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How Should Youth Leaders Prepare Students for College?

Last week I posted troubling statistics about the amount of churched youth who walk away once they're in college.   CPYU has been interviewing college students as part of their College Transition Initiative.  They've asked students, "As you reflect on your church youth group experience, what are some things you wish your youth group would have done more of to prepare you for college?"  Their answers are instructive for parents, pastors, youth leaders--any of us who teach youth in some capacity.  

Alysia at the University of Illinois said:

My youth group was fairly useless in preparing me for college. A short course in different religions helped me, but what helped me more was attending Worldview Academy for two summers. The challenging of my faith and teaching me the apologetics, leadership, and evangelism helped the most--especially by helping me determine why I personally believed in Christianity and by giving me the tools to help share that with others...My youth group was a place where the leaders were trying everything from games to parties to entice people to come, but they wouldn't dive deep into any theological or social topic. We were treated as intellectual babies and thus never grew to understand the importance or the relevance of the Christian faith

Daniel at Erskine College said:

I wish my youth group had done more to prepare me for the academic challenges to Christianity instead of focusing on high school drama. I was fortunate to make great and knowledgeable friends, but I have known others who have turned away because of professors and students raising tough objections. I wish my youth group had taken things more seriously and done more apologetics and less of worrying about the drama of high school

And Gabrielle at Chatham University said:

I was in several youth groups in high school and unfortunately found that youth group was too “soft”—we played a lot of games and had a lot of fun retreats, but rarely learned about the fundamentals of faith, why we believe what we believe, and what it is that we do believe. Now that I am in college, my faith is under constant scrutiny and always being tested by scientific concepts and the secular slant of most universities. I wish I had been equipped with a more solid justification for my faith: knowing how to answer the tough questions, how to respond to arguments, and how to stand firm in what feels like a storm against my spirituality.
In hindsight, these young people realized that much of the substance of youth ministry left them ill-equipped for challenges in the university.  It's not entirely sufficient for holistic discipleship but deep theological and apologetic training is certainly necessary.  Failure to give them such training is a big reason many eventually leave Christ and His Church...oftentimes for good.  


If there is indeed a causal connection here--between attending college and leaving the faith--shouldn't the youth pastor (a shepherd of Christ's flock) generally discourage attending college? Faith, as we know, is more precious than gold that perishes. Is a college education more precious than faith? If one's eternal salvation depends upon faith, then it certainly isn't.

This is perplexing. No one wants to bad shepherd. But then again, no one wants to admit that faith generally doesn't thrive under education.

I do not believe that encouraging a student to remove themself from this world, including from higher education, is the way to keep them in the church, and much more importantly, to help them grow deeper in relationship to Christ. By doing that, you would eliminate a generation of Christian professionals who can be light in the most educated of places. I think that instead you ready them, as preparing for war. You make sure they understand that they are coming under attack, but that they serve a God who is far stronger than reason and philosophy, and who created the earth that scientists are struggling to try and explain. You hand them their armor, and encourage them that they do not battle alone, but also must remember to seek Godly counsel as they are faced with tough situations.

Some pastors fancy themselves as generals sending soldiers into war; others view themselves as shepherds. Sometimes these roles are compatible, but not when the general views his soldiers as expendable pawns in some hubristic ambition to prove that Christianity has a place in the contemporary university. And even this kind of general needs to reassess the strategy when the casualty rates are so high.

But as I said, no one wants to admit that faith generally doesn't thrive under education.

Here's an idea. Youth pastors could invite intellectuals and academics to occasionally share their thoughts at youth meetings. That is, in the safety of fellow Christians, let the youth consider the uncensored thoughts of liberal political theorist, an atheistic philosopher, an ex-pastor turned science teacher. I'm sure you'll can find volunteers from the best institutions. Christians can discuss what they hear and ask questions in the presence of other believers.

So, if you're you are going to send the youth off to college, it'd be better to expose them first to a little bit of the real stuff before they find themselves surrounded by it, perhaps hundreds miles from home, only to realize that their youth pastor is less than intellectually admirable, having been treating them to mere straw men.

Chances are that the pastors themselves will be no match for the intellectual. But then, that's a big part of the problem isn't it. Better to let the youth see it now. Honesty and humility can be very attractive.

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Brett Kunkle is the Student Impact Director at Stand to Reason. He is a huge fan of his wife and 5 kids, surfing the Point in Newport Beach, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, in that order.