Anecdotal evidence, supported by some research, suggests that nearly 75 percent of those who study tertiary education, seemingly as Christian young people, have lost their faith by the time they graduate.
Christian researcher Phillip Hughes reported in 2013 that 50,000 young Australians abandoned the faith yearly. This is a huge toll; as the church tries to lead a new generation to trust, it leaks out the back door from those already inside. This eliminates a lot of well-trained potential future leadership and turns the tap of the renewal of numbers into a trickle.
The malaise of the church when our young people throw away their faith
It seems to be an existential problem for the Australian church that gets little attention. This appears to be a legitimate area of interest for Christian schools and churches. Why is it happening, and what can be done about it?
There are many suggestions about the causes of the malaise. Some point to the apparent practice of some Christian schools of locking their students into a Christian bubble without preparing them for the transition to a hostile tertiary campus environment that will present significant intellectual, ethical, and cultural challenges. Those who identify this factor indicate the extent to which campus life exhibits both philosophical objections to the Christian faith as being childish, outdated, and artless (partly the legacy of the new atheists). In contrast, others indicate the fierce attacks on the Christian faith that claims to be complicit in the oppression of minorities and compromised by sexual scandals, especially the horrific abuse of children.
If a young Christian goes against these peer norms, there is a risk that friendship will be ‘canceled’.
Indeed, Menzies (2019) sees the academy as a reflection of a new Western secular ‘fundamentalism’ based on ill-considered acceptance of market liberalism, freedom of choice without restrictions, and the right to continuous sexual pleasure. Part of the new orthodoxy is that truth is acceptable only through science, while religion is completely subjective and based purely on feelings. If a young Christian goes against these peer norms, there is a risk that friendship will be ‘canceled’.
The age-old temptations – sex, power, money – obstacles for Christian uni students
Employees of AFES (Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students) at the University of Sydney see a litany of money, possessions, popularity, sex, luxury, pleasure, materialism, and power as obstacles for Christian students to navigate. Given the cultural strength and appeal of many of these, we should not be surprised if many fall at one or more hurdles.
Many young Christians seem to lack the skills and perhaps the theology to resist the prevailing subculture.
Recent writers such as Trueman (2020) and McAlpine (2021) highlight sex and sexual activity as a key to happiness and a good life as mainstream concepts. Trueman calls it ‘the triumph of the erotic’; the party scene offers an antidote to loneliness and a chance to enjoy ‘the good life.
Many young Christians seem to lack the skills and perhaps the theology to resist the prevailing subculture. They may have been unwilling to criticize culture and lifestyle from a Christian standpoint. They may have little more than a Sunday School understanding of the faith, the latter being evident unless churches and schools have taken firm steps to strengthen their knowledge of the Christian faith.
Still, elsewhere in their lives, something quite different is apparent. Indeed, some may live disintegrated lives, operating in multiple registers and even multiple personas, where one set of beliefs and behaviors can be seen in Christian circles. Such a disintegrated life is not sustainable in the long run.
Phillip Jensen has devoted much of his ministry to working with this age group. His observation (interview March 2020) is that people in Christian circles usually don’t hold out unless they have two or three pillars or anchors. He identified as a Christian family; a church or church youth group; and a strong parachurch organization, for example, a Christian group on campus. The best approach, therefore, is maximum engagement with multiple Christian communities.
… What it takes to survive and thrive as a Christian through these years is conviction…character…and community – Steven Garber
American scholar Steven Garber, until recently a professor of Marketplace Theology at Regent College Vancouver, has a similar view. He argues that belief (a robust Christian worldview capable of meeting the challenges of postmodernism, pluralism, and secularism) faith (a strong Christian worldview capable of meeting the challenges of postmodernism, pluralism, and secularism), character (modeled by an older Christian who embodies the faith) through these years is necessary to survive and prosper as a Christian. authentic) and community (a support structure of Christians who want to live faithful, renewed lives).
The writings of JK (Jamie) Smith (2009, 2016) show how people’s behavior allows them to get used to a normal lifestyle over time and to what extent we become what we desire. This realization strongly argues for intense discipleship training to become accustomed to a desire for God. It is also an argument to give our young people what Harrison calls a better story,’ i.e., the Christian faith is a more powerful than a secular, hedonistic story. Unlike the alternatives, it offers human flourishing and a Redeemer.
Of course, Jesus anticipated this dilemma in his parable of the sower (or, if you prefer, the parable of the soil) in Luke 8. IThere is indeed rocky ground where the seed of God’s word does not germinate. Certainly, birds steal the word of God from young adults at this stage of their lives. Most notably, there are the temptations of this world – consumerism, sex, and living for pleasure.
It seems to me that there is a clear mandate for churches and Christian schools to act to empower young people with a deep immersion in God’s word, with a practical understanding of Christian apologetics, in addition to a vibrant Christian community in which they are loved and supported. , and with effective mentors who can teach and disciple them as young adults in the Christian faith. Shall we identify those who fall away as one of these aspects of the parable of the sower and shrug? Yes, we know that God will call his own, but we also know we are responsible. Are we satisfied with a 70 to 75 percent failure rate, or do we take this responsibility and take action?
At the beginning of 2022, Dr. John Collier from the Head of St Andrew’s Cathedral School, Sydney, and the Head of Gawura, a Kindergarten, to the Sixth Grade Indigenous School on the same site to become Dean of Education at Morling Theological College in Sydney. This is a summary of a larger piece that appeared in the TEACH Journal of Christian Education earlier this year.