Christian students are not equipped to face university culture – will the church step up?
Anecdotal evidence, supported by some research, suggests that nearly 75 per cent of those who enter tertiary study apparently as Christian young people, have lost their faith by the time they graduate.
Christian researcher Phillip Hughes reported in 2013 that 50,000 young Australians were abandoning faith every year. This is a huge toll; as the church is endeavouring to usher a new generation into faith, it is leaking out the back door from those already inside. This eliminates much well-educated potential future leadership and turns the tap of numbers’ renewal into a trickle.
The malaise of the church as our young ones throw away their faith
It would seem to be an existential problem for the Australian church, a problem which receives little attention. This would appear to be a legitimate area of interest for Christian schools and churches. Why does it happen and what can be done?
There are many suggestions as to the causes of the malaise. Some point to the apparent habit of some kinds of Christian schools of cocooning their students in a Christian bubble, without preparing them to transition to a hostile tertiary campus environment which will raise substantial intellectual, ethical and cultural challenges. Those who identify this factor indicate the extent to which campus life features both intellectual objection of Christian faith as puerile, outmoded and unsophisticated (partly the legacy of the New Atheists), while others indicate the fierce assaults on Christian faith which claim it as complicit in oppression of minorities, and compromised by sexual scandals, especially the repugnant abuse of children.
Standing against these peer group norms as a young Christian runs the risk of friendship being ‘cancelled’.
Indeed, Menzies (2019), sees the academy as reflecting a new Western secular ‘fundamentalism’ based around unthinking acceptance of market liberalism, freedom of choice without constraints, and an entitlement to continuous sexual enjoyment. Part of the new orthodoxy is that truth is only acceptable through science, whereas religion is completely subjective and based on mere feelings. Standing against these peer group norms as a young Christian runs the risk of friendship being ‘cancelled’.
The age-old temptations – sex, power, money – obstacles for Christian uni students
AFES (Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students) staff workers at Sydney University identify a litany of money, possessions, popularity, sex, luxury, pleasure, materialism and power as obstacles for Christian students to navigate. Given the cultural power and allure of many of these, we should not be surprised if many fall at one or more of any of these hurdles.
Many young Christians would appear to lack the skills and perhaps the theology to resist being drawn into the prevailing sub-culture.
Recent writers such as Trueman (2020), and McAlpine (2021), draw attention to sex and sexual activity as key to happiness and a good life as mainstream current concepts. Trueman calls it ‘the triumph of the erotic’; the party scene provides an antidote to loneliness, and an opportunity to enjoy ‘the good life’.
Many young Christians would appear to lack the skills and perhaps the theology to resist being drawn into the prevailing sub-culture. They may not have been prepared to critique culture and lifestyle from a Christian standpoint and may indeed have little more than a Sunday school understanding of faith, the latter being apparent unless churches and schools have taken strong steps to bolster their grasp of Christian faith.
Some may indeed lead disintegrated lives, operating in multiple registers and even multiple personas, where one set of beliefs and behaviour is on display in Christian circles, but something altogether different is visible elsewhere in their lives. Such a disintegrated life is not sustainable in the long term.
The need for strong anchors in young Christian lives
Phillip Jensen has devoted much of his ministry life to working with this age group. His observation (interview March 2020) is that those in Christian circles usually do not persevere unless they have two or preferably three pillars or anchors. These he identified as a Christian family; a church or church youth group; and a strong parachurch organisation, for instance, a Christian group on campus. The best approach therefore is one of maximum engagement in multiple Christian communities.
…what is necessary for survival and flourishing as a Christian through these years is conviction… character…and community – Steven Garber
The American scholar, Steven Garber, until recently Professor of Marketplace Theology in Regent College Vancouver, has a similar view. He argues that what is necessary for survival and flourishing as a Christian through these years is conviction (a robust Christian world view able to cope with the challenges of post-modernism, pluralism and secularism), character (modelled by an older Christian who embodies faith authentically) and community (a support structure of Christians seeking to live faithful innovated lives).
The writings of J K (Jamie) Smith (2009, 2016) demonstrate the extent to which people’s behaviour habituates them over time into a standard lifestyle, and the extent to which we become what we desire. This realisation is a powerful argument for strong discipleship training to habituate a desire for God. It is also an argument for giving our young people what Harrison calls ‘a better story’ i.e. Christian faith is a more powerful narrative than a secular hedonistic story and unlike the alternatives, offers not only human flourishing, but a Saviour.
Of course, Jesus anticipated this very dilemma in his Parable of the Sower (or if you like, the Parable of the Soils) in Luke 8. There are indeed birds which steal away the word of God from young adults at this stage of their lives. There is indeed rocky ground, where the seed of God’s word fails to germinate. Most especially, there are the temptations of this world – consumerism, sex, living for pleasure.
A call to action – the responsibility of churches and Christian schools to mentor and disciple
Will we just identify those who fall away as inhabiting one of these aspects of the Parable of the Sower and shrug our shoulders? It seems to me there is a clear mandate for churches and Christian schools to act to fortify young people with a deep immersion in God’s word, with an effective understanding of Christian apologetics, alongside a vibrant Christian community in which they are loved and supported, and with effective mentors who can apprentice and disciple them in Christian faith as young adults. Yes, we know that God will call his own, but we also know that we are responsible. Are we content with a fallout rate of 70 to 75 per cent, or will we accept this responsibility and take some action?
At the beginning of 2022, Dr John Collier moved from Head of St Andrew’s Cathedral School, Sydney and Head of Gawura, a Kindergarten to Year 6 Indigenous school on the same site to become Dean of Education at Morling Theological College in Sydney. This article is a summary of a larger article which appeared in the TEACH Journal of Christian Education earlier this year.