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By Kara E. Powell Chap Clark
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark
All right reserved.
Chapter Onethe not-so-sticky-faith reality
My parents are probably the biggest influence out of anybody. — Robyn
Both my mom and my dad have spent hours and hours and hours through my life talking to me about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to follow God, and what that should entail and how to do it. — Billy
Tiffany had failed to turn out like Phil and Amy had hoped.
Like most parents, Phil and Amy had great visions of who their daughter would become as she entered high school and college.
Their expectations were high in part because Tiffany's first steps down the yellow brick road of adolescence showed great promise. As a ninth grader, Tiffany was deeply committed to knowing Jesus and making Jesus known. While friends shared horror stories about their kids' sullen attitudes, moodiness, and flagrant disregard for family rules, Tiffany was generally pleasant and obedient. Tiffany had lots of friends, but she also enjoyed being with her parents. And Phil and Amy enjoyed being with her.
From the first Sunday that she walked into the high school ministry at the church where I (Kara) served as one of the youth pastors, Tiffany plunged into every church activity possible. Any event that was offered — youth choir, beach days, weekend ser vice trips to Tijuana — Tiffany was there. Not only was she there, but she usually showed up to church at least thirty minutes early to see if she could help.
And help she did. Tiffany was especially good at making posters. She would spread paper across the youth room floor and try to come up with creative images to promote upcoming events or reinforce the teaching topic for the next week. When we made posters together, we talked about our mutual desire to know Jesus and help others know him too.
Sure, Tiffany wasn't perfect, but the other youth group parents envied how easy Phil and Amy seemed to have it with their daughter.
Around eleventh grade Tiffany started to change. She began to wear dark, heavy makeup.
Her skirts grew shorter. A lot shorter.
Phil and Amy found themselves locking horns with Tiffany over her wardrobe.
Soon they found themselves locking horns with Tiffany over just about everything. Grades, curfew, friends — everything was a battle.
Tiffany no longer came early to church. When I asked her if she wanted to help with posters, she said she was too busy. Throughout Tiffany's senior year, her involvement at church grew more and more sporadic.
Six months after Tiffany graduated from high school, she became pregnant. Confused and ashamed, she wanted nothing to do with our church. Or me.
Phil called me from the hospital the day Tiffany gave birth to her son. Although Tiffany had avoided me during her pregnancy, I asked her dad if she would be okay with my visiting her that day and meeting her son. She said yes.
Phil, Tiffany, and the new baby were together in the hospital room. After we chatted for a few minutes, Tiffany offered to let me hold her son. It was the first time I had ever held a baby who was only a few hours old. I told her so, and she grinned.
Phil tried to grin, but I could see the deep sadness in his eyes. He looked at me and I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it too.
Why did Tiffany's faith — a faith that seemed so vibrant at first — fail to stick?
Kids' Faith Isn't Sticking
Parents and churches are waking up to the harsh reality that there are more Tiffanys than we had previously realized. The board of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing sixty denominations and dozens of ministries, has passed a resolution deploring "the epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church."
But is it really an epidemic? Does the data suggest that kids' exit from the faith is more like a trickle, or a flood?
As we have examined other research, our conclusion is that 40 to 50 percent of kids who graduate from a church or youth group will fail to stick with their faith in college.
Let's translate that statistic to the kids you know. Imagine your child and his or her friends standing in a line and facing you. (I'm sure they are smiling adoringly at you.) Just like you used to do on the playground to divide into teams, number off these kids, "one, two, one, two, one, two ..." The ones will stick with their faith; the twos will shelve it.
And they'll be making the decision about whether to shelve their faith after your most intensive season of parenting is over.
I'm not satisfied with a 50 percent rate of Sticky Faith.
I doubt it.
Here's another alarming statistic: only 20 percent of college students who leave the faith planned to do so during high school. The remaining 80 percent intended to stick with their faith but didn't.
