Sticky College Campuses

Insights for College Leaders

About a year and a half ago I transitioned from a role in youth ministry in the local church to serving at a Christian University. I love this job for lots of reasons, most of all because I get to walk with a group of students each year as they grow in their understanding of social justice. We spend a lot of time talking about how our faith is shaped by our work in the community. One pleasant surprise for me was how often we also talk about being a person of faith as well as a student, a busy person, a church shopper, a roommate, wealthy (or not), a future job seeker, and more. In these conversations I cannot help but see touch points between the lives of my students and our work on Sticky Faith as part of Fuller’s research team.

The College Transition Project (the main research undergirding Sticky Faith) set out with a primary goal of determining if there are programmatic and relational characteristics of high school youth ministries and churches that have demonstrable relationships to how students make the faith adjustment to life beyond high school. As the project developed, we found many pieces that are also very relevant to the college campus environment.

Based on other studies, our best estimate is that about 40-50% of teens who were Christians before college walk away from faith and/or church during college. [[In September 2006, the Barna Group released their observation that “the most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings – 61% of today’s young adults – had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged”. Barna Update, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” The Barna Group, 2006, September 16, 2006. According to a Gallup Poll, approximately 40% of 18-29 year-olds who attended church when they were 16 or 17 years old are no longer attending. George H. Gallup, Jr. “The Religiosity Cycle,” The Gallup Poll, 2002, October 19, 2006. Frank Newport, “A Look at Religious Switching in America Today,” The Gallup Poll, 2006, October 19, 2006. A 2007 survey by LifeWay Research of over 1,000 adults ages 18-30 who spent a year or more in youth group during high school suggests that more than 65% of young adults who attend a Protestant church for at least a year in high school will stop attending church regularly for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22. In this study, respondents were not necessarily seniors who had graduated from youth group. In addition, the research design did not factor in parachurch or on-campus faith communities in their definition of college “church” attendance. Data from the National Study of Youth and Religion published in 2009 indicate an approximate 30% drop in frequent religious service attendance across multiple Protestant denominations. Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). FYI’s estimate that 40-50% of high school graduates will fail to stick with their faith is based on a compilation of data from these various studies.]] However, LifeWay reports that of that 40-50%, only 20% intended to drift; 80% intended to stick. [[LifeWay, “LifeWay Research Uncovers Reasons 18 to 22 Year Olds Drop Out of Church,” LifeWay Christian Resources,]]

If these students walk away despite the best of intentions, what can be done? Based on my experience in college ministry, I think there are three areas that a college should consider when it comes to helping students across the transition: Campus and local church ministries, New Student Orientation, and the judicial system.

Campus and Local Church Ministries

For a college or university that wants to support the faith of its students, partnering and supporting the campus and church ministry groups is a great first step. Our research supports the significant role that local churches and campus ministries can play in the transition from high school to college. Students in our study who participated in a church or campus ministry during their freshman year and beyond tended to show more mature faith. These ministry groups are especially important because they have a foot in two worlds related to college students. On the one hand, they address some theological messages important for the transition, like the depth of God’s grace despite our mistakes or choices. On the other hand, they also address some practical challenges, like loneliness, especially as they provide a place for students to make friends and forge intergenerational relationships.

We asked students what factors accounted for their involvement in a ministry group. The prompt indicated that if they were not attending, they could write just that in the space provided. Students who engaged with ministry groups cited a variety of reasons for attendance overall. But most frequently they mentioned “feeling welcome.”

Surprisingly, rather than just write, “not attending,” many participants chose to also expand on why they do not attend a group. The theme from their answers was also “welcome.” For various reasons, those who didn’t attend Christian groups had experienced churches or campus ministries as “unwelcoming” or “cliquey”. Implementing an environment of welcome is critical, but tricky, because the experience is subjective. What makes an extrovert feel welcome could overwhelm an introvert, for instance. In light of this, it is important that ministries for college students are intentional in their approach to reaching each student individually.

New Student Orientation and Beyond

While formal ministries are important for the transitioning student, they are not the end-all solution to strengthening students’ faith. The practical challenges students face cannot all be addressed by a campus ministry, and they are significant enough to warrant solutions all their own. These challenges begin the moment your incoming freshmen step foot on campus.

On the surface, the first few weeks of school are abuzz with new friendships and kick-off activities. Just below the surface, the reality is less exciting, and even destructive for our students’ faith. As we interviewed students about their experience, their voices came back with a clear perspective: “It’s hard.” They described a transition dominated by loneliness, a desire to make friends, anxiety about decision-making, and the struggle to find Christian community.

As we consider the practical challenges for a freshman, we are helped by the work of Tim Clydesdale and the identity lockbox. [[Tim Clydesdale, The First Year Out (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Also see “The Lockbox Theory’s Implications for Your Students,” by Meredith Miller on the Sticky Faith site.]] Students tend to lock their faith away, he notes, because day-to-day realities of this new independent life take all of their energy and focus. Clydesdale claims that students handle the changes well by making daily life management the top priority. In the process, faith becomes separated from everyday life.

