Why Do Students Leave Christianity in College?

Students who profess Christian faith drop out of the church and the faith at an alarming rate when they exit the confines of their youth group and step foot on the college campus.

The statistics are widely available in plenty of formats so I don't need to get into the definitions and details here (see especially Generation Ex-Christian by Drew Dyck, You Lost Me by David Kinnaman, or Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean, or Soul Searching by Christian Smith). Suffice it to say there is a need to help students of faith continue practicing the faith as they grow up.

Why are they abandoning the same faith they once professed?
Every person and situation is different, but there are some common stories.

Some leave because they are trying to figure out who they are and what they really believe on their own terms. Away from their parents, friends, and church for the first time, they are introduced to activities and ideas that hold a special kind of intrigue because they are new and different.

Some leave because they didn't actually believe what the pastor had been saying all along - even if they said or acted like they did in order to appease their parents. In a place of higher learning, they find plenty of help to support what they thought was true (or false) the whole time.

Some leave because, when you get right down to it, they don't see how it really matters for real life in the real world. When the responsibility falls on them to engage with other Christians and practice the basic disciplines of the faith, they hit the snooze button (repeatedly) instead.

Some leave, even though the fully intended not to, because their faith cannot hold up in the face of the academic, social, and experiential challenges they encounter. The questions, the scrutiny, and the doubts are just too much, and something's got to give.

This isn't an exhaustive list and I have no doubt that the reason is often some combination of several reasons, but those are the explanations I hear about the most when talking with students.

What do you think?

Related Posts:
Student Ministry: Not the Whole Pie
The Purpose of Youth Ministry Is...


  1. I agree with you that there are several factors that play into why students vacate their Christian faith, temporarily or permanently, in college. Aside from the healthy journey all adolescents need to be on to understand their faith and make it their own, there are some things we as caring adult leaders, or grad guides, fail to do to that contribute to our students' faith struggles in college.

    To put it simply, we don't prepare them adequately for the challenges that await them in college. In other words, all our college-bound high school seniors need Pre-Graduation Counseling. In Acts 20 Paul warned the elders in Ephesus what faith challenges were ahead of them after he left. According to the Fuller Youth Institute's College Transition Project, most of the newly minted college students they interviewed did not feel their leaders prepared them enough for the transition.

    Our standard approach in the church for getting students ready for college falls into two extremes. First is too much academic Christian Worldview training. Don't get me wrong, worldview courses are fine for general discipleship, but they are not the Silver Bullet against college faith struggles. They prepare the head, but the battle on campus is for the heart. Secondly is the simplistic exhortation to "make sure you plug-in somewhere" with the accompanying slap on the back.

    I think there are four specific challenges that we need to help our college-bound seniors understand and navigate:

    1. They need to anticipate the full force of three overwhelming feelings -loneliness, freedom and stress - that await them in college.

    2. They need to know how those negative emotions set-up two very powerful and common temptations for Christians in college: alcohol and sex.

    3. They need to understand there is one consistent argument they will hear on campus: the Bible is not historically reliable and therefore, an invalid foundation for understanding God. The need to be familiar with that argument and know why the Bible is a reliable source for an intelligent faith.

    4. They need to know that as a new student they will be facing these three challenges with zero Christian community. It will take them time to find a new fellowship so in the mean time they are all alone. We need to help them anticipate the trials of finding fellowship and give them practical guidance on locating and discerning what group is best for them.

    Our students will still need to make their own choices about what role they will let Jesus Christ play in their lives in college. But as their spiritual leaders it is our duty to help them see clearly what challenges await them. We need to help them enter college with their eyes wide open.

  2. Ben,
    Those are excellent thoughts! I agree whole heartedly with what you've said.

    By any chance have you read Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith?
    He emphasizes exactly what you said about worldview training. I think he's right on target too.

  3. Thanks for your comments.. No I have not read his book, but I will get it and fold it into my thinking.


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