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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

2 Comments

  1. Peregrine Ward July 17, 2007 at 10:32 am

    I wonder if youth group culture might be partly responsible for the phenomenon of church attendance decline amongst Christian college students.

    Church youth groups separate adolescents from “grown-up church”, and they’re usually characterized by ample time for fun and games, an extraordinarily casual atmosphere (at my church growing up we had a dozen or so couches scattered amidst the folding chairs), and sermons that are geared toward adolescents’ peculiar issues. I’m not speaking here of a midweek Bible study (for which all of this may be perfectly appropriate) but rather a Sunday morning worship service.

    But if this is what the average Christian college student’s church experience is, then going to a Christian college must feel like youth group all the time. A Christian college environment can feel like a surrogate church environment.

    In many churches, teenagers are called youth, and 20-somethings are called young adults. While we might be tempted to think that our culture is becoming more hobbit-like (according to the record, hobbits were considered to have come of age at 33), we should remember that hobbits were consistently longer-livers than we Big Folk.

    On this analysis, I would expect that religiously committed students who have been doing “grown-up” church for several years before going to college, will tend to continue church attendance at college, at least partly because college manifestly isn’t a substitute for church.

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  2. […] We’ve covered the fact that young people stop going to church once they leave high school.  There is solid evidence to think that all is not well within Christendom.  But I’m initially skeptical at the conclusions drawn from this book, for several reasons: […]

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