2nd in a Series on College Student Development: Keeping the Faith
My April 23rd, 2014, blog for My College Planning Team, “Keeping the Faith in College,1” was written from my personal perspective based on my experiences with students in colleges, both faith-based and secular. College students tend to question their faith. College students tend to experiment with the routines of discipline they knew at home with their family of origin. Most professionals who study and understand young adult development recognize that experimenting as normal behavior. College student development specialists—the “non-academic” staff who work with college students—, however, tend not to talk about faith development in students.
The topic of college student spiritual development is fascinating to me because it is so under-researched. The first national longitudinal study of students’ spiritual growth started in just 2003, with a followup study in 2008, by Alexander W. Astin, Helen S. Astin, and Jennifer Lindholm. Their findings, according to the Pew Research Institute,2 indicated that while attendance at religious services decreased dramatically for most students between their freshman and junior years, the students’ overall level of spirituality, as defined by the researchers, increases. The complete study was published for public consumption in Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (Jossey-Bass, 2010)3.
I recently set out to conduct a bit of research of my own, beginning with how pastors and youth ministers in my suburban area advise their young people who go off to college and return for visits during their college years. While my work is hardly “scientific,” it tells a story that likely speaks to many families whose children are headed to college in a few weeks. Pastors interviewed included: Jerry Bimber, Lombard Church of the Nazarene, Lombard, IL; Joe Jones, Grace Church, Warrenville, IL; Caleb Trimble, Westbrook Christian Church, Bolingbrook, IL; Terrence Ford, Victory Chapel, Bolingbrook, IL;
Each pastor I interviewed showed great enthusiasm for this part of their ministry; helping young adults on their spiritual journey is clearly work that they enjoy! Here is a snapshot of what they had to say:
Doubting your faith is not bad.
It’s a normal part of young adult questioning, say Pastors Jones and Trimble. It is helpful, however, to have a good foundation (before going away from your home church support system) in understanding how God is real to you. Both Jones and Trimble also encourage exploration of how others believe and live their faith. That is paramount to understanding the diversity of humanity.
Be challenged, but strengthen your personal relationship with God.
How to stay strong? You might expect to hear what is high on every pastor’s list: Read, study, pray. But also: Explore, learn, stay engaged. Let your faith grow and change with you. Pastor Ford admitted that he wished he’d learned early in college the discipline of time management and personal reflection. He said, “Know your own identity; when you know who you are, you won’t settle for just anyone or anything. You will keep your ‘vision’ of who God meant you to be.”
Don’t walk away in your “crisis of faith”
Instead, find solace, support, and some fun with older students who hold similar beliefs. Their mentoring may be just what you need in the difficult times. Most pastors felt that there was much to be learned from others’ points of view, including professors who might “believe radically different” from you. Those discussions can help you seek, search and clarify your own relationship with your faith.
Actively participate in a church of your faith tradition near campus
Pastor Bimber voiced this most strongly. In fact, he encouraged the weekly Sunday morning visit to a church off campus to be involved with the folks of a different age span, to help keep your real-world perspective. While you are at it, he said, do your part to improve the “town-gown” relationship. Be the model college student who disproves the stereotype that some hold.
All the pastors agreed on the number one task: Be active and of service in your community, wherever that may be. This is a time to give of your talent and time because life, even college life, is not all about “me”. Nearly all faith foundations share the requirement of service to others.
Finally, Pastor Trimble stressed that it is OK not to “have the answers” to the questions during the college time of your life. This is a journey of discovery and knowledge that doesn’t end, even when you graduate college.