This article is adapted from a lecture given by John Stonestreet at a conference for educators at Bryan College.
We received an email in our office some years ago from a Christian school administrator in Pennsylvania. It shared the story of a girl, a student leader, who had attended the school from Kindergarten through 12th grade. The administrator explained that the girl had gone to a university, and after three months, she emailed her parents and said, “Please don’t pray for me anymore, I no longer believe in God.”
This is what the school administrator’s email said: “We had her for 12 years. They had her for three months. What happened?”
There’s an alarming epidemic of students who claim to be Christians who go to college and decide they’re no longer Christians. Gary Railsback did his Ph.D. dissertation at UCLA in 1991 on how students’ beliefs change at college, surveying colleges and universities all across the United States. His study found that, at every level, from junior colleges to Ivy League schools, both Christian colleges and secular institutions, somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 of students who claimed to be a Christian going into college claimed not to be a Christian when they left.
I approach the topic as someone who has, for the last six years or so, been allowed to sit across the table from students. I’ve been on the phone with parents of students who have walked away from their faith. I’ve spoken at many youth conferences and rallies. I worked with students at Bryan College, and I work with students at the Summit. I’ve been able to sit across the table from students, talking with them, helping them wrestle with challenges, and sometimes crying with them.
I’d like to look now at four reasons students walk away from their faith. These aren’t the only reasons, of course, but they are four of the most important.
Reason #1: Students Don’t Know Who to Trust
The first reason — and I think this is fundamental — students walk away from their faith is simply that they don’t know who to trust.
I have to begin here, because of the hundreds of students on the verge of walking away from their faith that I’ve counseled, when I get past all their intellectual concerns to the core issue, I find 90 percent of the time it’s something that happened in their homes. For 90 percent of those, it goes back to something that happened with their dad. There is no substitute for the home in the lives of our students.
The home is what God has ordained in the lives of our students to give them their sense of faith and to give them their sense of identity. When the home falls apart, students are lost. And as the home goes, so goes the church.
I was asked to speak at a youth discipleship meeting in Virginia a couple of years ago. Right before my last talk, a girl came up to me and said she had some questions for me. We sat down and she said, “John, why does God let bad things happen?” So we talked for about 45 minutes, and I felt like I nailed it. Then I looked at her and I realized she didn’t look very satisfied. She said, “I understand what you are trying to do and it makes sense now and everything, but you just weren’t able to help me.” I said, “I’m sorry, I really was hoping to be able to help you.” Then I asked if she had a mentor, a parent or an adult in her life that could help her wrestle through some of these questions, and she said, “Well, I used to have someone. My dad.” She went on to tell me before her dad became a Christian several years ago, he was a drug addict. He had one of those 180-degree miraculous conversions, had grown quickly and was passionate about the Lord and His word. He actually entered the ministry, and was co-pastoring a church.
She continued, “A year ago my dad came to our family and confessed that he was again addicted to cocaine.”
He went to the co-pastor of the church with the intention of stepping out of the teaching ministry, and remaining in the body of Christ for healing and reconciliation with his family. She told me that pastor took their family up in front of the congregation, flushed out the dirty laundry, and kicked us out of the church.
“John,” she said, “I’m mad at my dad because he let us down. I’m mad at that pastor because he said he was our friend and he stabbed us in the back. I’m mad at all the people of that church because they said that they were behind us and they weren’t, and I’m mad at God. I know I’m not supposed to be mad at God, so I’m mad at myself.”
Suddenly it hit me. Her question wasn’t “Why does God let bad things happen?” It was “Why did God let that happen to me?” That’s a very different question.
She had heard her whole life that the two things she can count on are her family and her church. Then those two things collapsed. The problem here isn’t moral failures. Our own worldview says we’re going to sin. We’re going to fail morally. We hate that, but that’s what’s going to happen. The important thing is that we have a culture of Christian morality while still having a culture of grace. I’ve met far too many young people who tell me, “Yeah, I’ve blown it, and if I ever confessed it to my dad, or my school, or my pastor, they would never forgive me.”
We tell our kids that God loves them so much that he would rather die than live without them, and that God has grace that can cover all of their sins, and yet we do not create an environment of grace in our homes and schools and churches.
This is a very personal issue for me, because I have a close friend who grew up in a Christian school who blew it morally as a ninth grader and was never forgiven. So much so that as a 12th grader, even though her life had completely changed, she was never allowed in positions of leadership because of that mistake. It warped her picture of God, so much that when she had a child later on, she confided to me that she was scared that God was going to do something to her child to pay her back for everything that she’d done. Is that God? If that’s the example we set, is it any wonder children grow up with a poor idea of God? We need to figure this out, because the message of the cross is at its fundamental state a message of grace.
