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Want to keep your faith in college? Here's what you need to know

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 26 2014 4:45 a.m. MDT

Nate Tunnell, minister and director of Cru, right, and Stephanie Knight, chat with incoming student Tyler Smith at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 22, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Elizabeth Campbell said she took a break from things of the spirit when she first arrived at the sprawling University of Missouri campus in Columbia three years ago.

The native of Marshfield, Missiouri — population 6,686 — was just one among 34,000 students caught up in a culture that encouraged exploration, making new friends and finding one's self.

"I didn't put as much effort into my relationship with Jesus as I should have; it wasn't my highest priority," the now 21-year-old international studies major recalled. "I started partying and (doing) other things. In freshman year, if you come up with friends, it's real easy to get caught up in that."

Campbell's detachment from the faith community that nourished her — she was very active in her hometown Assemblies of God congregation — is one of the factors that could lead to a separation from faith while at college, faith leaders say. And many religious institutions respond to that detachment by creating campus ministries that give students a familiar place to reconnect with their faith.

As students explore what may be a highly unfamiliar and stressful setting, religious groups should offer "a sense of hospitality, of forming a community, of welcoming and inviting people," said Barbara McCrabb, assistant director of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"My sense, coming from … the campuses I get to visit is there is a hunger for faith and spirituality and I think the grace of campus ministry is providing a safe and substantive place for those conversations to happen," she said.

College culture

A sociological survey of 38,251 people born after 1960 found that those who hold a bachelor's degree are no more likely to disaffiliate from a religious group than those who do not hold such a degree.

Study author Philip Schwadel of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln told Inside Higher Ed, a "college education is no longer a faith-killer," noting that with more college graduates attending church, it's easier for those in higher education to find congregations of like-minded people.

But students such as Campbell say their problems stemmed from the pressure freshmen often feel to let social life take precedence over spiritual nurture. Coupling that party climate with a natural desire for independence can lead to an estrangement from one's faith, according to one campus minister.

"I think the culture of college in general is to pursue self, kind of selfish desires or ambitions. Not that those are always bad, but college is one of those times when people encourage you to explore," said Nate Tunnell, a minister with Cru, the group formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, who advises student groups at the University of Utah and at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

Tunnell said the desire to explore, coupled with a basic human trait to control one's fate, can lead to spiritual indifference. "We all desire to be God ourselves, go our own way and call the shots. We don't want to have anyone tell us what to do. Human nature is drive for selfishness and self-rule. That leads to all the other areas that students can get in trouble," he said.

In Gainsville, Florida, Rabbi Berl Goldman, a Chabad Lubavitch emissary who serves an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Jewish students at the University of Florida, agrees the new experience of college can lead to spiritual neglect.

"I think they're a little indifferent to many things," Goldman said of some students he's encountered. "I think we could group that with just in general focusing on themselves."

See also: 8 campus religious groups to explore this semester

'Desire and hunger'

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