The following response is from Tim Gebhart, Assistant Director of Wilderness Ministry at Ohio Wesleyan University. Before coming to Ohio Wesleyan, Mr. Gebhart reached out to students at Slippery Rock University.Tim Gebhart writes:
The message that “College doesn’t turn kids secular” caused me to look at things from a different perspective than I usually do. In the CCO we often focus on Steve Garber’s The Fabric of Faithfulness
, that Barna Group survey, and other sources that tell us, correctly, how habits formed in college are likely to remain for life.
What about habits formed during high school? In an interview, Mark Regnerus makes the claim that “most of the seeds for ‘secularization’ are planted well before college, but it’s only during college that the diminished participation in organized religion emerges and becomes evident.” A major cause of this “secularization” is the shoddy faith foundations of many teens (and their parents).
I have seen numerous examples that support Regnerus’ statement: High school students I have known whose parents forced them to go to church, and who kept them from alcohol and the whole party scene that comes with it but never gave reasons for these rules. The kids graduated from high school and went off to college. While at college they never went to church. In fact, most Sunday mornings they were still drunk from the night before. There was no sudden change in beliefs. These students did not get secularized by the atmosphere in their college town. While in high school (if not before) they decided that they didn’t want to have anything to do with church, and that alcohol and partying looked like a lot of fun. The college experience didn’t change their minds, but it did give them opportunities to do these things.
While college students do form long-lasting lifestyle patterns, they do not come to college as empty vessels or unshaped masses. College is a time when patterns are set in stone, but many of these patterns have been established long before. Looked at in this light, our role as campus ministers is to guide students to see the positive and negative patterns in their own lives, to reinforce the positive, and to alter the negative.
Too often, as Christian Smith says in his interview, students “can’t explain . . . what’s behind their thinking.” These students don’t know how to practice deep soul-searching or self examination. Their worldviews are made up of assumptions that they don’t even realize they are assuming. This is one place that we as campus ministers need to step in to guide these students in rediscovering the teachings of Jesus.
Many students have no solid answers to questions such as ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’ or ‘Why do you go to church?’ When confronted with these questions, students are either going to give in to their friends, the askers of the above questions, or they are going to examine the beliefs they’ve inherited from their parents, and make them truly their own. As Garber and the Barna Group assure us, whichever way students go, they are likely to continue in that direction for their whole lives. As campus ministers, we need to spend time with these students to teach them incarnationally that the gospel of Christ is true and meaningful in their lives. We need to live our lives as examples to our students, realizing that we aren’t perfect, but still we can demonstrate a consistent, faithful lifestyle based on the gospel. Also it’s our role to ask students hard questions in a safe context, a place where they can say “I don’t know,” and we can help them to discover solid answers that will hold up in the classroom and at the frat party – or in the dorm as they are deciding whether to go to the frat party.
Students often come to college with thoroughly unexamined beliefs. After they graduate, they will be much less likely to change their beliefs. This makes the college years a crucial time to correct and fine tune beliefs and lifestyle choices.