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The challenge of church at college 1: Spiritual snacks

August 9, 2012

In my last post, I asked whether you thought college was taking on a parental role for student life, including religious practice. In the next few posts, I’m going to explore the ways I think Christian colleges are not doing the greatest job at student development, especially spiritual development.

My first and most important reason for believing that spiritual development is not the forte of Christian colleges is that colleges provide an alternative to church. Sort of. They provide spiritual snacks when the real feast is (or should be) offered by an actual church.

Don’t take my word for it, though.

Todd D. Hall, a professor at Biola University who has done decades of research in psychology and spiritual development, tracked data on the spiritual development of more than 3,000 students from nearly 40 Christian colleges in the US and Canada.

What he found indicates that Christian colleges may help students feel secure in their connection to God while they attend there, but those students are not “practicing their faith in a substantial way”. He found that roughly 40% of students feel spiritually disengaged. Seniors at Christian colleges reported lower spiritual vitality than did freshmen. From my observations, bible and theology classes can foster just as much cynicism as they can spiritual vitality.

The provisions for spiritual development at Christian colleges seem to be a crutch for students who have not taken full ownership for their faith. Why exert the effort to go to the feast if you can coast along with spiritual snacks from Bible class, chapel and class devotions?

The disservice is most visible when students graduate, and realize that they do not have a strong identity within the church. If the habit is not established at college, will it start after college? It’s an open question as students search for their identity beyond the college community.

Christian colleges have created a college-based church. Maybe what we need is Church-based college, because the Church is there even when our tuition dollars stop flowing.

I encourage you to look at Dr. Hall’s research.

In my next post, I’ll show what I see as another challenge of spiritual development at college.

(photo source)

  1. Love this – esp. the research citations! To add a positive note, check out this study from Dr. Kevin den Dulk at Calvin College – according to his research, university-aged students who graduated from Christian colleges are “more likely to be engaged in their communities” than their secular-university counterparts: Taking this into consideration paired with the conclusions in your post here, how should churches near Christian college campuses attempt to recruit “overfed” Christian students…maybe by emphasizing community outreach that gets them off campus once in a while?!

    • jdl permalink

      Thanks AJ! I’ll be getting to the positive stuff eventually, so stay tuned! Of course it’s one thing to point out a fault, and quite another to find a solution. The short answer (I think) to your question would be that churches should be preparing young people to stand on their own feet thru catechesis, so that students are ready to be engaged in a local church without depending on college chapel, etc.

  2. Here’s a question for you: what’s the purpose of Christian liberal arts education, in your opinion? I ask this because I think one’s understanding of that question affects one’s understanding of the purpose of spiritual and student development in Christian higher education.

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