In the wake of recent deconversion stories (Joshua Harris, Marty Sampson, etc.), I felt compelled to post an open letter that I wrote in 2012 and included in my book, Varsity Faith.
Dear Youth Pastors,
Students who profess Christian faith are dropping out of the church and leaving the faith at a staggering rate when they get to college. The statistics are widely available in plenty of formats so I don’t need to get into the details here. Suffice it to say that there is a growing need to help Christian students continue believing and practicing faith as they become adults.
Much of the teaching that students receive at church is slanted too far in one of two directions. It leans either too far toward the practical (at the expense of the theological), or too far toward the theological (at the expense of the practical). Either way, after the church has invested countless hours and dollars to teach them, students are not prepared to meet the academic, social, and experiential challenges that await them in college. We need to find a synthesis that brings faith to life in the real world in a meaningful way.
We need to help students connect the dots between the theological and the practical. This connection, between the head and hands, is essential if they are to continue believing and practicing their faith as they become adults. Pulsing in the middle of it all is, of course, the heart. Students, like all of us, devote their attention, energy, and praise to the things they value most. I believe that practical theology can blaze a trail into their hearts and help them (re)discover the truth that St. Augustine confessed in the fifth century: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Many students find themselves in a challenging place today. Questions start to creep in, the answers being offered don’t satisfy, theology loses its connection to reality, and doubts gnaw away at the faith they once claimed as their own. But it’s important to recognize that the questions and doubts are not the problem. There’s no reason to oppose them because their presence is not a sign of faltering faith. In fact, some kinds of doubt can actually be good, and some amount of disorientation and questioning is inevitable for students as their minds develop, bodies grow, emotions mature, and hormones rage.
What we should oppose is our own unsatisfying responses that cause those questions and doubts to persist until they become a student’s reason for abandoning the faith. If something’s got to give, it shouldn’t be a student’s faith; it should be the trite answers and simplistic solutions that don’t satisfy anyone – especially not today’s students. These responses fail to satisfy because, in large measure, they allow theology to stand disconnected from reality. Practical theology is essential for students because it prompts interaction between faith and life without shortchanging either.
A 16-year-old was talking with about some of his questions. Eventually, I asked why he hadn’t asked his youth pastor those questions. He said that he had asked, but felt like the youth pastor gave him a superficial cliche and sent him away to invite his friends to the next big event on the calendar. This should not be happening.
Students who are working through the questions and implications of Christian faith should see the church as their advocate, not their adversary. We must create environments where students can openly express their questions, doubts, and struggles without feeling shamed, ostracized, or put aside. That 16-year-old student is among the many students I’ve talked with who are experiencing a thick sense of cognitive dissonance. Our claims about God don’t seem to match their experience, and they don’t know how to respond.
Unfortunately, because many of these students have been taught to think about faith with only “in or out,” “all or nothing” categories, they feel like they have no middle ground on which to stand and think and pray and believe…so they leave.
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, interviewed thousands of students, pastors, and parents, and concluded, “This is a generation hungry for substantive answers to life’s biggest questions” (You Lost Me, p. 127). The questions haven’t gone away; they’ve taken center stage. It’s time to start offering students some substantive answers.
We can do better.
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