The Lockbox Theory's implications for your students

Meredith Miller Image Meredith Miller | Oct 6, 2008

As a youth worker, you have probably noticed that teenagers live the seasons of the year differently than the rest of the population. Whereas the rest of the United States marks the year with fall, winter, summer and spring-or perhaps Labor Day, New Year’s, Tax Day, Memorial Day, and the end of the fiscal year-those in high school use other markers to commemorate the passing year. The teenage calendar marches through the first day of school, homecoming, winter break, spring break, prom, and the first day of summer vacation.

For our juniors and seniors, though, we need to add one more marker along the way: college season. That additional layer of online searches, college applications, entrance exams, and campus visits sets them on a course for post-high school life and learning.

The college season also brings new challenges and opportunities to us as youth workers: will students’ faith thrive or fizzle? After graduation, will our kids go out of their way to engage or disengage with a faith community? Regardless of students’ particular circumstances-their choice of school, how far away they live, whether they will be working in a job-we as youth workers have a limited amount of time to hopefully and prayerfully set students on a trajectory of lifelong and passionate pursuit of Jesus.

The myths of collegiate spirituality

Perhaps some of your students’ parents voice the all-too-common fear that college students will abandon Christianity once they enter an academic world that is hostile to their faith. Yet is that really true? Does research back that up?

At the Fuller Youth Institute, the research from our three-year College Transition Project indicates that 70% of youth group graduates disagree with the idea that their college professors make them confused about their faith. Almost three-quarters of students report that other students respect their beliefs. At least in our study, it does not seem that the vast majority of students experience college as an overtly threatening place for their faith.

On the flip side, perhaps you’ve heard the claim that collegians are highly interested in spirituality and spiritual practices. Tim Clydesdale, associate professor of sociology at The College of New Jersey, conducted 125 in-depth interviews along with a year of field research on high school seniors as they entered their first year of college. [[Tim Clydesdale, “Abandoned, pursued or safely stowed? The religious life of first year undergraduates,” paper presented to the SSRC, 2006, 7. Also available at]] In the course of Clydesdale’s research, he found almost no evidence for these claims. [[Clydesdale, 3.]]

Christian Smith, sociologist at University of Notre Dame and co-author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, agrees. As Smith interviewed teens and asked them to self-describe their religiosity, “spiritual” never entered the conversation; the word “spirituality” isn’t even a part of adolescent vocabulary. [[Interview, Fuller Theological Seminary, April 2008. The full results of Smith’s research can be found in his book, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005).]]

Instead, Clydesdale’s research pointed to a trend he describes as an “identity lockbox.” As youth workers, the identity lockbox theory gives us great insight into the religious lives of college students and helps us strategically consider how to prepare students now for what they will face tomorrow.

Defining the “Identity Lockbox”: What is it and why do students use it?

If collegians are neither abandoning their faith because of a hostile college environment, nor deeply interested in spirituality, what are they experiencing? College students seem to be following a third path of storing their religious beliefs, practices, and convictions in a sort of “identity lockbox” as they develop other parts of their identity (e.g., vocational identity, relational identity). Clydesdale explains that the lockbox “protects religious identities, along with political, racial, gender, and civic identities, from tampering that might affect their holders’ future entry into the American cultural mainstream.” [[Clydesdale, 4.]]

In other words, while there are parts of students’ identity that are indeed free to develop, most of their identity is locked away. Those aspects that are developing are limited to the ones that fit into the American cultural mainstream. In general, their religious identity doesn’t fit in that mainstream and is therefore stowed away. Similarly, any other portion of the student’s identity that is threatened by the American cultural mainstream is also stored away. [[Clydesdale, 3.]]

Both religious and non-religious freshman students use the lockbox. Religious freshmen use the lockbox because they are compartmentalizers, stowing their religious identity as they enter emerging adulthood. Nonreligious freshman stow their religious identity because they are generally uninterested in religion. In either case, by locking away their religious identity, students can navigate the remainder of college and reopen the lockbox at a later phase in life, only to find their faith supposedly unharmed and unchanged, but tragically also disengaged with their actual lives or the wider world.

Does anyone open the box?

By and large, students do not open their lockboxes in college. However, there are three exceptional types who tend to periodically make the effort to explore their religious identity during the first year out of high school:

a) future intelligentsia aspiring thinkers and leaders of the academy and social sciences,

b) religious skeptics and atheists those who think religion prevents the achievement of social justice and equity, and

c) religious emissaries who engage their faith with the world.

