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Why So Many College Students Abandon Their Faith

Afraid Student Study For Exam

“I’m sending my kids to secular university. After all, they’ve grown up in a Christian home, they’ve been in church all of their life, and they’ve gone to a Christian school.  They are better prepared than most church people, so why waste their time in Bible College?”

That’s what a devout Christian father confided in me. He has intriguing arguments, but at the end of the day my question is this: how did that secular college influence their lives? You may be asking why so many college students abandon thier faith.

Today his kids still profess to be Christian, but none of them walk with the Lord. And I’ve seen this happen to children who went to Christian colleges, too.

Young Christian men and women may embrace the values of their home and church through their high school years, but parents and pastors must understand how youth relate to truth and values after they leave home—even faith and values that they profess to embrace.

The truth is that as soon as they leave the secure structure of home and church, they begin to ask the age-old question, “Why?”  Why do we go to bed at 10?  Why do we put milk instead of Jolt in our breakfast cereal? Why do we comb our hair? Why do we believe the Bible?  Why do we go to church?  Why do we …? So, we must ask why college students abandon their faith.

The early years of a person’s life are called the “formative years,” and they truly are. However, there is another crucial juncture in life when a person runs a grave risk of steering off the course that was set by a solid early Christian formation and onto the ultimate course of their lives that leads to ineffective Christianity.

The Personalizing Years in College
Are the Formative Years That Last a Lifetime

Christian parents and even many well-meaning college educators don’t realize that the first years away from home and away from the careful guidance of the parents are vital in directing the ultimate course of life, because values are now making the pilgrimage from the brain down to the heart, from mom and dad and church to “my values.”

These first three or four years on their own are the “personalizing years.”

The early formative years may form the structure that transforms the child from a goat into a sheep, but on their own, the young sheep may then choose to live like a goat because someone out in the field convinced him that sage berries tasted better than salt grass.

Students may go on to study masters and doctorates ad infinitum, but the core theological convictions and foundational values that remain with them for the rest of their lives are normally set in the first four years of higher education, and rarely is there any major shift after that.

Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA TODAY, writes:

Protestant churches are losing young adults in ‘sobering’ numbers, a survey finds. Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30—both evangelical and mainline—who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23. [1]

Perhaps equally troubling are Barna Group studies that found that the Christian church is becoming less theologically literate. What used to be basic, universally known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans—especially young adults. Few adults believe that their faith is meant to be the focal point of their lives or to be integrated into every aspect of their lives.

As the two younger generations (Busters and Mosaics) ascend to numerical and positional supremacy in churches across the nation, the data suggest that biblical literacy is likely to decline significantly. The theological free-for-all that is encroaching in Protestant churches nationwide suggests the coming decade will be a time of unparalleled theological diversity and inconsistency. Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard-pressed to identify any specific value added. [2]

Christian Smith and his collaborators in their book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood draw on in-depth interviews with a broad cross-section of young people (ages 18–23). They conclude that young adults are unable to think coherently about moral beliefs and problems; they don’t know how to accurately discern the difference between right and wrong, nor how to make wise decisions about their life and conduct.

Young adults have an excessive focus on consumption and materialism as the good life. They appear to have an inability to care about, invest in, and hope for the larger world through civic and political participation. [3]

Astonishingly, while vast numbers of our church kids move away from their church involvement and embrace less than biblical lifestyles, they still profess the same truth that they learned at home and in church.  In other words, the profession and the conduct don’t agree.

This disconnect between profession and lifestyle can be fairly consistently traced to the personalizing years.

New values were embraced, but often these values were hidden from the eyes of Mom and Dad and pastor.  These haunting words of Scripture eventually came to light: “Can a fig tree produce olive berries?  Either a vine figs?” [4]

The new values began to manifest themselves in broken relationships, compromising lifestyles, and warped courses of life.

How Do We Keep Sheep off the Goat Path?
How Can we Keep College Students from Abandoning their Faith

The haunting question remains: how can we teach our students to both believe the truth and live the life that God requires?

Dr. Francis Shafer’s question, “How should we then live?” continues to echo through the passages of time.  Somehow we seem to know the truth and profess to “believe” it, but we don’t seem to be able to put it into shoe leather!

Perhaps a key to understanding why we do what we do is the foundational truth that ethics—how we act—is the expression of the individual’s core values, or in modern lingo—worldview. Our worldview controls our ethics; our worldview makes us act as we act.

The Bible tells us, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” [5]

Jesus sharply confronted the Pharisees: “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” [6]  He explained to his disciples, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” [7]

To control a young adult’s ethics,
one must first control his worldview.

From the infancy of the New Testament Church, believers have been discussing and debating how Christians should conduct themselves. The early church sought the answers to ethical issues by studying what the Scriptures said, or resorted to consulting the church leaders of the day.[8]

Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas faced this same question. After analyzing the writings of Aristotle, Aquinas refused to accept a rigid system of truth.  In his writings, Summa contra Gentiles and Quaestiones diputatae, he proposed the concept that ethics should use philosophy rather than theology as its standard.

Human perception and understanding, he deduced, should provide the basis for daily conduct. The effect of Thomas Aquinas’ presentation is that the Church, by and large, moved its debate of ethics from firm foundation of theology to the murky foundation of human philosophy.

Today, most Christians agree with Aquinas that their ethics should be based on their personal experience and reasoning, rather than the standard of absolute truth revealed in the Word of God.

College and career Sunday School classes commonly entertain themselves with debates over ethical questions, and sometimes the basic premise seems to be that if we debate it and finally vote on it, we can determine the proper conduct for a Christian in today’s world. Some seminaries and Bible colleges take the same approach in their Christian Life classes.

Can we afford to base our standard of conduct on the democratic consensus of the other Christians?  Or even on the autocratic declaration of the pastor or the church board?

