Is Faith Thriving on the College Campus?
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Glenn StantonGLENN T. STANTON is the director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. He debates and lectures extensively on the issues of gender, sexuality, marriage and parenting at universities and churches around the world. Stanton also served the George W. Bush administration for many years as a consultant on increasing fatherhood involvement in the Head Start program. Stanton is the author of eight books on marriage and families and a regular columnist for various blogs. He is also the c...more
Is it inevitable that my teen will walk away from the faith once they hit college? Glenn Stanton says, “No way.” Stanton reminds parents of the incredible influence they have in their young adult’s life.
Is Faith Thriving on the College Campus?
Bob: As parents, even when it feels like our influence over our kids is beginning to wane, Glenn Stanton says we should never underestimate our significance, especially when it comes to faith formation in our kids.
Glenn: The scholars, in particular—and the guy from Notre Dame, Christian Smith—he says, kind of tongue-in-cheek/he says, “The number-one thing, number-two thing, third thing, fourth thing, fifth thing—parents. You cannot overemphasize the impact of parents.”
The irony of that is—you know, I have five kids; like they didn’t listen to a word I said—but these guys would say, “Oh no, they’re picking it up.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, June 12th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Our influence, as parents, over our children’s faith is not determinative; but it’s not insignificant either. We’re going to talk more about that today with our guest, Glenn Stanton. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Have you ever tracked—you’ve been a pastor in a church for 30-plus years now; right?
Dave: Don’t say the plus yet; it’s year 30.
Bob: Have you ever tracked what happens to the kids who went through your youth group?
Dave: Oh, yes.
Ann: We haven’t; I mean, we haven’t done it—
Bob: —like a formal study.
Dave: I mean, we don’t have graphs and—yes, but—
Bob: So it’s anecdotal.
Ann: Yes; we got together as a team once and said: “Let’s kind of track our kids.
Ann: “Let’s track the average of what’s going on.” It was true—that the parents that are on fire for Jesus/that are really missional in their—
Dave: —active in their faith/—
Dave: —living it out—that was the key.
Bob: Those kids were going on and doing well.
Bob: But the kids who were showing up from nominal Christian homes—
Bob: —they were shipwrecking later on?
Dave: That’s sort of what we found. I mean, you can have a—
Ann: —and not always; there are exceptions.
Dave: Oh, yes; there are always; but you can have a great youth program/do all the right things; and yet, when they go home, if that’s not seen, often, it’s not caught.
Bob: We ought to just say to moms and dads, here at the beginning—
Bob: —that you don’t simply subcontract and outsource faith to the professionals.
Bob: If you try to do that, you’re not going to be happy with how things turn out.
Dave: And God has called you—
Bob: That’s right.
Dave: —called us to be the—
Ann: It’s our job.
Dave: —disciplers of our kids.
Bob: We’ve got a friend joining us this week on FamilyLife Today, Glenn Stanton. Glenn, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Glenn: Thank you.
Bob: Glenn works at Focus on the Family®; and yes, it’s possible for people who work at Focus on the Family to be on FamilyLife Today and vice versa.
Glenn: —and enjoy it. [Laughter]
Bob: That’s right! [Laughter] We’re friends; we like each other. We support each other.
Dave: We’re on the same team.
Bob: We are; and are so grateful for how God has been at work through the ministry of Focus on the Family for years.
Bob: And so many of our listeners would say, “God’s used Focus in our lives profoundly over those years.” You’ve been there for more than a quarter of a century. Glenn gives leadership to the Family Formation Studies. Basically, Glenn is the trend-seeker. I mean, you’re out looking and saying: “What are the trends telling us? What’s going on with marriage, with family, with faith?” You’ve just written a book called The Myth of the Dying Church—about—How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and in the World.
This number we’ve been hearing for years—that 75-80 percent of the kids in your youth group are going to shipwreck when they go to college—is that true or not?
Glenn: Well, it’s interesting; that usually that is prefaced with “…in the next ten years.” You look at when those things were said, they were said about 12 years ago; you know? [Laughter]
Ann: You’re right.
