College is way tougher than I expected. I never imagined that going to college would challenge my faith like it did.
In high school, I had been a good student (3.7 GPA), an athlete, a student leader, and very involved in my church youth group. Most of my close friends went to youth group, I went on every retreat and mission trip, was a part of a small group, and attended the big youth program on Wednesday. I had always thought that my faith was strong and that I was a "mature Christian".
I moved into my college dorm sure that I would fit in and not have a problem. I felt confident in who I was, what I believed, and ready to take on the world. I met my roommate and we hit it off immediately. She was great, we had similar personalities, interests and tastes, and enjoyed the same kinds of people. Initially, things seemed great.
After about two weeks, things started to change. Before going to college I was sure I would find some kind of college youth group, like I had in high school. What I didn't know was how hard it was to find one and to feel like it was okay to go to one. I was fairly convinced that I would be kicked out of my social group if I let my faith and religion become something I was really involved with. I think not having someone help me and my faith was a big mistake.
My roommate and I were really social, and as a result we ended up at lots of parties. At first, it wasn't hard to say "no" to drinking and smoking pot. When people asked why not, I would tell them it was because of my faith, but sometimes I got funny looks or odd comments, so I stopped telling people that I was a Christian.
By the middle of the semester I started drinking some. By the end of the first semester, I was partying all the time. Looking back, it was at that point that I gave up trying to find a church or a college youth group. I felt like if I did start going to church again, I would lose my friends, and I wasn't sure I'd fit in with the church people anymore. So I ended up drifting more and more away from my faith.
Now I'm a junior in college. I can't say I go to church or even really know what I believe when it comes to my faith. Sometimes I crack open my Bible and read a few pages, in hopes of finding an answer to some question in life, but it's pretty rare. Every once in a while I think about high school and my youth group. Looking back, I'd say what I loved about youth group was hanging out and being with the people, but I don't know if I really ever took what they taught and made it part of who I was or what I really believed. Sometimes I think I just learned the right answers to their questions, so I looked like I was this "good Christian kid". Maybe I'll go back to my faith someday, but for now I'm happy trying out the world and I don't know if I need a faith.
The above student graduated from a youth group at a church where I used to be involved in ministry. Like any high school youth program around the nation, we watched as seniors every year left high school friends and mentors and dove into new groups of college friends and faculty.
Why is it that some youth group kids go wild after graduation while others don't? What can youth workers do to prepare students as they leave the relative safety of our youth ministries and begin to emerge into adulthood. 1 In order to better answer these and other questions related to youth group seniors' transition to college, the Fuller Youth Institute's College Transition Project tracked youth group seniors nationwide as they crossed the bridge into college. We uncovered some interesting results pertaining to the very early stages of the transition as high school seniors graduate and enter their first year of college.
In the midst of all of the students FYI is studying, one of the subgroups we've paid special attention to is a group of students we call the "teetotalers," meaning those students who do not drink alcohol or engage in sex (specifically sexual intercourse or oral sex). We are especially interested in those who are not only teetotalers in high school, but also remain that way after they transition to college.
According to our research, students who remain teetotalers as college freshmen have higher levels of "intrinsic religiosity," meaning a commitment to letting their spirituality guide their life and decisions. In addition, college teetotalers also show higher levels of "narrative faith," meaning they view their own story as part of God's story.
Implications: Internalization v. Understanding
For many youth workers, the first response to this data about teetotalers would be to frantically prepare a great talk or small group study on "Ten Reasons to Stay Away from Sex and Alcohol". We could even try tactics such as shame and guilt, or fear and manipulation to help our message "really sink in."
However, as a youth worker and a researcher, my hope is that we think more deeply about these findings and their implications for our ministries.
As we saw in the story of the student at the opening of this article, even though she had spent plenty of time sitting through those types of sermons and small group discussions, there seemed to be a piece missing.
Based on my joint roles as a youth worker and a social science researcher, I suggest that that missing piece is internalization.
During high school, the student knew what might happen to her faith if she engaged in high-risk behaviors, and her high school youth community supported her abstinence from these activities. However, she had not internalized these values; these values had not become a part of her narrative faith, the story that reads God's marks on all areas of her life. As a result, when she was introduced to these behaviors and realized friends around her were participating in such things and not openly suffering or dying, her understanding was shaken.
What's the difference between internalizing and understanding? Understanding comes first and is necessary and good. Internalization occurs when students understand what their faith calls them to and rather than weigh risks, begin to see their identity as revolving around the overlap between their story and God's story. This is a long and hard process, but as the second true story below from another college student I know suggests, we as youth workers play an important role in that internalization process.
College has been awesome for me. I don't think I ever expected it to be this good.
When I was getting ready to go to college I was terrified, super nervous, and not sure that I would like it at all. In high school I had been really involved in my church youth group. Most of my close friends were from my church. It was a place where I felt like I could really figure out who I was and felt free to be me, something I didn't always feel at school.