As has been rightly pointed out, young adulthood is often a season of inevitable experimentation for teenagers who were raised in the church and are learning to make the faith their own. That hunch is supported by the encouraging statistic that somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of youth group graduates who abandon their faith and the church return to both in their late twenties. Yet those young adults have already faced significant forks in the road regarding friendship, marriage, vocation, worldview, and lifestyle, all while their faith has been pushed to the back seat. They will have to live with the consequences of those decisions for the rest of their lives. Plus, while we can celebrate those who eventually place their faith back in the driver's seat, we still grieve over the 40 to 70 percent who won't.
College Students Gone Wild
From the movie Animal House to the Asher Roth song "I Love College," college life has been depicted as a nonstop merry-go-round of sex, drugs, and alcohol, with a few hours of study thrown in here and there. Granted, sex, drugs, and alcohol are not the ultimate litmus test of a college student's spirituality. (We'll say more about that later.) And of course, media portrayals of college kids are certainly exaggerated. Nonetheless, since more students are partying than we might realize and since students' partying often affects their relationship with God, it's a factor of Sticky Faith we have to discuss.
Each month, just less than 50 percent of full-time college students binge drink, abuse prescription drugs, and/or abuse illegal drugs. According to one analysis conducted by a professor of public health at Harvard University, the number of fraternity and sorority members who binge drink has climbed to 80 percent.
This heavy alcohol consumption is costing students — a lot. According to one estimate, college students spend $5.5 billion each year on alcohol — more than they spend on soft drinks, tea, milk, juice, coffee, and schoolbooks combined.
This widespread use of alcohol opens the door to the bedroom. Dr. Michael Kimmel, professor of sociology at State University of New York, has researched college behaviors extensively and has concluded that "virtually all hooking up is lubricated with copious amounts of alcohol."
You've almost certainly heard the term hooking up, a phrase that refers to a multitude of sexual behaviors ranging from kissing to oral sex to intercourse, without any expectation of emotional commitment. College seniors have an average of nearly seven hookups during their collegiate careers, with 28 percent of them hooking up ten times or more.
Kimmel vividly captures the wild tone of college campuses by explaining the effects on local health care: "Every single emergency room in every single hospital adjoining or near a college campus stocks extra supplies on Thursday nights — rape kits for the sexual assault victims, IV fluids for those who are dehydrated from alcohol-induced vomiting, and blood for drunk driving accidents."
Christian Kids Gone Wild?
What about kids who come from Christian families? Are they as wild as the rest of college students?
The good news is that multiple studies indicate that students who are more religious and/or more likely to attend church or religious gatherings are less likely to consume alcohol or hook up. Yet just because religious kids are less likely to party doesn't mean that they aren't partying at all. In a pilot study we conducted early in our research, 100 percent of the sixty-nine youth group graduates we surveyed drank alcohol during their first few years of college.
One member of our Sticky Faith research team, Dr. Cheryl Crawford, focused her research on kids who had been designated as leaders in their youth ministries in high school. After extensive conversations with these former student leaders, Dr. Crawford concluded that "loneliness and the search for friends seem to push the buttons for everything else. The primary reason students gave for participating in the 'party scene' was because that's where 'everyone' was. One student told me, 'I don't think I've met many people who don't drink here. It's really hard to meet people if you don't drink.' These key decisions about partying are made during the first two weeks of students' freshman year."
Partying and other challenges in transitioning from high school to college were described well by one college senior we interviewed: "Transitioning out of high school into college is like you're leaving on a giant cruise ship. You're heading out of this harbor and everyone's waving you off. Let's say this ship is your faith. As soon as you start sailing out to this new port called college, you realize you're in a dinghy. You don't have this huge ship, and you're completely not prepared, and your boat is sinking! Unless there's someone with a life raft who's ready to say, 'We got you. Come right here. This is where you can be, and this is where you can grow,' you're done."
Steps to Sticky Faith: Our Research
At the Fuller Youth Institute, we want to partner with you to offer your kids a stronger ship of faith and extend a life raft to those who feel like they are already drowning. In all of our research initiatives, our mission is to leverage research into resources that elevate leaders, kids, and families.
I've been parenting for ten years and serving kids in youth ministry for twenty-five. My coauthor, Chap Clark, has been parenting for thirty years and serving in various forms of youth, family, and pastoral ministry for, hmm, a few more years than I have! While that adds up to a lot of years of experience, we wanted to pair our experiences with insights from several additional research paths.