Glenn: But they are still repeated and things like that. Again, I mean, it’s just like you said—you look at the churches around you—no; I mean, you don’t meet youth pastors, who are now selling cell phones, “because my youth group just dried up.”
Glenn: You know? They are in a lot of churches—and I would say most churches—like, maybe, not busting at the seams; but they are doing about the way that they’ve always done; and you have these kids that are just excited about the faith.
Bob: Aren’t Christian kids, who head off to universities—private/public universities—aren’t they walking into what is a more hostile environment than it’s ever been before?
Glenn: You know what? It’s interesting that they are, and they aren’t. I mean, there have always been like these gadfly professors, who—
Glenn: —“Christian kids are going to show up in my class, and I’m just going to shut them down.” It’s interesting that—and I’ll make two points there. One, there is research—and these are good scholars; some of’ them are Christians/they are friends of mine—but they are teaching at secular universities.
One guy, particularly good friend, teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He did some research; and he said, “Where are kids most likely to walk away from their faith if they go to college or if they don’t attend college?” It’s the question of: “Is college corrosive to faith?” He said, “I found out/we found out that kids, who go to college, are less likely to toss their faith than kids who don’t go to college.” And guess what—
Dave: Whoa, whoa. What are you doing here?
Glenn: Yes? [Laughter]
Dave: You’re blowing our minds!
Ann: I know! I never heard this.
Dave: All these things you hear that you think are actual—
Dave: —good research.
Ann: And we’re petrified to send our kids to college.
Dave: It’s like my hair just went off my head. [Laughter]
Bob: It’s been gone for a while.
Dave: Oh, okay; well, it did. It’s like, “Really?!”
Glenn: We talked yesterday—you know, I used this phrase that: “We’re the people of good news.” We don’t have to/why are we so attracted to bad news? We are the people who are born again. We don’t have to act like we were born yesterday, in terms, of this research; right? [Laughter]
But here is the deal/here is what they found; and a lot of times, the reasons are not the reasons that we think. Christian kids, who go off to college, are more likely to hang on to their faith than kids who do not go to college. It’s not the secularizing impact of the university. It’s more psychological and sociological in that those kids know where they are going. They are intentional in life; they have control of their life. They have goals: “So, like, I want to finish school,” “I want to hang onto my faith,” “I want to do this.”
It’s kids, who are like, “Just not going to school. I don’t know what I want to do,” —they’re kind of drifting. They drift in their faith too.
Dave: I noticed how you said that. You sort of had a tone there.
Glenn: Yes! [Laughter]
Dave: [Apathetic tone] “I don’t know what I want to do.” Is that what you were doing there? [Laughter]
Bob: [Apathetic tone] “Kind of”; “Maybe,”—yes.
Dave: Is it is also that, if they’re at college, there’s a chance of community?
Glenn: You know what? That’s exactly it.
Dave: —which is critical; right?
Glenn: That’s the other point—and I make this point in my book, in terms of kind of iconic youth groups—nationally, Young Life® and InterVarsity®. Young Life deals with high school students; InterVarsity deals with college students. I go through a lot of data; I looked at their annual reports for the last 20 years. Young Life is exploding; they are reaching more kids today than they ever have—
Glenn: —and are having more decisions for Christ than they ever have.
Both of these organizations started in 1941. This takes us to the college; InterVarsity is a wonderful organization that has its mission on college campuses. They, in the last couple of years, have more decisions for Christ on campus than they ever have in the ‘50s, in the ‘60s, in the ‘70s; their numbers report that. They have more faculty involvement and more diverse faculty involvement in terms of ethnicity and things like that than they’ve ever had.
One of the sociologists, Christian Smith—he teaches at Notre Dame—he’s like, “Why is this the case?” One of the things that he comes up and says is because there is more faith support on campuses.
The impact of Cru®—that is exactly the case. I would bet you, if you looked at Cru’s numbers—
Bob: —they’re up.