Where is the authority for our ethics?

The Bible solidly establishes the theological standard for one’s worldview and ethics,
and clearly rejects the philosophical claim to authority.

Ethics is the practical application of our concept of good and evil. We do what we do because we are convinced that it is the best course of action.  Scripture, however, declares that there is an immutable standard of good and evil. Moral good and moral evil are never based on situations, but rather on the very character of God.

How well-equipped are we as humans to determine the difference between good and evil, right and wrong?  By general revelation, God has revealed to every man His divine standard of good and evil through the created cosmos and the internal law, written on the heart of every human. God himself has assumed the responsibility of ensuring that each and every person is confronted with the truth about God.[9] How much do they know?

Romans 1:20 explains that “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”

Humans know enough about God’s character to be held accountable for any deviance, but there is an awful caveat to this: man’s reasoning ability and process, his ability to think, and ultimately to differentiate between right and wrong, is affected by sin. The natural man, while perceiving enough to condemn himself for his poor decisions, is blind to perceive whether his perception is accurate or tainted.[10]

Therefore, human logic, intellect, or reasoning is not a reliable standard for discerning good and evil.

Perhaps it is possible to discover what is right and wrong by our study of the sciences? The heavens do in fact declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork.[11] God’s invisible qualities are reflected in the universe as well,[12] but the difficulty with any reflection is that it is rarely completely accurate because the reflecting surface is marred.

The cosmos, while displaying the eternal power, glory, and godhead, is affected by the curse of Genesis 3.  The whole creation groans together, awaiting its destruction and recreation at the end of times.[13]  We conclude, then, that simple study of the cosmos is an insufficient and unreliable standard for discerning between good and evil.

Does personal experience determine the standard of right and wrong? While our experience does teach to recognize some of those divine principles or laws that govern the operation of the natural universe, there are inherent weaknesses in our perceptions. We haven’t experienced all there is to experience, so the scope of our perceptions is limited.

We draw conclusions from our experiences based on our limited knowledge. Perhaps the greatest problem with basing our lives on our experience is that our perception is based on our five senses of man, which are all physical—but God is spirit, not physical.[14]

General revelation, the internal law, and the testimony of creation are insufficient to bring us into a proper understanding of God because God is a spiritual being, not a material being. Yet the fact remains that the immutable standard of good and evil is the person of God.

How can man discover what is right and wrong?

The only answer is that God himself must supernaturally reveal it to man. The joy and thrill is that God has supernaturally revealed all that we need for life (ethics) and godliness (values) by special or specific revelation! The study of good and evil is inseparable from theology—the study of God—because it is based on the character of God.

To know the character of God is to know good and evil, because that which corresponds with His character is good, and that which doesn’t is evil.

Helping young persons in college form a solid worldview and make good choices
requires choosing their educational path with great wisdom as well as staying involved.

How does a young person learn to make good choices?

The answer to every ethical question is discovered through the faithful study of divine revelation, not through the logical study of man’s understanding or experience.  Honesty leads us to admit that many colleges profess to be Christian, yet they establish the life of their students upon the shifting foundation of situational ethics, popular Christian movements, fallible leaders, or uninspired theological writings.

The raw, biblical conclusion seems clear: if parents or pastors want their young people to make wise and godly decisions in life, it is of utmost importance that the pesonalizing years of higher education be carefully tempered with the systematic teaching of God’s revealed Word.

They must move young adults into the direct, purposeful, and continuous influence of sola scriptura so that their values, their worldview, will reflect the character of Christ, and consequently their conduct and decisions will reflect the same.

I am loathe to admit it, but they will not get sola scriptura in most colleges, not even in Christian colleges. Therefore, I recommend a two-pronged approach:

First, administrators must rethink their Greek approach to ethics based on philosophy and return to sola scriptura as the foundation for forming a worldview that will filter down to the students in the form of biblical decision-making.

This biblically focused worldview will make your college distinctive from many others, which is not only the godly approach to education but also a powerful recruiting advantage when speaking to families, and especially parents.

We know that school and program distinction results in more admissions than merely reducing tuition, for example.

It is the parent’s obligation to help their children choose their educational path with great wisdom, working together with them to filter through the options and make the best school selection.

When parents and their young adults are presented with this biblically-based model of education and ethics, and when the admissions counselors explain to them how critical these personalizing years are to the rest of their lives, they will likely be more amenable to your school.

Second, encourage parents to stay involved, I mean really involved, in their children’s lives even though they have moved away from home.  I have a son who began in Bible College and has moved on to medical school.  I talk with him every evening about his learning experience.  I ask about what he is learning, how he is filtering and processing things, how he compares those things with the immutable standard of the Word, and how his daily time in the Word is progressing.

I invest the time because it is important that he be founded on the Rock.

————————-

Dr. Lawrence B. Windle is president of Rio Grande Bible Institute in Edinburg, Texas

Larry Windle [lwindle@riogrande.edu]

 

[1]Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Young adults aren’t sticking with church,” USA Today, August 6, 2007, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2007-08-06-church-dropouts_N.htm.

[2] The Barna Group, “Six Mega Themes Emerge from 2010,” December 13, 2010, https://www.barna.org/culture-articles/462-six-megathemes-emerge-from-2010.

[3] Smith, Christian; Christoffersen, Kari; Davidson; Herzog, Patricia Snell; Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[4] James 3:12.

[5] Proverbs 23:7.

[6] Matthew 12:34.

[7] Luke 6:45.

[8] Acts 15.

[9] Romans 1:19.

[10] II Corinthians 4:4; John 12:20

[11] Psalm 19:1.

[12] Romans 1:20.

[13] Romans 8:21–22.

[14] John 4:24.

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