Reason #2: Students Don’t Know Who They Are
The second reason why I see young people walking away from their faith is because they don’t know who they are. In Psalm 135, David spends the first 14 verses telling us why we ought to worship God: because he’s great, he’s gracious, he’s faithful, he’s eternal, he’s sovereign, he’s good, and so on. Then, in verse 15, he says you should worship God not only because of who God is, but because of what happens if you worship someone or something else. David writes:
15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
16 They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
17 They have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
18 Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
We know that. We know it’s silly for a man to take a block of wood and carve an ear on one half and pray to it. But David doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that when we worship false gods, something happens to us. In verse 18 he writes, “Those who make idols will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”
What if it’s true? What if God structured the world in such a way that we literally become what we worship? Now, we know that’s true with Christianity — the point of Christianity is that we’re transformed in the image of God and to the image of his son. But what if it’s true the other way? What if, when worshiping an idol, it causes us to forget who we are? Our young people are growing up in a culture that assumes that God is at best irrelevant and at worst non-existent. Because they don’t know God, they don’t know themselves.
If we don’t know that we’re made in the image of God, how are we to know what redemption or wholeness even means? In his book What’s Wrong with the World, G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the huge modern heresy is to alter the human soul to fit modern social conditions instead of altering modern social conditions to fit the human soul.” When you embrace a false worldview, you forget who you are.
Reason #3: Students Don’t Know What They’re For
When you embrace a wrong worldview, you also forget what you’re for. God saves us to live. Robert Johnson writes in The World According to God it’s not just that God wants you to give 100 percent of your life to him, he is going to give 100 percent of your life to you. We just have to go live it. There’s a reason that Proverbs tells us that where there is no vision the people perish, that they cast off restraint. You know what makes a difference? A common vision. Give young people a why. Then they can live with any what.
T.S. Eliot talked about this in his article “The Aims of Education.” He said there are two questions that confront us about education. Number one, what is it that we do, and number two, what are we for? Now, when you meet a senior in high school, what do you ask him? What are you going to do, right? What’s the more fundamental question? T.S. Eliot says if we want to know what education is for, we need to ask “What is man for?” We answer that question with the Bible.
This is really important: We tell kids what to do with the Bible, but we often fail to tell them what the Bible is for.
Christ saves us for himself. That’s what gives kids value, not what they look like or what they do. They’re valuable because God has created them to bear his image and has called them to build his kingdom. The Bible is not a rule book; it’s a map, a guide, a framework for life.
Reason #4: Students Just Don’t “Get” Christianity
Finally, young people just don’t get Christianity. They don’t know why they believe. Part of the problem is their questions have been discouraged or not taken seriously. We’ve given our kids a lot of answers without helping them wrestle with their own questions. Now, it is important they ask questions in the right way. There’s a difference between earnestly seeking truth and skepticism or picking fights. That being said, any question is a good question if they ask it in a right way. If Christianity is true, it can handle the questions.
Another aspect of the problem is practical atheism. This is an insight from the book The Way of the Modern World by Craig Gay. He says the problem isn’t that people don’t believe in God. The problem is that people live as if God is irrelevant, as if they were practical atheists. Our goal as Christian parents, teachers, or grandparents isn’t to make them behave like Christians but to help them be Christians for the rest of their lives. Fundamentally, we’ve missed the goal if we look at the word of God not through the Word of God. The Bible is not only a book to be memorized and learned. We do memorize it and learn it, but why? Because the Bible is that which God has given us for understanding the world that we live in. That’s what the Bible is for.
Now, let me turn the page here. I want to talk about the the characteristics of the kids who get it, who live lives of faithfulness.
I get much of this from a book called The Fabric of Faithfulness by Steven Garber. Dr. Garber had the same question about students leaving the faith, but took a different angle and studied those students who got it, those who are making a difference with their faith. He found they have three main characteristics.
First, they have a Christian worldview. They know what they believe, and they know why they believe. Their worldview is big enough for the world. They’ve been trained not to be taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophy, but rather to take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.
They know that regardless of where their life takes them — education, parenting, politics, arts, science, etc. — they are able to glorify God through their work. I love what C.S. Lewis says, that what we want is not more books about Christianity, but rather more good books by Christians on other subjects.
Second, Garber said young people who stay faithful are those who choose their community based on others who have a biblical worldview. They surround themselves with people who have a common coherent vision for life in the world.
Finally, the third characteristic. I end with this because it has the most direct personal application. Character. Not character qualities, character. Garber says character is something that is not just taught; it’s caught. That’s why mentors are vitally important. Kids’ lives are changed by life-on-life mentoring by someone else who embodies their worldview to them. This is of utmost significance. As Jeff Myers has said, the kids that make it are the kids that have great parents or a good mentor. Walk through life with your kids, and find someone who can walk with you through your life. That’s what makes the difference.