The summer before I left I spent a lot of time with my youth leader, someone who was and still is really important. We talked a lot about the upcoming transition, my fears, and all the unknowns. We talked a lot about my faith as well. Those were some of the most important conversations in my life. He challenged me a lot and invited me to think about how my faith and how my relationship with Christ fit into who I was as a man, and more importantly how it was going to, or if it was going to, affect who I was in college.
Once I got to school, I met my roommate and we got along fine. We both liked some of the same things and became pretty good friends. During my initial orientation, there were advertisements for different churches, which made it easy for me to go and check out a few of them. Eventually I found one I liked. I went a lot my freshman year. Since then, I have gotten busy and I don't go every week, but I still try to go a few times a month.
Unlike a lot of friends I see around me, I am still a Christian. I was able to avoid drinking and partying for the most part. If it weren't for my conversations with my youth leader and the way he challenged me to think about how my faith was important to me, and how it would impact my life after high school, I don't know if I would have been able to avoid all that stuff. Partying would have been a way easier way to meet friends and girls. I think that in some ways the party route might have made my freshman year way easier and not so lonely, but I think it would have been something I regretted.
To help us tie together research and student stories with youth ministry practice, we invited Derek Melleby, director of the College Transition Initiative at the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, to share some of his insights on the importance of internalization and how we can foster that process in students. Below is a brief excerpt from that interview, which can be heard in its entirety at this link.
FYI: What mistakes do youth workers tend to make in preparing high school seniors for college?
Derek: My experience has actually been that not enough things have been tried to have a long list of mistakes. Many youth workers are just now addressing this issue for the first time. But I do think that sometimes there is a failure to offer a gospel that connects with life on the ground. The "God loves you and has a plan for your life" gospel is pretty abstract and doesn't get you very far, especially in college.
The mistake that probably trumps all the others is that too much of youth work measures success with the amounts of activity and the numbers of youth that attend events. Instead, if we can shift our paradigm to think about where we want kids to be in 20 or 30 years and then focus on what might be the most valuable things during the 4-5 years we have them that can help shape them into those kinds of people down the road, we may be more successful.
FYI: What do you think youth workers can do now to bring about faith internalization in the lives of high school students later?
Derek: There's a lot of research now that points to the general reality that most of the time the faith of parents becomes the faith of the child. As youth workers, we can put a lot more time and energy into educating, helping, and encouraging parents—not just in how to parent, but in understanding and internalizing the gospel themselves.
For youth workers who aren't sure about how to talk with parents, I think one of the things they can do is know the research that's out there about the importance of parents in their children's faith, and then tell parents that. Also, try to work with parents who have leadership gifts to involve them in ministry, and be sure the senior leadership of the church understands the importance of parents' role in faith formation and reminds the congregation of that reality.
FYI: In our teaching, how can we help students move beyond mere understanding of what we teach and toward true internalization of faith?
Derek: This article makes the point that some students haven't internalized how their faith navigates challenges. I would actually say that the internalization isn't just about how faith meets challenges, but that students haven't internalized the need and necessity of community in the Christian life. This is a problem with American evangelicals in general, myself included. Community is often an add-on rather than an essential element of faith.
I recently met a college student from Nigeria. I had actually been reading about the persecution of the church in Nigeria, so my first question was, "It's pretty easy being a Christian in America, isn't it?" He looked me in the eyes and said, "Being a Christian in America is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. First of all, I don't even know who the Christians are." He's been looking for them. In the United States we need to think more about how our faith is connected to our communal identity. Then when students go to college they understand the importance of getting plugged into a community that shares that identity and helps students navigate faithfulness in college.
FYI: What suggestions do you have for youth workers who are wrestling to find a balance between teaching and modeling "law" and "freedom" in their youth ministries? How can we avoid the pitfalls of either extreme and really prepare students for making their own decisions in college?
Derek: First off, we really need to model the struggle in our own lives. I think it's typical in the position of "Christian leader" to use perfection as the standard. So I'd start by not holding perfection as the standard in your own life and in the lives of youth.
This question of legalism versus relativism is why we have the majority of the New Testament. The gospel isn't something between the two—it's something altogether different. The gospel says we are all wrong, but we are all deeply loved, and in Christ we are all in process—often a painful process—of being changed from the inside out. So if you internalize this journey, and this gospel, it starts running through your veins. The most important thing is to understand that the tension is the reality, and to be open and honest about how this applies in your own life.
FYI: As you think about youth workers you know who have done a good job mentoring students in what it takes to have a thriving faith in college, what did those youth workers do well?
Derek: I think youth workers can help paint a more realistic picture of what college culture is like. There should be no surprises when they get to college. What I often hear is "Nobody ever told me it would be like this." On the flip side, we sometimes try to scare kids with how bad it is. I want to offer something in between. We need a model of living the kingdom on college campuses that understands the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, and to be able to articulate the place of things like alcohol, for instance, in the Christian life.
This article originally appeared at fulleryouthinstitute.org in December 2008.
- Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, chair of the Special Interest Group on Emerging Adulthood sponsored by the Society for Research on Adolescence, argues that young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 make up a new, distinct developmental period known as emerging adulthood. Arnett suggests that this period of emerging adulthood is marked by increased risk-taking behaviors and self-exploration on multiple fronts, including spirituality. ↩