Anecdotal evidence, backed by some research, suggests that nearly 75% of those who enter higher education, ostensibly as young Christians, have lost their faith by the time they graduate.
Christian researcher Phillip Hughes reported in 2013 that 50,000 young Australians abandon the faith every year. It’s a huge toll; as the church strives to usher a new generation into the faith, it is fleeing through the back door of those already inside. This weeds out a lot of well-educated potential future leaders and turns the tap of turnover numbers into a trickle.
The unease of the church as our youth shed their faith
It would appear to be an existential problem for the Australian church, one that receives little attention. This seems to be an area of legitimate interest for Christian schools and churches. Why does this happen and what can be done?
There are many suggestions as to the causes of the discomfort. Some point to the apparent habit of certain types of Christian schools of cocooning their students in a Christian bubble, without preparing them for the transition to a hostile tertiary campus environment that will raise substantial intellectual, ethical, and cultural challenges. Those who identify this factor point to how campus life presents both the intellectual objection of the Christian faith as childish, old-fashioned, and unsophisticated (partly the legacy of new atheists), while others point fierce assaults on the Christian faith that claim it as complicit in the oppression of minorities and compromised by sex scandals, especially repugnant child abuse.
Standing up to these peer group norms as a young Christian runs the risk of the friendship being “cancelled”.
Indeed, Menzies (2019) sees the academy as a reflection of a new Western secular “fundamentalism” based on the unthinking acceptance of market liberalism, unconstrained freedom of choice, and the right to continued sexual pleasure. Part of the new orthodoxy is that truth is only acceptable to science, whereas religion is completely subjective and based on mere feelings. Standing up to these peer group norms as a young Christian runs the risk of the friendship being “cancelled”.
Age-old Temptations – Sex, Power, Money – Obstacles for Christian College Students
Staff members of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES) at the University of Sydney identify a litany of money, possessions, popularity, sex, luxury, pleasure, materialism and power as obstacles to the navigation of Christian students. Given the cultural power and appeal of many of them, we shouldn’t be surprised if many fall on one or more of these hurdles.
Many young Christians seem to lack the skills and perhaps the theology to resist being dragged into the dominant subculture.
Recent writers such as Trueman (2020) and McAlpine (2021) draw attention to sex and sexual activity as key to happiness and a good life as common current concepts. Trueman calls it “the triumph of eroticism”; the party scene offers an antidote to loneliness and an opportunity to enjoy “the good life.”
Many young Christians seem to lack the skills and perhaps the theology to resist being dragged into the dominant subculture. They may not have been prepared to critique the culture and way of life from a Christian point of view and may indeed have little more than an understanding of faith in Sunday school, this the latter being obvious unless churches and schools have taken strong steps to strengthen their understanding of the Christian faith.
Some may indeed lead disintegrated lives, operating in multiple registers and even multiple personas, where one set of beliefs and behaviors are displayed in Christian circles, but something quite different is visible elsewhere in their lives. Such a disintegrated life is not sustainable in the long term.
The need for solid anchors in the lives of young Christians
Phillip Jensen has devoted much of his ministry life to working with this age group. His observation (interview March 2020) is that members of Christian circles generally only persevere if they have two or preferably three pillars or anchors. These he identified as a Christian family; a church or church youth group; and a strong para-church organization, for example, a Christian group on campus. The best approach is therefore one of maximum involvement in several Christian communities.
…what is needed to survive and thrive as a Christian in these years is conviction…character…and community – Steven Garber
American scholar Steven Garber, until recently professor of market theology at Regent College in Vancouver, has a similar view. He argues that what is needed to survive and thrive as a Christian in these years is conviction (a strong Christian worldview capable of dealing with the challenges of post-modernism, pluralism and secularism) , character (embodied by an older Christian who embodies the faith authentically) and community (a support structure for Christians seeking to live innovative and faithful lives).
The writings of JK (Jamie) Smith (2009, 2016) demonstrate how people’s behavior over time accustoms them to a standard way of life and how much we become what we desire. This realization is a powerful argument for strong discipleship training to habituate the desire for God. It is also an argument for giving our young people what Harrison calls “a better story”, meaning that the Christian faith is a more powerful narrative than a secular hedonistic story and unlike the alternatives, offers no only human flourishing, but a Saviour.
Of course, Jesus anticipated this dilemma even in his parable of the sower (or if you prefer, the parable of the soils) in Luke 8. There are indeed birds that steal the word of God from young adults at this stage of their life. life . There is indeed rocky ground, where the seed of the word of God fails to sprout. More specifically, there are the temptations of this world – consumption, sex, living for pleasure.
A call to action – the responsibility of churches and Christian schools to mentor and train disciples
Are we just going to identify those who fall as inhabiting one of these aspects of the parable of the sower and shrug our shoulders? It seems to me that there is a clear mandate for churches and Christian schools to act to strengthen young people with a deep immersion in the word of God, with an effective understanding of Christian apologetics, alongside a community vibrant Christian community in which they are loved and supported, and with effective mentors who can train and train them in the Christian faith as young adults. Yes, we know that God will call his own, but we also know that we are responsible. Are we happy with a 70% to 75% fallout rate, or are we going to accept that responsibility and act?
In early 2022, Dr John Collier left the headmaster of St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney and the headmaster of Gawura, an indigenous kindergarten to grade 6 school on the same site to become dean of education at Morling Theological College from Sydney. This article is a summary of a larger article that appeared in the TEACH Journal of Christian Education earlier this year.