College Years Normal Time Introspection about Faith

PLAINVIEW – Maybe your child was the leader of the pack at the church youth group. Maybe she was the quiet, loyal one who showed up every Sunday and every fellowship. Or maybe he wasn’t very interested at all in church things.

Regardless of how involved a teen was as a youth in church, things are certain to change somewhat when they reach college, whether they’re living in the same town or miles away. And according to Dr. Gary Manning, professor of religion at Wayland Baptist University, the trend is not something about which parents need to be panicked.

“Anytime children leave our presence, there is fear… terror for some,” said Manning, who specializes in youth ministry issues. “Parents sometimes think they can buffer their children and nothing will happen to them. But that’s just not true.”

Instead, he said, parents need to realize that they have enormous influence on their children before they leave home and use that influence to educate them about dangerous behaviors and the consequences. He said modeling commitment to church involvement and spiritual growth is the key to keeping them on that road when they leave home for college.

“Children need to own their faith and their response to God,” he said. “Part of the growing up process is making their faith their own, and it may be very different from what they grew up with.”

“A good approach to letting children go is to have open, honest discussions about what is out there and ensure them that no matter what they do, they are always loved and welcomed home,” he added. “But you need to say outright that you don’t want them to do those things and give them encouragement for getting out of a bad situation. And if they do get in trouble, it’s not valuable for parents to try and spare them from the consequences of their actions. They’ll never learn if they don’t let them experience those and your love and God’s love.”

Manning said recent research from the National Study of Youth and Religion found that after that time of searching and asking and introspection, students’ religious commitment generally will mimic their parents’ commitment. That’s good news for some parents and bad news for others, Manning said.

Still, when students leave for college and don’t immediately join a local church – or worse, they quit going altogether – parents can understandably be a bit worried. Manning advises being honest in conversations, realizing your major influence on them has waned significantly, and avoid preaching or bugging them about the situation. He offers these tips:

  • Realize students are adults and must be talked to like adults. Instead of nagging them or telling what they must do, Manning encourages asking simple questions about how local church services have been and whether you can pray about anything specific for them. Praying with them before tests and in stressful times – even over the phone – can go a long way toward modeling the importance of prayer and the spiritual perspective, he said.
  • Know that each student’s experience is different and some go through the soul-searching process earlier in their college career, some later and some even after they graduate from college. The key is being intuitive, listening with an open mind and not, as Manning said, “pushing the panic button.”
  • Talk about your own spiritual journey to your student. Rather than barraging students with questions about why they haven’t been to church or what they are doing instead, Manning said having honest conversations about your own spiritual experiences and what is going on at the home church can model the importance of that lifestyle. It may also prompt honest talk about the spiritual struggles they may be facing if they know you as the parent still face challenges and struggles of your own. The point is that you talk about it.
  • Realize that just because your student may have chosen a Christian institution, they are not shielded from struggle. This time in their life is typically a soul-searching time in many aspects of life, not just about religion and faith, and that would likely happen at any institution. The benefit at a Christian school is that students are more likely to find faculty and staff who are concerned about their spiritual growth and will encourage them in the process.