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Myth: College ‘ruins’ faith

This blog series will explore the truth about widely held myths about youth and young adults and religious practices based on the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion as presented in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell.

Even if you didn’t grow up at the time, it’s almost impossible to escape the images of young, long-haired hippies protesting against war on college campuses in the 1960s. Research showed that along with many other institutions, Baby Boomers rejected religion and began to do their ‘own thing.’

For years, the research on Baby Boomers was taken as universal truth. People, including those of us in the church, resigned ourselves to the idea that young people will inevitably reject religion during their college years and begin a period of spiritual experimentation.

New research reveals that this generation of young adults does not experience a decline of religiousness during the college years. “While the transition from the teenage to the emerging adults years does entail an overall decline in religious involvement, as we have shown, attending college per se is not an experience that particularly contributes to that decline.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 250) If young people have well-established faith lives in their childhood and teenage years, they will continue them into their young adult life, the research reveals. Only very few young adults do any kind of religious experimentation. The study even found that that young people who attend college are slightly more likely to be religiously involved than young people who do not attend college.

Researchers suggest that this generation of young people is simply less rebellious than previous generations, content to stay in the religious tradition in which they were raised. Researchers also credit institutions of higher learning for providing opportunities for students to practice their faith through on-campus groups and programs.

Many of us probably know that one of the results of the decline of mainline Protestant churches was the downsizing or elimination of campus ministries. When numbers of students and available funds declined, churches and denominations put these things on the chopping block first. Perhaps leaders were even thinking that these young people will simply return anyway when they ‘settle’ down; so, we didn’t really need to do ministry at this time of young adulthood.

I believe it’s clear that eliminating these ministries was (and is) the wrong choice. Though the numbers might be smaller, it is crucial that we continue to reach out to college students. The church, after all, is in a good position to help emerging adults make crucial life choices – about relationships, professions and many other things. Emerging adults are part of the body of Christ. In order to be faithful, we need to continue to be in relationship with them – through both campus ministers and through regular folks in congregations. I bet you know a college student from your church. Go ahead, contact them and see how they are doing. You just might be surprised by their reaction.

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