Glenn: Right? Even that there are—there is not a lot, but the faculty on campus that—“Okay; that guy over in the Psychology Department: solid Christian,” “That guy/that woman over in the Sociology Department: strong Christian.” There may be four of them on campus, but the Christians know about them; you know? Again, that’s that thing: “Lo and behold, God continues to work in the world.” He’s got this holy conspiracy—you know?—to infiltrate His church into the world.
Bob: When our kids were looking at colleges, the thing my radar was always up for was: “What’s going on spiritually on this campus?” I remember taking our daughter, and we were on one college campus. I was looking for the signs/I’d always stop at the bulletin boards, where everything is posted. I’m looking and saying, “Where is the Bible study announcement?”—right? On this particular college campus, there was nothing; I was seeing no indication of anything going on spiritually.
I went home, and went on the internet, and asked about religious groups on this campus. I found there were just a handful of them. I called one of the student leaders; and I said, “Tell me about what’s going on.” This student leader said, “Well, I’m a commuter; and we’ve got a small group that’s getting together.” I’m looking at this and I’m going: “This is a well-regarded academic institution. A degree from this place would help you professionally.” And I’m looking and going, “That’s not where I want my daughter to be heading off to college.”
Then we went to another public university, and it was everywhere: “Bible study, Wednesday night,” “Bible study, Thursday morning.” The quality of the education, in my mind, was important; but what’s more important is: “What’s the spiritual environment on this college campus?”
Ann: What do you think we should do as parents?
Dave: Well, the cool thing—
Ann: Should we check that out?
Bob: Oh, yes!
Ann: Should we say, “You have to go to this student ministry on campus”?
Dave: —“have to”?
Bob: Here is how I said it.
Dave: Look how she spun that.
Ann: Some parents do—do that.
Bob: Here is how I said it to my kids—and Glenn, I would be interested in your thoughts on this—I said: “When you go to college, about 35 percent of your education over the next four years is going to happen in the classroom environment; 65 percent of your education is going to happen as—you try to figure out life/—
Bob: —“as you try to adjust to: you’re now on your own; you’re calling your own shots. How do you develop community? How do you figure out how to balance a checkbook?” They used to use checkbooks back in the day, so I had to explain that.
Dave: Check book?
Bob: Right; so I was explaining: “Yes, we want to look at this college for what it provides academically; but that’s only 35 percent of what the next four years are going to be.” We want to make sure we’re looking at: “What does it provide for you spiritually?” We want to look at: “What it provides for you relationally. How does all of that work together?”
Ann: We did the same thing.
Bob: And our kids understood that as a priority. We could walk away from a campus visit, and I could say—
Bob: —“Academically, it looks good. What do you think about the spiritual climate? What can you tell about the relational environment and how all of that works?” They could see it, and they knew what they wanted. When they were juniors and seniors in high school, they wanted to go to places that would be faith-nurturing, not faith-destroying.
Dave: You know, it’s really cool—just what you’re saying, Glenn—I mean, we haven’t talked about the sports world; but that’s really strong in the sports world. Every major college that I know of has a chaplain on their football team. I was a chaplain in the NFL for 33 seasons; every NFL team has a chaplain.
It’s really interesting—there was a player that came to Detroit as a free-agent. He was being recruited from another NFL team—a quarterback. He told them, “I don’t want to come to Detroit for my recruiting trip”—they still call it that even though it’s the NFL—
Dave: —“unless I can have lunch with the chaplain.”
Dave: He made his decision after lunch with Ann and me. I said—
Ann: —and his wife was there.
Dave: —to the team afterwards—
Dave: Yes, she was there. I said to the team afterwards, “Hey, do I get ten percent of his deal?” [Laughter]
Glenn: Yes, exactly!
Dave: You know, we had something to do with that; but anyway, it’s so strong.
Our son played college football; and the day he was recruited at this one school, the chaplain came out and met him as he walked in the football building. I’m like, “It’s over,”—
Bob: Yes, that’s where you’re going.
Dave: —because I knew, right then, that he was going to go, “Oh my goodness; they care that much.”
What you’re saying about the college campus really is true in all areas.
