By this time in the school year reality has set in for most college students, particularly first-year students. They are feeling stressed, overwhelmed and tired. And when you think about everything these new students are adjusting to, it makes sense.

The transition from high school to college is one of the most difficult rites of passage for young people in our culture. High school is an incredibly structured environment of set school hours, activities and standardized testing. And this doesn’t even mention the fact that most young people are sheltered from the mundane tasks of life (sometimes too much) by these people called parents, whom they can’t wait to get away from.

College, on the other hand, is full of uncertainty, new responsibilities and what seems at first to be a lot of free time. When you’re used to being in class from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, even four hours of class seems inconsequential. Of course that doesn’t take into account that much more is expected in college. Clubs, organizations, sports, music and other activities take up one’s time. And I’m not even getting into the aspects of identity that are being formed and re-formed in college.

So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that amid all these changes, the first year of college is a time when faith often gets put on the back burner. It’s estimated that about 40 percent of first-year students will actively practice their faith in college. To be honest, I think that figure may be optimistic. There are lots of theories about why this is, and they often center on the perceptions that young people simply don’t care about faith, or that colleges are trying to destroy the faith they do have. I think the reality is actually much more mundane.

Sociologist Tim Clydesdale argues that most first-year college students are simply trying to adjust to the new opportunities and, yes, temptations of college life. But most students’ beliefs and values don’t really change that much from high school. According to Clydesdale’s research, first-year college students actively try to protect their identities by placing them in a sort of “identity lockbox.” This lockbox provides some security during the massive changes they’re experiencing. It’s important that something stays the same when everything else is changing, and often faith is one of those things.

Fortunately that begins to change after the first year of college, and I think it’s especially true for students at Lutheran colleges and universities. We create environments where faith is a required part of their education, and we provide opportunities for them to practice that faith with other Christians of many different varieties without being pushy. We also introduce them to interfaith dialogue because it’s both the right thing to do and helps them better understand their faith tradition.

Please don’t assume that just because they’re not beating down the doors of your church that college students aren’t interested in faith and spirituality, or that higher education is directly opposed to the Christian faith. Students will ask big questions about life that will bring their faith out of the lockbox. Unfortunately church is often the last place they will look. There is a lot of baggage associated with churches, some of which is fair and some that comes from negative perceptions of certain forms of Christianity. If we want to engage college-aged students and accompany them on their faith journeys, we need to look beyond Sunday morning worship.

Brian A.F. Beckstrom
Beckstrom is campus pastor at Wartburg College, an ELCA college in Waverly, Iowa.

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