to re-embrace his  childhood faith with all his heart and mind and soul.”

You can read the full interview (.pdf) here.

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John Ortberg on Faith & Doubt

KnowDoubtNext Wednesday (October 30) I’ll be speaking at Malone University. I’ll do a chapel presentation in the morning, taking a deeper look at the implications of Colossians 1:15-20 for college students in a talk entitled “The Lord of All Learning.” Wednesday evening I’ll do a workshop with students about the place of doubt in the life of faith in a talk entitled “The Sunnier Side of Doubt.”

While doing a little prep work for next week, and thinking about my previous post, I was reminded of a lecture John Ortberg gave at Calvin College a few years ago. I highly recommend this video as well as the book it was inspired by Know Doubt: The Importance of Embracing Uncertainty in Your Faith. Enjoy!

Pastor John Ortberg of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church addresses the place of doubt within the life of faith. The lecture was a part of Calvin College’s January Series in 2009.

More resources for helping young people navigate doubt and take ownership of faith can be found here.

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How Does God Fit Into My Plans for College?

College1“I never would have thought much about how God fit into my plans for college. I would have just gone to class and tried to graduate.”

This was said to me last week by a student, shortly after a talk I gave at Brice’s Creek Bible Church in New Bern, North Carolina. The student’s words were so clear and compelling, I thought he was reading from a script. I even looked over his shoulder to see if someone was behind him telling him exactly what to say to me to encourage me the most! The student continued:

My head is really spinning. You really have me thinking. The thought never occurred to me that I could serve God or follow Jesus with a career in math and accounting. You’ve given me a whole new way to look at my faith and what I should be doing now to prepare.”

I spend a good amount of time speaking to teenagers, so hearing any kind of feedback is always encouraging. This student really seemed to “get it.” And, as my high school teacher friends like to tell me, if one student says something, he or she is probably speaking for many more students in the room. I hope so!

How does God or faith or the Gospel fit into plans for college? This question is at the heart of the College Transition Initiative (CTI), and it will be at the center of several talks I will be giving this week. Here’s the busy CTI schedule… I hope to see you there! Prayers appreciated.

Monday, October 7: College Fair, Lancaster, PA (details)

Tuesday, October 8: College Fair, Milton, PA (details)

Thursday, October 10: College Fair, Old Bridge, NJ (details)

Saturday, October 12: College Choice Seminar, East Earl, PA (details)

More upcoming events.

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College Questions? Seminar Has Answers

MerchMeGearing up for the new seminar The College Choice: Faith, Family & Finances, our local Merchandiser ran a very nice article about the seminar and the reasons behind it. From the article:

“Graduate from high school. Go to college. Get a job.

Many teenagers feel that is the path they are expected to travel. Times have changed, however, and today’s teens are likewise changing the way they look at their future. Many parents feel unequipped to join their teen in that new vision.

The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU) recognizes that parents feel at a loss when it comes to college planning for the next generation. CPYU’s College Transition Initiative (CTI) seeks to help parents navigate this period in their teen’s life so that they can make wise decisions. The CTI provides seminars, books, articles, expert interviews, and events that shed much-needed light on preparing for college from a Christian perspective.

Parents and their college-curious teens are invited to CPYU’s upcoming CTI seminar, titled, ‘The College Choice: Faith, Family, and Finances,’ taking place at Shady Maple Banquet Center, 129 Toddy Drive, East Earl, on Saturday, Oct. 12, from 8:30 a.m. to noon. Registration is available online at or by calling 717-361-8429. Separate prices have been set for individuals and for families.

According to CTI director Derek Melleby, everything is different about preparing for college in today’s financial climate. ‘The financial cost has changed, obviously,’ Melleby pointed out. ‘Job prospects for college graduates are something that has changed in the last decade as well…

Read the rest of the article here.

