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Keeping the Faith: The Effect of the University on Christian Youth

July 17th, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Recently, I referenced an article that ostensibly argued that the university does not have the corrosive effect on religious belief that it is sometimes thought to have. The study was not available at the time, but it has since been published and is available in PDF form here.

The upshot of the article is simple: when evangelical college students (in whom I am most interested) are asked how often they attend church, nearly 62% of them report a decline. 76.5% of Catholics, by contrast, report a decline in attendance. Those are fairly significant numbers, and certainly not encouraging.

But when asked how important their faith is, only 19.6% of evangelical youth say that it is less important to them after college. The trend is similar across the religious spectrum, and does not differ between those who attend college and those who don’t.

In other words, once evangelical Christians leave high school, 1/5 of them cease to view religion as important as they did, but 3/5 of them cease going to church as much.

The article goes to great lengths to point out that higher education probably isn’t to blame. Rather, illicit behavior–sin, in other words–is a better indicator of a decline in church attendance, even though it too probably isn’t solely responsible.
What does all this mean? We’re certainly not doing a good job of educating Christian youth. Whether they go to college or not, they obviously do not find Church meaningful or important enough to make it a regular part of their life once they fully enter the adult world. The article concludes with an analysis that isn’t exactly pretty:

If education, family formation and behavioral explanations do not explain much of the religious decline we see in early adulthood, the phenomenon could also be attributable to processes set in motion during adolescence – namely weak religious socialization. If parents do not actively affirm and transmit the oral and written traditions of a religion, their failure to “teach the language” results in young adults who cannot “speak the language” and who are at elevated risk of shedding their religious value system altogether. Thus, once adolescents leave the structures (i.e., families) that have patterned their religious lives, religiosity may simply be left behind as well.
Finally, declines in religious participation could be indicative of the rampant religious privatization among even the most devoutly religious Americans which may cause some young adults to devalue involvement in a religious community. These religious young people may also feel out of place in, or turned off by, religious communities that focus heavily on children and parents, to the exclusion of single and/or childless young adults. Whatever the case, cultural broadening (via higher education) is not often the catalyst for these declines. Rather, religious involvement is simply not a priority among this generation of young adults.

Put simply, we haven’t helped Christian youth understand the Christian faith enough to speak the language, and we have so privatized religion that people think they can be adherents to the faith without engaging in its practices.
The article does not address the difference between evangelicals who attend Christian colleges and those who attend secular universities, so there are serious disambiguations that need to occur yet. But the study provides further evidence that evangelical Christians must “raise their game,” so to speak, if they wish to impart a faith that is vibrant, rich and durable.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.