College is a coming of age time. It’s a time for coming into one’s own and making crucial decisions that will affect the rest of your life. Overall it is a time of endless potential and possibility.
Unfortunately for the Church, one of those possibilities is a loss of faith. College and the college experience plays a huge part in many people’s decisions to leave Christianity behind. What is the deal? Is this an indictment of higher education for relentlessly attacking Christianity’s claims? Is it an indictment of Christianity for not being able to withstand rigorous examination ?
What might be surprising is that, according to one professor at least, it’s neither. The actual content of the education is not what leads to many students dropping their faith. The causes are actually far more ordinary and even applicable to college-aged people who don’t even go to school. And this rings true in a statistic from Joel Furches, a PhD student at Liberty University currently studying deconversion, as according to his research, the percentage of deconverts he interacted with that have a college education is about 50%.
When I was a sophomore in college, I had the opportunity to attend a round table type lecture with Dr. Gary Habermas, a leading scholar in the area of Christian apologetics. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, apologetics is simply that branch of Christian theology that deals with the rational defense of the faith. It shows reasons why the things Christians believe are warranted, rational, and preferable to the alternatives. It has many different branches and specific areas of focus; Dr. Habermas’s area of specialty happens to be in the defense of the resurrection of Christ as a real, historical event.
The lecture I attended related to this topic, though I forget the specifics of the event. But it was afterwards that I caught up with Dr. Habermas and engaged in a brief discussion where he illumined me to his personal observations of the reasons that people, especially college age students, and especially grad students (80-90% in his estimation) end up losing their faith. And the shocking thing was that none of it really had anything to do with someone coming up to them and saying something like “Here are 5 academic reasons God doesn’t exist.”
According to him and his interactions, these are the top three reasons that students lose their faith:
This one honestly surprised me. But the example he gave was something as simple as walking into a grad level class and the professor goes “Oh you’re still a Christian? I didn’t think anyone would believe in that by now.”
Now, this isn’t to portray academia on the level of God’s Not Dead hostility, but the pressure is out there. Professors like Bart Ehrman, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker do exist. Christianity, especially in higher education is the minority belief, and being surrounded by the pressure of well educated people who could be kind of giving the side eye, even non maliciously, to that quaint little belief you still hold to can sometimes have devastating consequences.
Perhaps one of the most sinister, but honestly one of the most common reasons someone ends up leaving the faith is they find something that is considered sinful that they end up enjoying more than the experience of their faith and decide to drop one in favor of the other.
College especially is a time when familial and communal restraints on a young person are relaxed to the point where they essentially don’t exist. Students are free to set their own boundaries and beliefs if they haven’t already. And often, the appeal of what Christianity might label as a sinful lifestyle overpowers the commitment to faith.
This one, if I had to guess based on experience, is probably one of the most prevalent reasons that people end up dropping their belief in God and the saving work of Christ. We will all at some point in our lives experience a tragedy. Dr. Habermas himself writes about experiencing this when he lost his wife. For some, the basic question that arises in the wake of that experience is one I’m sure we have all asked ourselves at some point or another: “If a good God exists, then why does He allow evil?” The conclusion for most people, warranted or not, is that this good God must not exist.
I must admit that when I heard these reasons I was surprised. For those of you who don’t know me well (which I venture is most of you), I’m a huge apologetics nerd. I absolutely love it and the challenges it presents to my way of thinking. I thrive on getting to know the intellectual challenges to the faith and learning how to overcome them (or change my mind if the evidence demands!). So, immersed in my little, very niche world, I had apparently become blind to the challenges that people are actually facing. Most challenges to people’s Christian faith (Peter Boghossian aside) aren’t coming up to you in the form of people demanding a logical defense of the premises of your belief system. They’re coming in the form of their faith not being able to meet the challenges of every day experience.
Church, pastors, youth leaders, ministers, educators, communicators of all types, this is an indictment of us. These challenges are nothing that a robust theology and active church life cannot adequately address, and I’ll briefly outline how:
Orthodox Christianity is used to being a minority, so peer pressure should be something that we are preparing our young people for. But to do so, we need to be giving them not just a blind confidence and an “us vs. them” mentality, but instead real reasons why our faith can withstand the scrutiny of the majority, but all in love.
Living in sin is a temptation we will all face, and a robust theology that says more than just “don’t have sex” is required. How does our lifestyle fit into the grand scheme of Kingdom work? If we shouldn’t be doing things, what should we be doing, and what message should we be communicating? The Gospel Coalition released a great article on ways not to disciple your kids that had this quote in it that summarizes the point really well: “The promise [to keep sexually pure] is kept most tenaciously by teenagers who have moved beyond moralistic therapeutic deism and who adore the King of Kings with awe and intimacy.”
And the Scriptures are no stranger to the problem of evil. Maybe it takes a lifetime to even begin to understand how it all relates together, but the Bible isn’t some book that denies the existence of evil and pain in favor of a false utopian vision of the world. It confronts it head on in its most gruesome details and culminates in showing that God thrust Himself right into the middle of it all with us. This, as opposed to making us question God’s goodness in the face of evil, should make us see Jesus on the cross as the only real way to make sense of evil.
Our young people are going to leave home and face the world, and statistically the majority of them will leave church, at least for a time. It’s on the generation that’s bringing them up to do their due diligence to discover what this whole Jesus thing is really all about and to train up our children in the way they should go. And when they are old, we pray, they will not depart from it.
Nick Henretty is a music and audio producer, podcaster, and blogger based out of Richmond, Virginia. He has worked with organizations such as Inspiring Philosophy, Deeper Waters with Nick Peters, and Moral Apologetics Press, and currently hosts the 3 Priests Walk in a Bar podcast promoting ecumenism between different Christian denominations. He has a passion for peeling back the surface layers of pop culture issues to expose the deep and abiding questions at the heart of the human experience and showing how the person of Christ is the answer and fulfillment to them.