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Houston, We Have a College Planning Problem

College Choice - CTI HomepageCPYU’s College Transition Initiative began in 2005. For the last eight years, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to groups of students and parents about how to be prepared for and make the most of life after high school. Recently, I’ve noticed a shift in the way families talk about higher education. Here’s a story that captures what I mean…

A few years ago I was speaking in Houston, TX. During one of the breaks a father and his son hurried over to talk to me. The dad stood behind his son, his hands on his son’s shoulders and his plea went something like this:

Please tell me what to do with my son. We don’t have a clue. Everything has changed! When I was growing up, this is how it worked. I grew up in California. During my junior year of high school, the guidance counselor took the initiative and told me, based on my interests and academic ability, that I should consider a career in engineering. I went to a state university, for free, got a degree in engineering and I’ve been an engineer at the same company for over 25 years. Now my son is entering the college admission’s process and it seems so confusing! He doesn’t know what to study or where to go. He’s has received very little help from his school. We receive mail from colleges every day. We really don’t know how we can afford it. Make sense of it for me!”

He smiled after the last sentence. He knew I couldn’t possibly provide all of the information he needed during a five minute break. But this conversation has stuck with me. Since that day, I’ve wanted to provide a seminar for students and parents to help them “make sense” of the college planning and admission’s process.

The times have changed… Think about this father’s story: A guidance counselor knew him well enough to help him in the process. He went to college FOR FREE! He got a job in his field shortly after he graduated. He has been working for the same company for over 25 years.

This scenario is no longer the norm. But the other parts of his story are now very common: His son isn’t sure what he wants to study, where he wants to go and the father has no idea how to pay for college! Sound familiar?

Countless conversations like this one has been the motivation behind the new seminar “The College Choice: Faith, Family & Finances” being held in Lancaster, PA on October 12.

The seminar has three goals… Participants will gain:

A biblical vision for making the most of these years

A clearer understanding of the cost/value of college

A wise approach to the college admission’s process

This seminar is for students, parents, educators and youth workers looking for resources for making better decisions about life after high school. The seminar will be beneficial whether you are early (parents of middle schoolers) or late (parents of high school seniors) in the college planning process. I hope to see you there!

Click here to learn more about the seminar.

Click here to register.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

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NEW Seminar on College Planning: October 12, 2013

College Choice - CTI HomepageFeeling unprepared for college? 

Learn how to plan for college with confidence!

Announcing a NEW seminar from CPYU’s College Transition Initiative…

What: The College Choice: Faith, Family & Finances

When: October 12, 2013 – 8:30am-12:00pm

Where: East Earl, PA (Shady Maple Banquet Center)

Why: Put faith first in college planning…

Higher education has faced sharp criticism recently. Many pundits and families are starting to question the value of a college degree. And for good reason. Did you know…

Nearly 50% of first-year students do not graduate within six years?

Student loan debt has exceeded $1 trillion?

Only one in seven high school seniors report feeling prepared to face the challenges of college life?

Now it’s more important than ever that families make wise decisions about college, particularly concerning where to go, what to study, and how to pay. Participants will gain…

A biblical vision for making the most of these formative years
A clearer understanding of the true cost and value of college
A wise approach to the college admission’s process

This seminar is for students, parents, youth workers, and educators looking for resources to make wise decisions about life after high school.


Derek Melleby, director of CPYU’s College Transition Initiative and author of Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life and Learning.

Terry Evearitt, certified college planner, College Funding Advisors, Inc.

Matt Reitnour, director of college counseling, Wesleyan Christian Academy, High Point, NC.

Cost: $15/individual $25/family

Mark your calendars. Seating is limited.

Click here to register!

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Help Students Transition to College by Hosting a Panel Discussion

chairsThis past weekend I presented the College Transition Seminar for the Black Rock Church in Fairfield, CT. Over lunch, the seminar also featured a panel discussion with current college students. Parents and students had the opportunity to ask “real live” college students about the struggles and successes they had transitioning to the next chapter of their life story. The conversation was rich. Not only did the parents and high school students gain much wisdom from what they heard, but the college students greatly benefitted from telling their stories as well.

It got me thinking… a college student panel is a simple thing to do and it can make a big difference in the lives of soon-to-be college students! It doesn’t even require much prep work. Ask college students you know if they would be interested in sitting on a panel. If they say “yes” they probably have something they would like to share! And then ask simple questions to get the conversation started, like:

How did you decide on the college you chose?

Was it difficult to find Christian community on campus?

What surprised you the most when transitioning to college?

If you could do the transition over again, what would you do differently?

What advice would offer to high school students who are nervous about the transition?

In between each question, open it up to the parents and students to ask follow-up questions. It’s also a good idea to pass around 3×5 cards beforehand, in case people are more comfortable writing their question instead of asking it in front of others.