Glenn: Yes; and we were talking about parents earlier. Parents need to know: “Should they be encouraged?” I have a chapter in my book, Chapter 8, a whole chapter on the research: “What are the things that are strongest and most empowering and successful in passing faith on to the next generation?”
The scholars—one of the scholars, in particular—again, the guy from Notre Dame, Christian Smith—he says, kind of tongue-in-cheek—he says, “The number-one thing—no close competitor—is parents.” He said, “The number-two thing, third thing, fourth thing, fifth thing—parents.” [Laughter]
Glenn: “Six, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth—parents.”
Glenn: He’s just saying, “You cannot over emphasize the impact of parents.” The irony of that is—you know, I have five kids; like they didn’t listen to a word I said—but these guys would say: “Oh no. They—
Ann: “They were listening.”
Glenn: —“They’re picking it up.” It’s what the parents do.
Again, parents need to know: “You do not need to be a super Christian. You do not need to be like those people at church”; you know?—like they can quote Scripture; they’re always doing it great.
Again, if it’s—you know what?—the Stanton family goes to church: this is our church; we’re there. We know the pastor; the pastor knows us. We’re involved in groups. Even if we don’t go every week/if we miss here and there, again, God is very gracious in this way; but we read the Scriptures at home. We talk about the Scriptures. There are Bibles around the house that are actually used. We pray about things.
In normal everyday life—we’re going down the highway; you see in accident—“You know what, kids? Let’s pray for the EMT workers. Let’s pray that that family would be okay,”—just real quick. Kids are soaking that up. The other thing is, if kids see God working in their own life: “You know what?—we prayed for this. It didn’t look possible; God did it.” Those things have a big imprint in their lives.
But here is another thing—and I saw this with my kids; and parents, who have older kids, will see this—is parents being strong/parents having a serious faith; again, not perfect faith/not Superman faith—but serious.
The other is what they call satellite or scaffolding adults—that is Aunt Susie, Uncle Jim, the youth worker, Mom and Dad’s friends, parents at school—who [our kids are] like, “Okay; Mom and Dad believe this stuff, but they are kind of nerdy; they don’t really always know. But Kim, the youth worker—I mean, she serves—she rides a motorcycle; she knows our music; she’s hip, and she’s smart; but she believes the same thing that my parents do.” That is massive.
Dave: That’s huge; isn’t it?—to come alongside.
Glenn: Yes, it is. Kids who have that are nearly guaranteed to carry their faith into adulthood.
Ann: What a motivation for us, as parents,—
Ann: —to dig deep into Jesus and that our walks with God would be vibrant.
Dave: I’m looking at Page 133 in Chapter 8—and again, you said most of these; so I don’t need—but I would say, “Every parent, not only read the book, but read this page”; because you list nine things that parents do that help their children, as they become adults, retain their faith.
Here is one you didn’t say, which is so critical; right? You said almost all of these; but number seven was: “Help their children be honest about and resolve their own spiritual doubts and struggles.”
Dave: It’s okay for your child to struggle, but you are there with them in honesty. Is that what you are saying?
Glenn: It’s actually, not only okay, it’s good.
Glenn: You think about this: when you go to the gym, it’s resistance that builds your muscles. You know, if you’re doing weights, and there is no weight on that/if there is no resistance—that’s the same thing with faith—that is, encourage your kids to ask tough questions. Never say, one: “That’s a silly question,” or “Here is the answer.”
A friend of mine, when he was growing up—and we were close buddies—I mean, he had a problem with the issue of evil: “How can a good God allow evil?” His parents were wonderful and said: “You know what? That’s a great question. And nearly every Christian philosopher deals with that, so you’re right on to ask that question. Let’s go find the answer.” Basically, his parents taught him—rather than giving him a fish—taught him how to fish; and it strengthened his faith.
Ann: I think that dialogue with our kids is so important.
Ann: For us, I remember when I started putting my kids in car seats, I thought, “Every time I’m in the car, I’m just going to pray out loud.” That just became this habit: when we go to school, we’re praying for their test; we’re praying for their friends that are struggling.
