Will Most Young People from Christian Families Abandon the Faith During College?

The typical college experience is not easy on a young person’s faith. What can we do about it?

As a parent of a high school and college student, I think and pray about their spiritual well-being at least twice a day. There is nothing that I want more for them than to go through life: secure in the knowledge of God’s deep love for them in Christ; grounded in biblical truth and a caring and faithful church community; loving their neighbors; embracing the call to their many and varied current and future vocations; experiencing the blessing of fellowship with caring Christian friends; and enjoying life eternal with Jesus.

None of us can make such things happen with 100% certainty. I cannot even claim to have all of this figured out in my own life. Yet, looking at this more broadly, considering a few startling statistics, and looking specifically at those early post-high school years, I offer the following considerations.

Striking Statistics #1

In Kinneman’s Faith for Exiles, he notes that two-thirds of 18-29 year-olds disengage with the church. Also, 7 in 10 young people become what Kinneman calls spiritual prodigals, nomads, or exiles. Only 3 in 10 Christians in this age group stay engaged in the church’s life and are confident about the teachings of the Scriptures.

Striking Statistics #2

In a 2006 study by Gross and Simmons (How Religious are America’s College and University Professors?), they reported the following. About 6% of the general public are atheist or agnostic, but it is 25% among college professors. Only 6% of all college professors in a nationwide study believed that the Bible is, “the actual word of God”, and 51% saw it as a book of “fables, legends, history, and moral precepts.” That was in 2006. I guarantee that the number of faculty atheists, agnostics, and biblical skeptics has increased since then.

Given these statistics, how might that inform decisions about college? I offer four considerations.

  1. The Faculty and Other Mentors During College

Contrast the statistics above to a school like Concordia University, Nebraska, where 100% of the faculty are Christians, 90% are Lutheran, and their formal job description includes being experts and quality educators in their disciplines but also nurturing the spiritual growth and lives of the students. Not that we claim to do this work with perfection or that we get this right every single time, but what you consistently get from the overall collection of faculty and staff is a stark contrast to many other schools.

Especially when it comes to hiring and calling new faculty, coaches, and student-facing staff (As President, I interview 100% of any potential new full-time faculty or staff.), I regularly say there are three levels, and we strive to find and develop as many level-three people as possible.

Level one is that I know my discipline and can teach/coach well.

Level two is that I know my discipline, can teach/coach well, and strive to be a consistent Christian role model and example for my students.

Level three is that I know my discipline, teach/coach well, strive to be a consistent Christian role model and example to my students, and invest in nurturing the faith of the students to which I am blessed to teach, coach, and serve.

They are not typically called to be pastors, but as Christian professors, coaches, and staff, they are called to care about students in mind, body, AND spirit.

Concordia is not about sheltering students. Instead, faculty teach the fullness of their discipline, including the parts that clash with the teachings of the Bible. Yet, it must not stop there. They also help students discover a biblical understanding of the issues and truth claims. The task often includes learning to think about what it can look like to be a Christian citizen, scientist, historian, accountant, business owner, artist, musician, educator, lawyer, healthcare worker, public official, church worker, etc.

Will the presence of these faculty ensure that students remain firm in their faith? Unfortunately, no, but it makes a demonstrable difference.

  1. Classmates

“Show me your friends, and I will show you your future.” I partly disagree with this quote, but I cannot deny the proverbial truth behind it. Classmates matter. I want my children to know and have friends from different backgrounds and learn what it means to be faithful to their convictions while befriending and loving people who may disagree with them. At the same time, I want them to have peers who support and encourage them in their faith. It would be unwise to underestimate the persuasive power of peers, Christian friendships, and community.

If a young person goes to a college with people of different beliefs and backgrounds surrounding them, that person can learn much. Yet, having a core group of Christian classmates or peers can provide mutual support and encouragement, which is incredibly powerful and formative. Regardless of the college they choose (Hint: They should pick Concordia University, Nebraska), I urge people to find such friends.

At Concordia, Christian peers make up a critical mass of the student body, even as we have a portion of students from different religious backgrounds or without a church home. We aim for a Christian ethos on campus; the students help make that happen. We strive for Christian hospitality to those who may not have a church home or are from a different religious background. At the same time, we want a distinctly Christian community where students can easily find friends and peers who support and encourage one another in their faith.

  1. Christian Gatherings

College life can be busy, hectic, and stressful—even as it can be wonderful. Having a variety of 20-60 minute spiritual breaks can make a big difference: gather for chapel, Bible study, a small prayer group, a time of evening prayer, a small group gathering at the house of a coach or professor, or even an informal lunch or dinner of Christian support and encouragement. These can be formative and useful in nurturing the faith of young people during these critical years.

  1. A Solid and Faithful Church Community

Finding a solid church where students gather to receive God’s gifts and worship together is a central part of the Christian life. As such, helping and encouraging young people to be part of a church during college will also make a difference.

At Concordia, we have an excellent partnership with two LCMS churches in town, one right across the street and the other a few blocks away. How amazing is it that students, faculty, and staff can not only engage in campus life together but also in the life of the church? Still, other students support one another with transportation and encouragement to engage with different churches in the area.

Why All Four?

Some pastors and parents think that this fourth component is enough. Go to a preferred state school or another largely secular college, find a good church home, and all is well. From a theological perspective, it is undoubtedly sufficient. It may be enough to help some students navigate these challenging years of adolescence and young adulthood in college. Yet, I remind us of the statistics shared at the beginning of the article. We ignore such cautionary statistics to our peril and those of young people. At the same time, a local pastor cannot be a disciplinary expert in every area of study that a student encounters. In addition, the vast majority of a student’s life will be in the college community. As such, combining all four of these items offers young people an even better source of support and encouragement during their college years.

My preferred conclusion is that everyone would enroll at Concordia University, Nebraska. Problem solved. Yet, we only have a limited number of spots available for applicants, so if everyone applied, we could only admit a small fraction of the students. As such, other great college options can assist with these four as well; not as many options as people think, but they are out there, including the other schools in the Concordia University System. Because of what I wrote above, I would proudly and gladly send my children to a Concordia over Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or most other elite schools and any of the flagship state schools. That is just me. If people choose such options, I urge them to prayerfully consider how to increase the chances of students experiencing as many of the four items above as possible. After all, we are talking about the faith and future of the next generation.