Five Thirty Eight, a secular publication whose articles usually spring from numbers like polls and statistics, published an article recently, “College Professors Aren’t Killing Religion“. The article makes the argument that it’s not professors who are undermining young people’s faith, because they were already walking away before college. See quotes below.
“A recent study found that 24 percent of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, including 38 percent of young adults. But these changes are occurring at a much earlier age …. Most young people who wind up leaving their religious commitments do so before ever stepping foot on campus.
“most Americans who have left their childhood religion did so before reaching adulthood. Seventy-nine percent of young adults age 18 to 29 who have become religiously unaffiliated report having made this decision during their adolescent and teen years.”
“This all makes more sense when we consider that the early religious lives of young people are far different than they were for previous generations. Young people today have had much less robust religious experiences during their childhood than previous generations — only 41 percent of Millennials attended religious services with their family at least once a week, compared with 55 percent of Baby Boomers, according to a recent PRRI survey. Similarly, only 40 percent of Millennials attended Sunday school or some other religious education program weekly, a much more common experience among Baby Boomers (62 percent reported at least weekly participation).”
This is notable to me, as a student pastor who has been around a while. Because it wasn’t that long ago that you would hear me saying, “you gotta get those kids ready for college where their faith will be put to the test!” While that is still true, the culture has changed, inside and outside the church and students are loosening their grip on faith earlier.
Below are my “hot takes”, which is to say, these are quick thoughts that are not meant to be exhaustive. Perhaps they may prove to be “freezing takes” under scrutiny. Nevertheless, we need to begin to consider seriously the trend of students walking away from their faith earlier. Lord willing, people wiser than myself will weigh in on this trend. Till then here are a few thoughts about students laying down their faith before college.
A Collapsed Bubble. The culturally Christian bubble that once protected kids from having their faith seriously challenged pops a lot earlier than it once did. Most of their friends, as early as middle school, are nominal Christians or none of the above. They encounter classmates who reject their faith a lot earlier than their parents ever did. The end result is that they probably question or scrutinize their faith earlier than in previous generations. Also, they leave the bubble online and in social media where they encounter more people who are intentional in challenging their faith. Most of our kids don’t know who Richard Dawkins is… they are more like to hear arguments hostile to Christianity or lampooning it on Youtube.
A Premature Autonomy. It has always been true that when students get full autonomy, usually away from home, we see their faith tested and it is usually pretty revealing about whether students were just borrowing their parent’s faith or if they really own it for themselves. There is a trend in the last generation of parents giving their students autonomy of spiritual education earlier than their parents or grandparents did. When students, whose faith is still undeveloped and immature, become the authority in the home on their spiritual education, it is not surprising that their development is arrested, then atrophy, then ultimately they lay it (their faith) down.
A Relegated Priority. Related to previous point, I think there is another factor that leads to arrested development and abandonment of faith earlier in life… and that is the forgotten or relegated priority of spiritual development. Every Christian parent rightfully worries about their child’s spiritual standing before God, that they have given their would give their sins are forgiven and they will go to heaven. But it seems in American Christianity that once that question is answered, there is a pivot toward prioritizing excellence and achievement in other areas such as academics, athletics, and arts…. all great things. But.. excellence in great things should not necessitate relegating spiritual development to an afterthought.
Some might object, “that’s not us!” Ok. Consider what is scrutinized the most and most intently in the car or at the kitchen table. Is it how they performed in a game? Is it how a “C” could have been a “B” or how a “B” could have been an “A”? Is it how they could be first chair if they just practiced their instrument more? Don’t hear what I’m not saying, PURSUING EXCELLENCE IN ATHLETICS, ACADEMICS, AND ARTS IS NOT A BAD THING. But… relative to those areas how prominent and intense are the conversations about growing in Christlikeness, developing their faith, and obeying the great commission?
Do you have to chose between taking Jesus seriously and excellence in other areas? No. But I think it is worth evaluating if that if our students are tightening their gripe on good things, if they are loosening their grip on the ultimate things. (Please know, I am preaching this to myself as much or more as I am to anyone who might read this.)
Some things are beyond our control, such as the culture we raise our children in. And Jesus never promised us a safe culturally Christian bubble to protect our Christian kids. But we do have control over how discipleship takes place in our homes and what we prioritize.
Let’s pray for wisdom and perspective and courage to do what it takes to cultivate life-long followers of Jesus Christ.