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Dropping Out (of the Faith) in College

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One question I'm often asked is, "Do you have any advice about a good college?" They're especially interested (both parents and high school seniors) in finding a school where their faith will be strengthened rather than undermined.

According to a recent study, it doesn't really matter. College students drop out of the church at astonishing rates at religiously-affiliated as well as secular institutions.

The way I usually answer the question is to change the subject from college to church. In my experience, it's far more important to find a good church than to expect a college to buttress one's faith. Of course, it's important to find a good church when you're raising kids in the first place. Churches and families that fail to immerse young people in the covenant of grace place an awful burden on a college—even a solid Christian one—or a good church in a college town. Nevertheless, I've seen terrific examples of faithful churches that evangelize, teach, and incorporate even shaky believers into the body of Christ while there in college. The college doesn't matter. It could be Harvard, Biola, or Cal State, or wherever.

My own experience at a Christian college has something to do with my thinking on the subject. There were a lot of rules, daily (mandatory) chapel, spiritual life conference, and on and on. University meets summer camp. It was hard to find a parking space on Sunday morning, because who needed church? The college was a kind of surrogate church. Tough questions that you'd be asked on a secular campus weren't pressed here. Everybody sort of nodded to the right answers, though not always sure why. Spiritually, it was pretty dull, routine, and mindless. Yet everyone got into it when the praise band did its thing in chapel and a great motivational speaker talked about how to surrender more of our lives to Christ.

A lot of those friends today are unchurched. Some are bitter—the last person they want to talk to is a conservative Christian, much less an evangelical. I don't blame the college, but the whole religious sub-culture that shaped these young people and then provided a few extra years of moralistic, therapeutic deism.

This article by Marybeth Hicks at Townhall.com is well worth the read. I hope the statistics will jar us out of the false assumption that our young people "get it." They don't—unless our homes and churches give them grace.

"College Students Need to Keep Their Faith" by Marybeth Hicks

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  • Guest - Brian Bohn

    The real point is being over looked.Do these young people have a real faith in Christ to begin with.Many of the children who come out of christian homes simply go thru the process of appeasment to keep mom and dad happy.Off to college I'm free!

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  • Many of these college kids will come back as soon as they need a place to get married and baptize their children.

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  • Guest - Matt Holst

    Speaking of college as a surrogate church, I was contacted by a couple of High School graduates (I teach at a Christian school) who asked me if it was OK if they took the Lord's Supper during their Freshmen Orientation. Thankfully they listened to my words, but the very thought of a Christian college misusing the sacrament is yet another example of the downgrading of the authority of the visible, local church.

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  • It is written:"Encourage one another 'everyday' as long as it is called today, lest your hearts be hardened by sin's deceitfulness...." More important than church membership at college is understanding the hows and whys of the Christian life. Close Christian fellowship is not an option, it's an essential to the life God calls us to. It's also one of the greatest blessings. This of CS Lewis and his literary friends, or Jonathan and David, Jesus and His disciples, Paul and his traveling companions. Who can battle the powers of darkness alone and win?

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  • Michael, I agree with your points and have been following this discussion/epidemic. I think another sphere we are falling short of as a church is an enriching teaching on sexuality. I've been writing about this on my blog lately, reflecting on how we treat this age group so androgynously. If young men and women were being taught how their future marraiges will be reflections of Christ's love for his church, they might have more of a passion to actually be properly discipled in the church.

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  • [...] Horton at the White Horse Inn identifies the correct issue to address concerning strengthening and not losing your faith in [...]

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  • Guest - Paul

    I echo Brian Bohn's sentiments. Christian Smith has pointed out that youth groups of virtually every stripe all seem to share the same theology; that of moralistic, therapeutic, deism. When kids abandon that sort of thing, they are not abandoning the Church.

    I would like to see a survey of kids raised in confessional homes and catechized in the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards. It would be interesting to see how many kids are repudiating their catechisms.

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  • Guest - Mike Horton


    Great question. Actually, I asked Christian Smith that question and he replied that undoubtedly those raised in more confessional/conservative Reformed and Lutheran bodies were far more likely to (a) avoid "moralistic therapeutic deism" and (b) to stay connected with the church.

    Mike Horton

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  • [...] far more important to find a good church than to expect a college to buttress one’s faith” (click here for more).  It is central to the Christian faith and to the family to have young people in church with the [...]

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  • [...] education for unchurching many people, but White Horse Inns short post below, Dropping Out (of the Faith) in College, puts the blame not on colleges, but squarely on the [...]

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