One of the constant issues over my 30 years in student ministry is the frequency with which young people who grew up in the church “lose their faith” once they get on a “secular” college campus. There have always been numbers floating around – 75 or 80 percent – that strike fear in the hearts of parents, grandparents, and pastors.
And from 30 years of experience, I can attest that there is a need to be concerned. David Kinnaman of the Barna Group has just released a new book entitled, You Lost Me. In it, he reports that there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adults years in terms of church engagement. He goes on to say:
“The research confirmed what we had already been piecing together from other data: 59 percent of young people with a Christian background report that they had or have ‘dropped out of attending church, after going regularly.’ A majority (57 percent) say they are less active in church today compared to when they were age fifteen. Nearly two-fifths (38 percent) say they have gone through a period when they significantly doubted their faith. Another one-third (32 percent) describe a period when they felt like rejecting their parents’ faith.”
However, I have long been convinced that the church has been looking in the wrong direction when it comes to this problem. The real issue isn’t just the “evil secular university.” Yes, students may be exposed to more worldviews and harder faith questions. And students will face increased availability and acceptance of the temptations they faced in high school. But there are thousands of Christian students who navigate their college careers and come out spiritually stronger than when they started.
The real issue is faith and commitment questions that are set before they ever arrive on campus. As Kinnaman puts it:
“The dropout problem is, at its core, a faith-development problem; to use religious language, it’s a disciple-making problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.”
We find it easier to blame our culture or blame the university than to face the fact that we are not doing a good job of preparing our young people to spiritually thrive in a post-Christian culture.
Kinnaman’s book looks at why young people who grew up in the church are dropping out. You can read a more detailed summary on Catalystspace.com. But there are the broad reasons they give for dropping out. They find the church to be:
1. Overprotective. The impulses toward creativity and cultural engagement are some of the defining characteristics of this generation that are most obvious. They want to re-imagine, re-create, rethink, and they want to be entrepreneurs, innovators, starters. Creative expression is of inestimable value. The church is seen as a creativity killer where risk taking and being involved in culture are anathema.
2. Shallow. The most common perception of churches is that they are boring. Easy platitudes, proof texting, and formulaic slogans have anesthetized many young adults, leaving them with no idea of the gravity and power of following Christ. Few young Christians can coherently connect their faith with their gifts, abilities, and passions. In other words, the Christianity they received does not give them a sense of calling.
3. Antiscience. Many young Christians have come to the conclusion that faith and science are incompatible. Yet they see the mostly helpful role science plays in the world they inhabit – in medicine, personal technology, travel, care of the natural world, and other areas. What's more, science seems accessible in a way that the church does not; science appears to welcome questions and skepticism, while matters of faith seem impenetrable.
4. Repressive. Religious rules feel stifling to the individualist mindset of young adults. Consequently they perceive the church as repressive. Sexuality creates deep challenges for the faith development of young people.
5. Exclusive. Although there are limits to what this generation will accept and whom they will embrace, they have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance. Thus Christianity's claims to exclusivity are a hard sell.
6. Doubtless. Young Christians (and former Christians too) say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that faith doesn't always make sense. In addition, many feel that the church's response to doubt is trivial and fact focused, as if people can be talked out of doubting.
Some of these are caused by the wrong expression of Biblical principles. There is Scriptural truth regarding sexuality and exclusiveness of Christ. However, Christians have often been guilty of coming across as judgmental and close-minded, rather than willing to listen to concerns and discuss issues and differences in ways that enhance communication. Others of these are caused by wrong and shallow thinking by those in the church.
The implications of Kinnaman’s research deserve more thought and discussion than a blog post can provide. But these things come to my mind:
1. We need to lecture less and listen more to our young people. We need to hear their concerns and questions. They need to know that the church is a safe place to express their doubts and fears.
2. We need to help our young people learn to think and not just parrot religious answers. We need to help them learn to see the world – the arts, science, relationships, wealth, etc. – from a Christian perspective and in light of the God who created it all. Unfortunately, there are those who confuse this with indoctrination into such a narrow perspective that thinking is never really encouraged but seen as threatening.
3. We need to help our young people learn to hear the voice of God and discern the leading of the Holy Spirit and how to recognize his presence and work in our world. Our God is alive and active – even on the university campus. They don’t leave him when they come to the university or enter the military or join the workforce. God is already there and at work and calling them to join his mission to reconcile all things to himself.