by Karla DialYouth pastors and parents alike are well aware that when their kids graduate from high school and go off to college, their faith comes under assault — in and out of the classroom.
But a three-year longitudinal study recently released by Fuller Theological Seminary shows that when it comes to keeping their Christian faith on campus, some factors are more critical than others.
“One of the most interesting findings from the pilot project was the importance of doubt in a student’s faith maturity,” noted Powell Kubiak, a graduate of the Marriage and Family Program at Fuller, who coauthored the study. “The more college students felt that they had the opportunity to express their doubt while they were in high school, the higher levels of faith maturity and spiritual maturity (they had in college).”
Across denominations, clergy estimate that between 65 and 94 percent of high school students quit attending church after they graduate. Christopher Fetters, student life pastor at Mountain Springs Church in Colorado Springs, said churches can learn a lot from that data.
“If all we’re doing is preaching at them and telling them what to believe, their faith doesn’t become their own,” he said. “To ask hard questions and be OK with their answers — to let them say ‘we hate God,’ and not freak out — is important. Having small groups that are genuine and honest. Making sure our small group leaders are facilitators and not preachers.
“It all comes back to the Word of God and letting the Holy Spirit deal with them,” he continued. “If we try to be a consumer ministry and make it all about having fun, they’re going to miss it.”
Another aspect of the church dropout problem, Fetters said, has to do with the fact that students are generally compartmentalized at most churches.
“We make kids believe the Christian faith is all about them,” he explained. “Once you’re done with children’s church, you go to the middle-school program. Then you go to the high school program. Then you graduate, and if there’s not a gathering of people exactly your age, you say, ‘Forget it, I’m not going.’ “We need to change. What we’re doing isn’t working.”
When students are part of intergenerational ministry, such as congregational worship and mission trips, they are about 75 percent more likely to remain in church after they graduate, Fetters said.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
A national study of AWANA alumni shows statistical evidence for teaching kids the Bible in early childhood.
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED RESOURCES: Apologetics for a New Generation: A Biblical and Culturally Relevant Approach to Talking About God / The Case for Christ Student Edition / The Case for Christ for Kids