Students need a vision for what it looks like to have a successful transition to college. Hearing from current college students can help them gain a vision for what their transition could and should look like.

Related Resources:

Article: “Finding Community in College: 5 Ways to Help Students Connect” (.pdf)

Article: “Conversations for the College Bound: 10 Talks to Have Before Arriving on Campus” (.pdf)

Book: Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life and Learning

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Conversations for the College Bound: 10 Talks to Have Before Arriving on Campus

ConversationsI remember calling my future roommate the summer before my freshman year of college. As you can imagine, I was excited, but nervous. It’s hard to meet anyone over the phone, let alone the person you’ll be living with for the next year. We covered the basics: our names, high schools, majors, interests, yada, yada, and then we got down to business: Who has the bigger TV? Who has the most recent video game system? Who has the better stereo? Who has nicer furniture? The average dorm room size is 12’x19’ so this was an important conversation to have. Of course, there were many other important questions to ask (Do you tend to stay up late? Do you have early morning classes?), but they could wait until we met on campus.

Talking to your future roommate before heading off to college is an essential step to transitioning smoothly to college life. And you might even be able to come up with better questions to ask! Reminiscing about this phone call with my first college roommate (and now one of my closest friends) got me thinking about other important conversations that students should have before entering their freshman year of college. Here are 10 other conversation partners college-bound students should consider…

Download the full article (.pdf) here.

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Christopher Hitchens and Life’s Biggest Questions

Christopher Hitchens died last year on December 15, 2011. He had a well-established career as a writer, covering a wide array of topics. But he is probably most known for being an outspoken atheist. His book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything was a New York Times bestseller, and identified Hitchens, along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Victor J. Stenger as one of the “Four Horsemen” of the “New Atheist” movement. According to CNN, “what the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”

Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s brother, is an outspoken Christian and author of The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Shortly after Christopher’s death week he offered a very moving tribute to his brother’s life worth reading: “In Memoriam, my courageous brother Christopher, 1949-2011.” I can only imagine what their dinner conversations were like! Christopher was a fierce debater. In fact, a documentary was made about his public debates with the evangelical Christian Doug Wilson. Shortly after Christopher’s death, Christianity Today posted a eulogy, of sorts, entitled “Christopher Hitchens Has Died, Doug Wilson Reflects: How to think about the death of the outspoken atheist.”

I never met Christopher Hitchens. I only knew him through his writing and reputation. From what I gather, I think I would have liked talking to him. Doug Wilson described him as “an affable and pleasant dinner companion, and fully capable of being the perfect gentleman.” That doesn’t surprise me. Religious people, too often perhaps, assume that atheists are malicious and unkind. It is always somewhat shocking to discover that many atheists are not much different than most people of faith. Atheists have well thought out ways of understanding the world, they cling to their ideas, and many genuinely hope that others come to share their beliefs.

I am a Christian of the evangelical variety. I affirm the historic creeds of the church, believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible word of God and pray that all would come to put their hope and trust (faith) in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Christopher Hitchens’ death, however, reveals a tension that I have always lived with. As I think about my own interactions with atheists, one word comes to mind: thankful. In a strange, almost paradoxical way, I have been blessed by and thankful for my interactions with people who don’t believe. I have often noted that being exposed to an atheist professor very early on in my college career was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Far from becoming a stumbling block to my faith, the professor forced me to wrestle with tough questions about why I believed what I believed. I learned that there are no easy answers to life’s biggest questions.

I’ll never forget the last day of class with my atheist professor. We were invited to ask him anything we wanted. A classmate nervously lifted his hand and asked, “What do you think happens to us when we die?” Without flinching, the professor smiled and said, “Worm food.” I can still see his face like it happened yesterday. No one dared to ask him any more questions.

Here’s my quandary: I’m not sure what kind of believer I would be if it were not for the atheists in my life! Much is made of the mystery of Christmas: the virgin birth, the baby-king in a manger, the bright star appearing, the angels singing. “Veiled in flesh the God-head see! Hail, incarnate deity!” As I get older, I’m realizing more and more that the greatest gift of all is that of faith itself. Indeed, faith is a gift. Now, why was that gift given to me? I’m reminded that there are no easy answers to life’s biggest questions.

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