“Six or seven out of ten young people will leave the church in college and never return.”
This quote, or others like it, has been used by anxious youth workers and campus ministers for at least the past decade. For parents who want their kids to stay connected to the Church, this sounds terrifying, and it is. But there is a caveat.
In a 2011 report, the Barna Group--who conducted the original research to which people are usually referring--clarified a few things. Perhaps most surprisingly was this observation:
College experiences are generally not the main reason young people disengage from church life or lose their faith.
David Kinnaman, the director of research for the Barna study, says that it is not the experiences of anti-Christian academic courses, Saturday night parties, or even the casual hook-up culture alone that draw students away from the Church. Rather, the bigger issue is their lack of preparedness to face such obstacles and turn to Christ and His Church when college life gets difficult.
“’The problem arises from the inadequacy of preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group.’ Kinnaman pointed to research findings showing that ‘only a small minority of young Christians has been taught to think about matters of faith, calling, and culture. Fewer than one out of five have any idea how the Bible ought to inform their scholastic and professional interests. And most lack adult mentors or meaningful friendships with older Christians who can guide them through the inevitable questions that arise during the course of their studies. In other words, the university setting does not usually cause the disconnect; it exposes the shallow-faith problem of many young disciples [emphasis added].’’
The Barna Group further points out that many young people feel “emotionally disconnected from church before their 16th birthday.” This changes the conversation about preparing our young people for college entirely. Instead of putting our primary emphasis on teaching high schoolers how to stay out of trouble or how to intellectually assent to a set of Orthodox tenets, our emphasis has to be on forming whole persons who have internalized God’s love and His commandments and who know where to turn when they face the world’s challenges.
So here’s our challenge to parents, youth workers, catechetical school teachers, and parish priests:
Before you send your kids off to college and to OCF, give them a lifetime of love, knowledge, and faith. What you do in the parish and the home the first eighteen years of their lives will impact their college careers far more than anything campus ministry can provide them in four short years. Specifically, here are three things they need to face the challenges of college life:
This may sound obvious, but one of the points the Barna research brings to light is the need for faithful, unwavering Christian mentors and peers for our youth. Our kids need to know that our love--and by extension, the Church’s love--for them is unconditional. They need to know this through our actions and not only our words.
Children should know that their parents, grandparents, godparents, teachers, priests--the whole Church community--cares for them and can be relied upon in good times and in bad. This means giving them space for mistakes, showing them the path of repentance, and offering them true forgiveness when they fall. More than perfect children, we should pray for and raise repentant children who know not only God’s expectations for life but His mercy and love.
More specifically, our children should have connections with individuals in the parish wrought in this kind of love. Long before the Barna group pointed out that young Christians need people of strong faith to be their mentors, the Church offered each and every Christian this very relationship in their godparents. And even if godparents don’t live nearby, our youth should have opportunities to spend time with adults of all ages to witness their faith in action and be loved unconditionally outside of the home.
Starting in middle school, the goal of our catechetical programs must be to teach our children how to ask and answer the right questions. In their school classrooms, they are being taught to think critically, analyze, research, and draw conclusions on their own on all sorts of topics, but too often, we aren’t doing the same in Sunday School and GOYA.
This means we need to create a space to hear their questions, their doubts, and their personal opinions even if they are not fully in line with the Church’s teaching. While remaining unwavering in our own devotion to the teachings of Christ in His Church, we need to be prepared to let our young people disagree with us, challenge us, and come to terms with the Church’s teaching in their own way. We do not need to be afraid of doubt. Doubt is a catalyst for deeper faith when we view it as a calling to know Christ more intimately rather than as a challenge to an ethical or institutional expectation.
We want our kids to ask the tough questions (and find the answers to them) in the context of our unconditional love with peers and mentors that pray for them and desire that they come to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That way, they are prepared to face the challenges and questions which they will inevitably face on campus when the context is less than supportive and the questions are not posed to sharpen their faith but to tear it down.
As Kinnaman points out, the real problem with our young people is not that college life turned them from faith to unbelief, but that their faith was weak when they arrived on campus. Like the seed that falls on stony ground and is easily uprooted in the parable of the sower, the faith of too many of our young people is not deeply rooted in their hearts.
It is our responsibility as parents and teachers to make sure that our kids don’t just know about Jesus, as if He were a character in a novel or a subject to be studied in a textbook, but know Him personally in prayer and worship. Bring them to liturgy. Say morning and evening prayers as a family. Pray at the table. Read Scripture. Introduce your children to the saints who love Christ with all their being. Turn to God in prayer in times of distress and in times of thanksgiving. When they are raised in an environment where Christ is always at the center, our children will come to know Him and rely upon Him truly, and they will not be swayed by the world when its temptations combat them.
Our children will face all sorts of challenges--both expected and unexpected--when they leave our homes and go out on their own. It’s inevitable. But these challenges need not be feared. If our children are raised with love and forgiveness, given the chance to ask tough questions, and have met Christ themselves, the trials of college will be the fire in which their faith becomes purified like gold in a furnace rather than the place where it is burned up like chaff.
May it be so, and may God bless you and your children as they enter college life.
Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) is the campus ministry agency of the Assembly of Bishops. To make sure your students are connected to an OCF chapter this fall, visit our website at www.ocf.net/firstfortydays to submit their contact information.
Christina Andresen serves as the Manager of Chapter Relations for OCF. She loves working with students to help them grow in faith as leaders on campus, in the Church, and in the world. She currently lives in Dallas, TX with her OCF sweetheart Daniel (they met on Real Break) and their daughters.
Originally published in The Orthodox Observer, "July/Aug 2016." Reprinted with permission.