The first research path began with Chap's spending most of a school year on a public school campus as a substitute teacher with permission to be a participant-observer researcher on campus. In his work, Chap recorded stories and other observations and sorted them first into impressions and then into coded conclusions. At the same time, a research team worked to integrate and compare Chap's findings with what other experts had written on adolescence.
Following this, Chap conducted twelve focus groups across the US and Canada, and in the end published his study in the book Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers. Chap and his team of Fuller Seminary faculty and students continue to study and interview kids, and many of the insights in this book come from that research.
The second research path was my work on the College Transition Project, a series of comprehensive studies of more than five hundred graduating seniors. You'll hear from these students (with fictitious names) through quotes in sidebars and at the start of each chapter. The six years of research by the College Transition faculty and student team have been fueled by two research goals: to better understand the dynamics of youth group graduates' transition to college, and to pinpoint the steps that leaders, churches, parents, and seniors themselves can take to help students stay on the Sticky Faith path.
In many ways, the students in this long-term study represent typical Christian seniors transitioning to college (e.g., they come from different regions across the United States, they attend public, private, and Christian colleges and vocational schools, and 59 percent are female and 41 percent are male). Yet the kids in our sample tend to have higher high-school grade-point averages and are more likely to come from intact families than the typical student heading to college. We also recruited kids from churches that have fulltime professional youth pastors, which means they are likely to come from bigger-than-average churches (average church size was five hundred to nine hundred people). From the outset, we want to admit that these factors bring a certain bias to our findings, which we diligently tried to counter by examining other research studies and by conducting face-to-face interviews with students with more diverse academic, family, and church backgrounds.
In an effort to bring focus to our College Transition Project, we recruited high school seniors who intended to enter college after graduation, whether a four-year university, a junior college, or a vocational school. We can't be certain, but we think it's likely that our findings are relevant to those graduates entering the workforce or the military. Our hunch has been supported by one parallel study indicating that church dropout rates for college students and noncollege students are not significantly different.
Defining Sticky Faith
As we were initially conceptualizing this research, we quickly ran into one important question: what exactly is Sticky Faith? While it's tempting to apply former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart's famous definition of obscenity as "I know it when I see it," that doesn't fly in academic circles. Based on the research literature and our understanding of students, we arrived at three descriptors of Sticky Faith; the first two are relevant for all ages, while the last has heightened importance during students' transition to college.
1. Sticky Faith is both internal and external. Sticky Faith is part of a student's inner thoughts and emotions and is also externalized in choices and actions that reflect that faith commitment. These behaviors include regular attendance in a church or campus group, prayer and Bible reading, ser vice to others, and lower participation in risky behaviors, especially engaging in sex and drinking alcohol. In other words, Sticky Faith involves whole-person integration, at least to some degree.
2. Sticky Faith is both personal and communal. Sticky Faith celebrates God's specific care for each person while always locating faith in the global and local community of the church. God has designed us to grow in our individual relationships with him as well as through our relationships with others.
3. Sticky Faith is both mature and maturing. Sticky Faith shows marks of spiritual maturity but is also in the process of growth. We don't assume that a high school senior or college freshman (or a parent, for that matter) will have a completely mature faith. We are all in process.
The vast majority of kids we interviewed — even those who thrived in college — reported that college was both a growth experience and challenging, full of new perspectives and experiences. Reading through the transcripts, it seems that the typical college student sits down at a table full of new and interesting worldviews and people. Instead of allowing faith to be merely one of many voices clamoring to be heard, those with Sticky Faith had determined that their faith would sit at the head of the table.
Parents' Central Role in Sticky Faith
Much of this chapter has been bad news. Chap calls me an eternal optimist. I don't mind that label. So let me give you some good news from our research: your kids are more connected to you than you might think. We asked graduating seniors to rank five groups in terms of the quality and quantity of support they received from them. Those five groups were friends inside of youth group, friends outside of youth group, youth leaders, parents, and adults in the congregation.
Excerpted from Sticky Faith by Kara E. Powell Chap Clark Copyright © 2011 by Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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