Why Students Abandon Their Faith

From Summit Ministries.

“When all is said and done, Tiger, we’ll either hold fast to the truth, or we’ll face the consequences.” – Doc Noebel, President, Summit Ministries

“A Biblical worldview approach to life and learning has never been more needed than in today’s pluralistic/postmodern culture. Christian students face hostility to their faith from one side, and apathy to anything of importance from the other side. And, sadly, the casualties are high.

Decline in student spirituality

When it comes to the spiritual life of teenagers, the statistics are not very encouraging. According to a recent study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, after three years in college, the number of students who frequently attend religious services drops by 23 percent. [1] The research also confirms that 36 percent rated their spirituality lower after three years in college.

Another study, the “College Student Survey,” asked students to indicate their current religious commitment. Comparing the responses of freshmen who checked the “born again” category with the answers they gave four years later, we find that on some campuses as high as 59 percent no longer describe themselves as “born again.”[2] That’s a fallout rate of almost two-thirds!

And just last year The Barna Group reported on the spiritual involvement of twenty-somethings. The findings: only 20 percent of students who were highly churched as teens remained spiritually active by age 29.[3]

However you factor it, these are significant numbers! Why are so many students walking away from their faith? Our own research and personal experience of working with teens suggests several reasons for this defection. Here is our short list, in no particular order.

1. Increase in Liberal Professors

Frankly, many students fall prey to the anti-Christian rhetoric of their professors. That many professors disdain Christianity is not an alarmist myth. In fact, a study recently published by Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research includes a sample of 1,200 college and university faculty. Tobin found that 53 percent held unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians while at the same time holding favorable opinions of most other religious groups. In addition, college and university faculty were far less likely to self-identify as Christian than the general public and are far more likely to refer to themselves as secular/liberal than as conservative/religious.[4]

Tobin’s findings echo the results of an earlier survey of college faculty summarized in the March 2005 issue of the Washington Post. The article revealed that 72 percent of professors and instructors in colleges across the U.S. are liberal.[5] That’s a marked increase from just 20 years earlier, when those who identified themselves as liberal was only 39 percent. This figure of 72 percent, also, is in sharp contrast to a Harris poll which found that only 19 percent of the general public describe themselves as liberal.[6] If parents believe they are sending their children off to college to learn more about the values they hold dear, they are in for a rude awaking!

The Post article goes on to report that 51 percent of college faculty rarely or never attend church or synagogue, 84 percent are in favor of abortion, 67 percent accept homosexuality, and 65 percent want the government to ensure full employment! Again, this is in sharp contrast with the public in general.

No wonder students are bolting from a commitment to Christian ideas; they simply believe what they are being taught in class.

2. Lack of Adequate Grounding

Let’s face it: many Christian students have no idea why they believe what they believe. This trend is revealed in an ongoing study conducted by the Nehemiah Institute. The instrument used is a “worldview” test and the results are discouraging, to say the least. When it comes to a wide range of topics, such as politics, education, economics, religion, and social issues, test results show that Christian students respond more like secular humanists than followers of Christ. And what is more alarming is that the trend over the last ten years is moving toward a greater degree of secularization.

This is a particularly devastating fact in an age where students are bombarded on a daily basis with so many competing views about life. Every song, movie, billboard, blog, textbook, and speech are full of ideas—ideas about truth, God, morality, beauty, identity, religions, and more. But, not all ideas are true. Some are wrong; some are deceptive; some are destructive.

In the Information Age it is essential that students be equipped to discern between competing ideas and respond with the truth.

3. A Wrong View of Christianity

Students react strongly against Christianity for a number of reasons: past hurts, moral failures, or rebellion. Unfortunately, some students simply just don’t get Christianity. In other words, they really have no idea what Christianity actually is.

The disconnect between true Christianity and what teens believe is dramatically revealed in a recent book, titled, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, written primarily by Christian Smith, a University of North Carolina sociologist. Smith and his colleagues conducted the largest survey to date of teen’s religious beliefs. Based on these extensive interviews, Smith writes that many students who claim to be Christians believe a host of ideas that are not anything close to orthodox Christianity. What they actually believe is something Smith identifies as “moralistic therapeutic deism.”[7] The majority of Bible-believing students think and live as if the only point of faith is to be good, to feel good, and to have a God to always call on for help without expecting anything in return. This is a far cry from a biblically informed commitment to Christian discipleship.

Reversing the trend

As parents, educators, and church leaders, what can we do to keep our young people from being neutralized in their faith, dropping out of church, or converting to the “no longer born again” category?

First, we must understand that the battle is for the hearts and minds of students. For too long many churches have been content to focus on the emotions, shying away from a serious discipleship of the mind. Yet, Jesus said that loving God involves both heart and head (Matthew 12:29-30). And Paul, in Romans 12:1-2, insisted that serving God involves renewing the mind.

