Youth Culture Window

The Class of 2008

Yearbooks have been signed, and caps and gowns have been stored away as keepsake memorabilia of the seemingly invincible era of life known as high school. But as these grads leave home for college, many parents and youth workers wonder if they will leave their faith, as well.

The College Life
Every youth worker knows that high school graduation means at least two things: parties…and the potential for college freshmen to wander from the church, and possibly even their faith. Many of us place the blame for this reality on the “evils” of college; secular philosophies, alcohol-saturated parties, coed roommates, absence of parents, etc. But research from the University of Texas suggests that attending college is actually good for a teenager’s residual faith commitments! What?!

According to their study, an overwhelming majority of young people, 86% of them, retain their religious affiliation during their college years. In other words, these students enter college as Christians, and more importantly, leave as Christians! That’s good news. Here’s more: (82%) of faith-professing college students actually maintain their level of commitment to their faith. These students find a church on campus, or close by, and might even connect with their denomination’s campus ministry.

Their findings revealed even more surprising data: kids who don’t attend college often have the highest rate of decline in church attendance. 76% of high school grads who take a pass on college also take a pass on church. This same group of teens also led the way in what the study called “diminished importance placed on religion” and “disaffiliation from religion.”

If college isn’t the “bad guy,” what is? We all agree that something is luring them away from the faith. Their absence from church is just as noticeable as their absence from that 8:00am Chem Lab on Monday mornings!

Maybe a closer look at our high school graduates’ faith will be helpful in determining why they disappear from the church like a 19 year old freshman does when the cops raid the frat parties.

What They Believe
report by UCLA offers us a snapshot of the faith most “Christian” high school grads pack up and take to college with them. They found that many high school grads who head off to college are extremely interested in spiritual matters. As a matter of fact…

  • 81% of them attend religious services
  • 80% of them discuss religion and/or spirituality with their friends
  • 79% believe in God
  • 76% admit to searching for meaning and purpose in life
  • 69% pray

This sounds really good…but there are a few other beliefs they carry off to college with them that aren’t so great. 83% of these same teens exhibit a highly pluralistic tolerance of other religions, admitting that other religions are just as truthful and legitimate as their own. Further, 64% claim “most people can grow spiritually without being religious.” In other words, “I like Jesus, but not the church.” This final stat may be the key to understanding why the teens who vanish from the church’s radar during the college years, do so.

Today’s college students are placing increasing importance on their spiritual development. But it appears as though they have divorced their faith development from the church. Most of us would agree that’s not a good thing. What can we do to change this reality?

In The Source for Youth Ministry’s Podcast #12, Dan Kimball, author of They Like Jesus But Not The Church, suggests several practical ways we can adequately prepare teenagers for life after high school. Here are a few more tactics that will help us prepare them for the wildest 4 (or 8) years of their life.

  1. Be Relational. Teenagers, perhaps more than any others, want to be invested in relationally. Though it may not always look like it, they want their family and friends close to them. When they move away to college, no matter how close by or far away, lots of those strong relationships are weakened, or severed altogether. Think about how you can remain in a solid relationship with them during this time. Also, you might help them develop relationships at college by researching strong and/or similar churches to the one they’re leaving behind.
  2. Be relevant. Take the necessary time and ask yourself the hard questions about your ministry’s relevance. (Are we making a difference? Are we changing lives? Do our students have a personal faith, or an inherited faith? Etc.) CBS News recently documented two pieces of information we can glean insight from. First, they claim that 82% of Americans believe in God. But, 32% of the same group also thinks that traditional religions are out of date. Make sure you take strides to keep your ministry from falling into conformity, or worse, ineffectiveness.
  3. Be realistic. Just know that no matter how faithful you are, and how hard you work, some kids are simply going to stray when they reach college. Don’t view that as a failure on your part, or an oversight on God’s part. It’s just the reality that’s reflected through the lens of free will. As often and as impacting as you can, engage them with the love of God that changes lives. has tons of totally free tools to help you do just that.

Keep up the work that impacts eternity. (You may want to start by teaching your high school grads that toga parties have nothing to do with the Bible.)

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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