Will your teenage son or daughter still be walking with Jesus when they graduate college? Or will they leave their faith behind as they walk off that graduation stage to start a new chapter of life?
As parents, we want what’s best for our kids. As Christians, we know that means following Jesus for a lifetime. That’s certainly what I want as a father of three. But we’ve also seen the stats and they’re not encouraging:
- Depending on the study, approximately fifty percent will disengage from their faith during the college years (there is no indication from the research that they are or will come back).
- Forty-seven percent of American emerging adults agreed that “morals are relative, there are not definite rights and wrongs for everybody.”
- Fifty-four percent of “conservative protestant” teenagers affirmed that there was more than one way to God.
Welcome to College in Post-Christian America
Did you know that a Harvard/George Mason University study found that one of four college professors is a professing atheist or agnostic (a percentage much greater than the general population, which is about five to seven percent)? As a parent, you need to know that College is not “Christian friendly.”
Today’s Christian student faces enormous pressure to bow to the tyranny of tolerance on campus. Certain moral and religious viewpoints are simply no longer allowed. The Bible is attacked and dismissed as a bigoted fairy tale that has long outlived its usefulness in our progressive society. Free speech seems to be protected for everyone except those who actually think Christianity is true.
As someone who has the privilege of teaching a lot of high school and college students, I can tell you from personal experience they are not ready. Many are simply not prepared for the ideas, experiences, and relationships that will challenge their faith during the college years and shape their future.
The good news is that they can be and it starts with you as the parent. Even as powerful as the shaping forces of our culture are, the research still shows that parents are the most influential factor in a child’s life during these formative years.
As I teach seminars for parents on how to help teenagers own their faith, one of the most common questions I get is “what can I do to get them ready and what are the most important things they need to know?” While I offer a more comprehensive answer in Welcome to College: A Christ-Follower’s Guide for the Journey, I want to briefly unpack the one thing you must do (and not do!) in order to help your teenager keep their faith in college. Yes, they still have to make their own choices, but this can make a huge difference!
One thing you must do:
The first thing you must do is create a safe place in your home for honest questions and sincere doubts. If you’ve ever thought very much about Christianity or the bible, then you have questions. We all just have to decide what to do with them.
So imagine your daughter finally gets up enough courage to share with you that she’s not sure if she believes in God anymore.
Hit the pause button. How you respond is critical, and you have two options—freak out on the outside or the inside. I advise you to freak out on the inside, and then calmly say something like this:
“That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked it. Can you tell me more about why you are thinking that?”
What you have done for them in this response is communicate that this is safe place, and that he/she can ask anything they want to ask.
Unfortunately, what happens sometimes in our churches, youth groups, and families is there is an unspoken “we don’t ask those kinds of things here” mindset.
There is a common misunderstanding that Christians are never supposed to ask questions or have doubts because it shows a lack of faith. This couldn’t be further from the truth! The opposite of faith is unbelief. Doubt is in the middle. Now, you don’t want to live there forever, but the pathway to a stronger faith involves walking through your doubts.
As moms and dads, we can set the tone for further conversations that build their faith along the way. Your relationship with them is the soil where truth can take root.
One thing you must not do:
Now that we’ve looked at what you must do, here’s one thing you must not do if you want your son or daughter to own their faith. If your teenager raises a tough question or shares an honest doubt with you, we can’t tell them to “stop thinking so hard about this and just have more faith.”
Two things happen when we do this with teens. First, they get frustrated and then, they become disillusioned. Think about it this way: if I ask a room full of students, “Who can hold their breath the longest?” some will last longer than others by sheer willpower. But eventually, they all have to take a breath. The blind faith view works the same way—some will hold on to their faith longer than others, but eventually they will have to take a breath.
Biblical faith is not blind. Faith is active trust in what you have good reason to believe. There have to be reasons for faith somewhere in there. A “don’t think, just believe” mentality creates two different worlds that students have to live in and navigate, and that is ultimately unhealthy and damaging to their faith.
This is not the time to abandon hope and run for the hills, but it is a time to prepare our students for the potential buzz saw to their Christian faith that is waiting for them on campus. That preparation begins in the home with us creating a safe space for honest questions and doubts while not encouraging a blind faith as they grow up.