Second, our instruction should revolve around the fact that Christianity is a robust faith. This means that when it comes to life’s most challenging issues, we have answers that are superior to all other philosophies. As the Apostle Paul put it, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and we take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ.”[8]

Third, we must teach students that Christianity is a comprehensive world and life view. A biblical worldview seeks to explain the reality of God’s truth in every area: from philosophy and science, ethics and economics, to psychology, sociology, law and, yes, even politics. In this way, no matter what course of study a student takes, he or she will be able to discern when the professor is presenting an anti-biblical bias.

Finally, parents and teachers must commit to developing a Christian worldview themselves. Pollster George Barna found that only 9 percent of “born again” adults have a biblical worldview. This calls for intensive teaching in worldview analysis for adults. And as students see a Christian worldview being lived out through their parents and teachers, they are much more likely to embrace that view for themselves and to stand strong when their worldview is under attack.

With biblically-based convictions firmly etched in their minds, Christian students will be prepared not only to withstand the attacks on their faith, but also they will be in a better position to help their friends understand God’s truth. And more than that, even make a positive contribution to shaping society for God’s glory. With this kind of preparation, the downward spiral of spirituality can be reversed. And, hopefully, when future surveys are taken, more students will respond on the positive side of the spiritual ledger.

Summit’s Worldview Training

Summit Ministries has years of experience helping students and adults know and care about why they believe what they believe. Our summer leadership conferences train students 16 years old and up. We offer these conferences at sites across the U.S. and several international locations. Adult conferences are a great time for adults and those in the field of education to sharpen their skills in worldview analysis and for teaching others the same.

Summit also has experienced speakers who travel to your city to conduct worldview workshops in churches, homeschool conferences, and Christian schools. Summit’s engaging speakers offer engaging topics for involving students at a deep level while giving them time for debate and discussion. Sessions typically include how to answer tough questions about God, being in the world but not of it when it comes to entertainment and media, and how to understand and respond “worldviewishly” to pressing social issues.

Regardless of the venue, Summit’s captivating speakers will keep their audience engaged and excited about what they are learning. Be warned: your teens may want to buy more books and have deeper conversations around the dinner table after attending one of our events!”

Additionally, we offer worldview and biblical apologetics curriculum for training all ages and contexts: Christian schools, homeschooling, church Bible studies, and Sunday school.

As one mom reflected after her family attended a worldview seminar:

What can I say? It was one of the most eye-opening and informative things we have ever done. My husband and I learned so much, and, equally important, my children learned about worldviews and how they impact every area of a person’s life and decisions. The children talked about the seminar in the van on the way home, and still refer to it today whenever the subject of a correct view of the world and life is discussed.

—Heather M. (FL)

About the Authors:

Chuck Edwards speaks nationally and internationally to high school, college and adult groups and is one of the favorite speakers during Summit’s Spring and Summer Student Conferences. He holds an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary and co-authored with Dr. Noebel the Summit’s two Homeschool/Sunday School curricula, Thinking Like a Christian and Countering Culture. During the summer, he and his wife Pat serve as directors of the Student Leadership conferences in Colorado.

John Stonestreet is Executive Director of Summit Ministries and oversees the Student Leadership conferences in Tennessee, Ohio and Virginia. A popular speaker at camps, conventions, and conferences, he works annually with parents, teachers, and students on developing a Biblical worldview, understanding comparative worldviews, defending the Christian faith, applying a Biblical worldview to education, and engaging important cultural issues. John holds an M.A. in Christian Thought from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is on the Biblical Studies faculty at Bryan College (TN).


  1. Quoted in the report, Preliminary Findings on Spiritual Development and the College Experience: A Longitudinal Analysis (2000-2003). Online article: http://www.spirituality.ucla.edu/results/Longitudinal_00-03.pdf
  2. Taken from the “College Student Survey.” Cooperative Institutional Research Program, U.C.L.A. Online article: http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri/css_po.html.
  3. George Barna, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years.” (www.barna.org)
  4. Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg, Profiles of the American University, Vol. 2: Religious Beliefs and Behaviors of College Faculty. Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 2007.
  5. “College Faculties A Most Liberal Lot, Study Finds,” by Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, Tuesday, March 29, 2005; Page C01.
  6. THE HARRIS POLL® #8, February 13, 2002, Party Identification: Democrats Still Lead, But Their Lead (5 Points) Is As Low As It Has Ever Been. Online article: http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=285
  7. Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2005).
  8. 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV).

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One Response to Why Students Abandon Their Faith

  1. Christine says:

    Wow! This was very helpful to read. I have noticed many of my friends from the Christian high school I went to fall away from their upbringing. I have not actually talked face to face with some of these individuals, but it was so saddening to look at facebook this past evening and see the horrible profanities and disgusting language many of them are using. I can see that they have not chosen to keep God a priority. I am sure that when they arrive home and talk with their parents, they clean up their act and try to sound good. It was just so sad for me to see. I understood that some of them were not the greatest of kids even in high school, but it is amazing what just one year of college has done to them. I am not saying that it is the colleges fault, but there are so may factors that play into it. I think a big part of it is that the students themselves never really had a strong conviction to hold to their faith in the first place. It is just so sad to see that all of the things they had been taught in high school and grade school is being thrown out the window. This has convinced me to do an informative speech for class on college spirituality and the loss of Christian values by college students.

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