Consider the very first week a student experiences at your school. New Student Orientation, Welcome Week, Freshman Frenzy…whatever you call it, these few days can have a huge impact on your transitioning students. Is the schedule packed? Are students encouraged to over-commit? When we know that time management is a struggle, it is worth considering how we can send a message that supports students in trying new things while keeping their schedule sane.

Right along with the beginning of college, but certainly not stopping after orientation, the sheer volume of decisions left entirely up to them challenges students. Everything from class attendance to personal spending to time management is suddenly subject to students’ own choice. We cannot fix this for them by making choices in their place; we need to teach them how to do it themselves.

Think about your school’s typical student. What is their course load, how many clubs are they in, how many jobs do they work? My office supervises about 35 students each year. They work for us 8-10 hours a week. They volunteer 3-5 hours for us on top of that. They carry at least four classes and are involved in two to four other organizations. Many of them are also part of the Greek system. Some have second jobs outside of our office.

Who taught our students that this is the common expectation for their college life? Why do they do so much? Any university does well to consider their messaging related to student busyness. How many events are on the calendar? In our context, a student can be at one of at least 3 events almost every night of the week, all year long. That’s just on our activities calendar; it doesn’t account for (usually weekly) clubs, intramurals, or fraternity or sorority meetings, let alone informal parties.

Discipline and Grace

When I was attending a Christian college myself, we had rules. There were enough rules to be called ‘a lot,’ perhaps—we were a dry campus, a smoke-free, drug-free, drunk-free (you can drink over age 21 but not be drunk ever) campus, a no-members-of-the-opposite-sex-in-your-room-between-midnight-and-noon campus, among others.

Because the college had rules, they also had systems to enforce those rules. RA’s wrote people up, RD’s had individual conversations to address issues, and there were formal measures above and beyond that depending on the circumstance.

Universities need discipline or judicial systems; they are an inevitable part of enforcing the standards of the community. This is especially true for Christian colleges and universities who want to be clear about what it means to live in community, worship, and learn together. But it is critical to consider how a student experiences those systems.

One finding that challenges us at FYI is how students define the gospel. Instead of the gospel of grace found in the person of Jesus Christ, a high number of students live in a framework that depends upon performance and behavior modification in order to win God’s approval. They are aware of what they should and should not do, and believe they must focus on managing the balance between the two categories. In short, they have a gospel without grace. In fact, when asked, “What is Christianity all about?” one-third of respondents did not include Jesus in their answer at all.

If a student already lives with a rule-based, grace-less faith, and then they violate a campus policy, how will they experience a judicial process implemented by adults who claim to be doing this for the good of the Christian community? Possibly it will be another representation of a religious system that cares more about their external behavior than anything else about them. That student may leave even surer that all that matters is doing what they should and avoiding what they shouldn’t.

What is clearly difficult is that we do have to enforce rules on campus, which means some kind of discipline when rules are purposefully broken. Nevertheless, the discipline process can honor the student and represent grace even as it enforces school rules. Scripture talks about God’s own discipline and love in the same breath. In Job 5:17-18, for instance, the writer says “Blessed are those whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.” There are similar themes throughout Proverbs, such as chapter 3 verses 11-12, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” If God himself, who is trying to lead a people to obedience, can embody correction and grace, discipline and love all together, we too can consider that they are not mutually exclusive in our campus policies.

I was faced with a choice on how to express these two values—grace and correction—during my first year on staff. One of my leaders for a Spring Break service project missed a training meeting because he was at the hospital having his stomach pumped after excessive drinking. The coordinator of the Spring Break program, also a student, was the one who told me about that (underage) student, and she wanted to know what I would do about it. So I had to weigh out: Do I pull him from leadership or let him stay? Turn him in to judicial affairs or just address it with him directly? Or pretend I didn’t know and ignore it altogether (which would negate both values at once)?

Looking back, I do believe I picked the right option for that student at that time. Certainly I approached it differently than I would have before I was aware of just how much that situation could connect to his understanding of faith. Hopefully those of us who work in a college environment will say the same about a variety of programs and structures that we employ as we serve students.

Action Points

  • Think about the overt programs, workshops, or presentations offered to help students navigate the transition from a practical perspective. Do students receive support related to time management, decision making, or money management? If your office or department does offer these resources, how do you make the student body aware of them?
  • As a college or university, how can students get to know adults? Is it easy to forge relationships with professors or staff members? Are students known by Residence Directors? How can your school or college ministry create clearer, broader pathways for students to know older adults?
  • Put yourself in the shoes of a student who has violated a significant rule. How will you experience the judicial process? Are there personal conversations where you will be heard? Will the process be restorative, dignified, and just?

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