Then they’d have friends in the car, and their friends are talking about this hard thing. I’m like: “That is so hard! I’m going to be—in fact, let’s just pray right now.” We got to the point, where all their friends were coming for prayer—not only our own kids—
Glenn: They weren’t running away.
Ann: —they wanted it. It was like: “Oh, she’s listening. She’s praying for us.”
Dave: I remember—I think it was Cody—one of our sons called us on a mission trip; remember?
Dave: He was all excited. He goes—
Ann: —in college.
Dave: He was in college, and they were on a mission trip. They were walking down a sidewalk, and they prayed out loud. The people that were with them said: “Wow; that was so cool. We prayed out loud about something.” Cody was like, “I experienced that my whole life.” That was something that happened every time the car seat was on.
Ann: He called us; he said: “Thank you. Thank you that that was just a habit. I didn’t even realize how special that was.”
Glenn: They are drawn to that kind of thing. One, because it shows care and concern; the other is, “She lives in another reality.”
Ann: And it’s about a relationship with God—
Ann: —that’s ongoing.
Glenn: They hear that in your prayers—that authenticity.
Bob: What do you think things are going to look 20 years from now?
Glenn: You know what?—it’s interesting. The sociologists that have been studying this, forward—they say: “First of all, worldwide, Christianity is the largest faith,” and “Through the rest of this century—
Bob: And I’ve been told that, if we get to a point in our lifetime, where in China, the church can come out of the shadows without fear,—
Bob: —what we will see is there are more Christians in China than there are in the United States.
Glenn: Oh my goodness; there are more Christians in Africa/on the continent of Africa. In the last ten years, there have been more seminaries built in Africa than in all the rest of the world combined.
Glenn: Here is the revival; these pastors are hardcore theological.
Ann: This is fascinating. I feel like I’m with Mr. Wikipedia. [Laughter] This is amazing; I want to ask all the questions in the world. [Laughter]
Bob: Well, the answers to the questions you ought to ask are/a lot of them are in the book Glenn has written, called The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and in the World. I would think moms and dads, and pastors, and church leaders would want to know—
Dave: Oh yes.
Bob: —the good news.
Bob: This just confirms for us that Jesus knew what He was talking about when He said the gates of hell will not prevail; that God is going to be up to something. There may be ebbs and flow in particular regions of the world over time—
Bob: —but God’s at work. His Kingdom—I think I heard this—His Kingdom is forever and ever; right? [Laughter]
Ann: I love what you said at the end of your book; you said: “Finally, it’s the Holy Spirit who runs and drives Christ’s church across time and throughout the nations. He is unstoppable, unquenchable, and inherently life-giving. He is not nodding off, sickly, or on vacation. The word of His heart and very character will not be thwarted; He is God. To believe the church is dying is to deny these truths and judge God either confused or a liar.” That is good.
Bob: That is good. Glenn, thank you. Thanks for being here.
Dave: Thank you.
Bob: Thanks for writing the book.
Glenn: Thank you guys.
Bob: Thanks for your faithfulness in digging in and helping us see what’s going on in our world. I hope a lot of our listeners will go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to get a copy of your book. The book is called The Myth of the Dying Church, and it’s encouraging. It’s hopeful; it’s something that needs to be shared with others. That’s why we’ve had you on today.
Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com to get Glenn’s book, The Myth of the Dying Church; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order a copy. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329 to order your copy. Again, that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
One of the things we are convinced about, here at FamilyLife®, is that there’s a solid connection between our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Dave and Ann, the way you guys say this regularly is that, if there’s a horizontal problem, there’s a vertical problem. If we want to get the horizontal relationships worked out, we’ve got to go to make sure the vertical relationship is worked out.
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And we hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together with your local church in some way this weekend, and we hope you can join us back on Monday. We imagined that a lot of couples have experienced some fresh challenges in loving one another well over the last several months as our rhythms have been interrupted and our stress levels have gone up. Matt and Lisa Jacobson are going to join us to talk about ways we can practice loving one another well. We’ll talk about that Monday. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer tonight, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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