According to Clydesdale, this final group constitutes about 10-15% of college students, and is most often found in religious schools. These are the students who say, “Here is my Christian faith, and here is the world around me. I can let these two interact with each other.”

About 1-2% of college freshmen are atheists or religious skeptics, while 1% are future intelligentsia. All combined, these three categories account for only 12-18% of all students. [[Clydesdale, 6.]]

So what does that mean for youth workers?

The identity lockbox theory indicates that our problem as youth workers is not Christianity vs. College. The problem is that the current script for American college students dictates that rather than risk their secure future role by exploring their own identities (including, but not limited to, religious ones), students lock them away. Emerging adults seem to care more about fitting into society than about exploring who they might be. It’s Identity Development vs. Mainstream American Culture. “The enemy of a thoughtful and lasting religiosity among college students,” writes Clydesdale, “is not their pursuit of college education-but their widespread use of identity lockboxes.” [[Clydesdale, 7.]]

Ultimately, this is a much bigger challenge for us. We are challenged to form students who utilize their faith to write a life script that is different from the one our culture writes for them. They don’t just need to survive their college years with their faith intact, they need to survive the push and pull of the culture that surrounds them and fully engage their faith during college.

How should we respond to the lockbox?

One response that will not help is trying to plead with students to swim against the tide of culture. “Freshmen interviewees were quite aware of these appeals, and had long developed immunity to them,” comments Clydesdale. [[Clydesdale, 7.]] Instead, Clydesdale recommends that we suit up for the game we have on the field in front of us. We can’t look for a different team to play against, or bemoan the size and strength of the opposing players. Historically, successful religious communities have suited up for the game instead of running from it or categorically rejecting it. “Religious communities thrive in American pluralism because they engage it thoughtfully, not retreat from it,” Clydesdale writes. [[Clydesdale, 5.]]

Remember, some students do look in the box. So the question we must now ask is: How can we increase the percentage of students who will engage faith with the world and look in their boxes in college? As youth workers, we should be encouraged that most students who do look in the lockbox have gained critical skills and perspectives before they arrive at college, making our role all the more important.

Our first step as youth workers, then, is to model healthy engagement with culture ourselves. Similar to the Young Life model, Clydesdale states that we must “earn the right to be heard” by engaging with our culture clearly, calmly, and with sound evidence.

As we succeed in being heard by students and thereby encourage them to explore their identities, we need to also be prepared for the second step of helping students critique the culture around them as they go into the world. This means developing students’ abilities to engage with culture, including engaging people with different religious, moral, political, or ideological perspectives. As a result, students will learn to converse in such a way that they, too, earn the right to be heard by others who see the world differently.

How can we cultivate both a critical perspective on American moral culture as well as give students the skills they need to explore their identity lockbox? Kara Powell, Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, discusses these and other questions with Tony Jones, National Coordinator of Emergent Village. 

FYI: Have you seen instances of students using lockboxes in college? What did you notice about those students?

Tony: I think something happens around the middle of students’ time at college and they start to look inside that lockbox and mess around with the contents therein. I know a couple of faculty members at one Christian college who have been called into the Dean’s office several times in the past few years to explain why so many philosophy majors lose their faith during their time at this school. Of course those professors try to explain that maybe the faith students are losing is a faith they should be losing, and they are growing into a new kind of faith.

For each one of us—and our students—the faith that gets us through elementary school isn’t big enough for us in middle school. We kind of have to be “born again” again into a bigger faith, and the same thing happens in mid-adolescence in high school. I think the same kind of thing happens in college, too, as students start to think about a different level of questions. They’re trying to figure out the world and their place in it. Most often, their high school faith isn’t big enough for that 20-year-old faith.

FYI: As you think of youth workers who have helped students grow into a bigger faith, what does that look like?

The youth pastors I know who best prepared their students for college and university settings are those youth pastors who understand that you do grow into new iterations of faith, and they have somehow taught students that that’s okay. They’ve given students permission to put away childish things and put on the more adult-ish things. To start to question all of the things you held as absolutely true in fifth or sixth grade doesn’t mean you are turning your back on Jesus or that you can no longer understand the authority of scripture. It means the way you embrace the authority of scripture is more nuanced, more complex than when you were in middle school.

FYI: So how exactly do youth pastors give students those kinds of opportunities?

Tony: It’s probably less easy to do in the typical unilateral monological speaking that youth pastors tend to do a lot of the time. It’s much easier in dialogue and in modeling. If youth pastors start to talk openly about the rhythms of their own faith and periods of doubt-even if they admit current periods of doubt-that can be extremely powerful for students.

