By Justin Horey
Everyone knows a student who turned their back on their faith during their college years. Maybe one of your children did—or you’re concerned that someday, one of them will.
Statistics indicate that anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of Christian students walk away from their faith or stop attending church during their college years. So, what can be done? The answers might surprise you.
As the new school year begins, two experts offered their advice to Christian parents of children of all ages.
Robert Witte is the vice president of enrollment at Ozark Christian College who speaks on the topic of “Fighting Freshman Fallout.” Witte served local churches as a youth pastor and senior pastor before returning to his alma mater to work with college students full-time.
Jim Musser is a speaker, author, and consultant who has served in college campus ministry for 38 years. He latest book, Letters from Downstream: Why Teaching Kids How to Follow Jesus Is So Important, was released earlier this year.
Christian Standard spoke with Witte and Musser to discuss what can be done to prevent “Christian dropouts.” Whether you have a young child, a child about to begin college, or a student already in college, they can offer ideas and hope.
THE PROBLEM AND THE CAUSES
Witte first observed the pattern of students walking away from their faith during his time in youth ministry. After experiencing several “heartbreaks” when students who appeared to be committed believers stopped attending church after graduating from high school, Witte started looking for answers.
Much has been written about possible ways to win back college students who abandon their faith, but Witte wanted to understand the causes in hopes of preventing the problem in the first place. Musser had a similar motivation.
“A lot of people recognize there’s a problem,” Musser said, “but no one’s going after a solution with any passion.”
In the research for his master’s thesis on the subject, Witte studied adolescents who participated in youth ministry at Christian churches. He observed four patterns among students who stopped attending church while in college:
• new worldviews learned in their classes and from other students;
• general apathy toward their church commitment;
• underdeveloped spiritual habits like prayer and meditation;
• and temptation or guilt over sin.
Those patterns were consistent and seemed to be growing worse with each passing year, even though most of the students Witte encountered came from Christian homes and had attended church for much of their adolescence.
BEFORE THE COLLEGE YEARS
Witte and Musser believe the problems begin in childhood, prior to high school and college.
In Musser’s view, it’s not biblical to ask churches to take responsibility for the spiritual formation of children and teenagers. He believes that focusing on kids’ programs in churches undercuts what parents are supposed to do.
“Churches should support parents, not the other way around,” Musser said.
Musser believes that, in general, so many young people leave the faith because so few parents disciple their children. But he doesn’t blame parents. He observed that most parents don’t know how to disciple their own sons and daughters because those parents haven’t been discipled themselves.
“The way we keep kids from walking away is to train parents to disciple their kids,” Musser said. “That’s where we need to start.”
He advocates teaching mature Christians to walk with younger parents and instruct them about discipleship. Those parents can then begin discipling their small children, when in Musser’s words, “they are most open to what mom and dad are doing.”
Witte has observed that many students feel lost attending an adult worship service when they “graduate” from high school youth group. As a result, he believes that Sunday morning youth services that “compete” with the main worship services are a reason why so many college students stop attending church when they move away from home. In his opinion, churches and parents should be discipling young people more and separating them less.
Such significant changes in children’s and youth ministry will take time to implement. Musser estimated it might take generations. But the reward is worth the investment. In the meantime, Witte counsels students to “identify your spiritual weaknesses” and work on them now—otherwise, he says, those weaknesses will be magnified when you get to college.
DURING THE TRANSITION TO COLLEGE
Both Musser and Witte spoke about the importance of the transition from high school to college, when students are searching for connection and are likely to abandon their faith. Both cited practical ways that parents, youth pastors, and others can help.
Witte has taught at the Christ In Youth “Next Level” event for graduated high school seniors. His goal was to raise awareness of this problem. He recommends three simple steps to students:
• learn basic apologetics so you can defend your faith;
• test the spirits you encounter (1 John 4:4) when evaluating new ideas and worldviews;
• and ask your church leaders for answers when faced with spiritual questions you can’t answer.
To parents, Witte and Musser suggest visiting churches when you tour colleges and universities with your children.
In his experience, Musser said, most students and families choose a college based on cost, majors, or location—not the opportunities for spiritual formation. Both men agreed that families should investigate the “spiritual landscape” when helping a teenage child to choose a college. They recommend contacting campus ministries and local churches before scheduling college tours, and meeting with those groups as part of every college visit.
Making connections with churches or other Christian groups ahead of time can help ensure that new students remain faithful during their first year of college.
In Musser’s experience, the top concern for new college students is: Who are my friends going to be? He noted that the transition is much easier for students who already know someone on campus when they arrive.
“The devil really goes after kids who don’t have friends,” he said.
FRESHMAN YEAR AND BEYOND
Witte offered practical advice to new college students.
First, he said, you just need to go to church. If you are just beginning your college years, make Sunday worship a weekly commitment. Don’t try to be a solo Christian on a university campus.
Witte borrowed the apostle Paul’s metaphor, saying, “A severed body part is useless.”
Many students choose to sleep on Sundays because they are adjusting to a new schedule. But, Witte said frankly, “You’ve got to love Jesus more than you love your sleep.”
Of course, going to church is just a start. It’s not enough by itself. Witte recommends going to a church and getting involved there. But that step can also be difficult for young people who have never had to look for places to serve.
In Witte’s experience, most teenagers who grow up attending youth group get asked to serve in their home churches—they didn’t need to find ways to be involved. When they go to college and start attending a new church, those same students need to plug themselves in. But they’ve never done it before and often don’t know how.
He encourages parents to stay connected with their new college students to help guide them and to keep them accountable. If you have a college freshman in your family, he says, be sure to ask about their church involvement when they call home.
Witte also has a message for youth pastors: Don’t stop discipling students when they graduate from high school. Keep in touch with them and don’t stop until they’re mature in their faith.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
There is no single solution to the problem of less than half of Christian high school students remaining true to their faith during their college years. In fact, Witte said, many students can’t even articulate why they don’t go to church as freshmen.
On a modern college or university campus there are many forces and influences pressuring young people to walk away from their faith. But Musser is hopeful.
“I don’t think it’s impossible to change it.”
Parents, youth pastors, and young people have the power to make choices now that will build a firm foundation of faith that is less likely to be shaken during the college years.
Regardless of your child’s age, Musser wants you to have hope. Why? Because, he said, “God’s grace is so abundant. It’s never too late to start.”
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.