So say a kid is struggling with some of the stories of the Old Testament and whether they are literally historically and factually true or not. That’s a struggle most Christians go through. Would you rather have them start to ask those questions in your basement in a small group when they are seniors in high school or in an English literature class taught by a Marxist philosopher at university? I would have them first start to wrestle with those in the small group.

Finally, it’s really about the posture of the youth pastor or the volunteer leader. It takes a lot of discipline not to have an immediate knee-jerk response to every question, every crisis of faith, or every time a kid questions the authority of scripture. Ultimately, if students don’t really come to conclusions on their own, but they just take what I say and regurgitate it, that’s not discipleship—that’s almost like building robots.

FYI: How do you think a youth worker can influence a student towards the “critical perspective on popular American moral culture” that Clydesdale describes?

Tony: All of us are complicit in American culture. I don’t think it’s that easy to say “let’s be a counter-resistance to the culture.” In every youth group I’ve been to, the kids have been wearing clothes, and so they are cultural beings when they’re wearing clothes, and they have their glasses and their backpacks on with their ipod in the back. Whatever your particular shtick on all of that as a youth pastor, you are making a cultural choice, too. So I’m uncomfortable with making statements like “standing against American culture,” because I don’t know that that’s even possible anymore.

FYI: So what language would you use?

Tony: I’d say as a youth worker to students, “How do we mix it up? How are we part of this culture? How are we contributing to this culture?” I’m much more fond of the language of Andy Crouch’s book on “culture-making”. Somewhere during the Enlightenment, the Christian Church lost our role as patron of the arts. The Church backed away from that as “cultural”. Andy’s book talks about getting back into the business of culture-making, so we shape culture from within. Not outside or over against it, but from within. So I would use the language of, “We’re in this thing. We’re neck-deep in culture, so how can we roll up our sleeves and get some dirt under our fingernails and get busy in the culture?”

An analogy that just occurs to me because I’ve spent a lot of time in the summer taking my kids to a public pool. The way some Christians talk about culture is like, “You’re standing on the deck, and there’s the pool with hundreds of kids swimming around in it.” We look at that and say, “How can we make that water move the way we’d like it to?” The only way to do it is that you jump in the pool and start splashing around with your kids. Suddenly you’re part of shaping the way the water moves around in that pool and the waves that are created-only by being in it. I think that kind of language is probably much more attractive to most teenagers than the posture of standing outside of American culture and judgmentally looking at how horrible it is.

FYI: But the danger of that is actually drowning in the waters of culture. What about the parents and youth workers who are so scared of what will happen to students once they graduate?

Tony: Back to the research, it doesn’t bear out that students get totally deconstructed, at least not the first few years. The other thing is, speaking theologically, to be so afraid of what’s going to happen to your students, and even to withhold an adolescent from swimming in the culture, shows a great lack of faith in the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s ability to guard the faith of the young.

For those of us who believe in the Holy Spirit-which I believe few Christians actually do-I don’t think it’s my responsibility to bring a kid to faith or to keep a kid in faith. It’s the Holy Spirit’s responsibility. A lot of parents think it’s the responsibility of the youth worker they’re paying to make their kids stay Christian. But no, it’s the responsibility of the Holy Spirit.

Action Points:

  • How do you usually respond to accusations that college can be detrimental to students’ faith? Think through conversations with parents of students in which this issue comes up and craft talking points for how you might engage these issues thoughtfully together.
  • Make a list of students from your ministry who have moved beyond high school over the past few years. As you think about these students, how many would you say seem to be “using the lockbox”? What factors do you think may be contributing to their choice to shelve faith during college?
  • Gather a group of high school seniors and discuss the theory of the identity lockbox with them, then ask for their feedback. Do they think it’s a valid theory? Have they seen it play out with others they know? Work together with them to brainstorm strategies for keeping the box open and keeping faith identity alive and growing in college.
  • Listen to the full interview with Tony Jones and send the interview and this article to another youth worker you know. Then get together to discuss your responses to Tony’s thoughts. Where do you agree or disagree with Tony’s assessment of culture and the church’s reactions to it? How do you think we should be responding to parents and to students when it comes to culture’s role in the faith transition to adulthood?

Photo by Elizabeth Kay

Meredith Miller Image
Meredith Miller

Meredith Miller is a pastor, parent, and writer with over 20 years of experience in children’s ministry and curriculum. She is co-lead pastor of Pomona Valley Church and author of Woven: Nurturing a Faith Your Kid Doesn't Have to Heal From.

Meredith holds a Master of Divinity from Fuller Seminary, as well as a B.A. in Religious Studies and Spanish Language & Literature from Westmont College.

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