What most of us have intuitively feared for years appears to be true,and the studies are stacking up to substantiate it. According to the recent study completed by the Barna Group out of Los Angeles, as many as 60% of Christian students who leave for college never return to Church. Subsequent studies conducted by individual Christian traditions report statistics as high as 80-90%. Experts refer to this as faith attrition. Regardless of the real number and what we may think about survey statistics, the Christian Church appears to be facing a serious challenge, and there's no credible reason to believe that the Orthodox tradition is immune to it. Of course, the million-dollar question is why.
For decades Christians have been quick to point out the secularizing effects of public colleges and universities. After all, demonizing the campus gives Christian parents and parishes a convenient target,while at the same time keeping them off the hook. As most of us know, however, problems are rarely that simple and unidimensional. The reality is these statistics reflect a complexity of factors. Any serious attempt to provide a solution must be willing to engage them.
According to the recent research conducted by Mark Regenerus, a sociologist from the University of Texas and author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, the roots of secularization are found to run much deeper than the public campus. He sites data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, which suggests that secularization does not begin in college but only materializes there. In most cases, the intersection of first-time freedom and the distorted moral opportunities afforded on most public campuses reveal what is latent in the hearts of students. We have to look much deeper than the campus if we hope to find the real roots of the problem.
To begin, we must face up to the obvious reality that most of us have missed: students live in an adult created world! Parents and priests alike are quick to point out the variety of vices and addictions to which young people are attached, but rarely reflect on the adult greed and failure that make any of those possible. Yes, there has been a remarkable increase in the sexual activity, substance abuse, mental illness, poor academic performance, obesity, and sexual abuse of college students. However, none of these statistics take place within a vacuum - each of these students were born into a broken world, with broken parents and broken communities. This is what the Orthodox Church teaches about a fallen world.
The truth is that for too long Christian parents have relied solely upon the Church for the religious education and formation of their children. Unconsciously, many parents believe they're responsible for the general well being, financial obligation and education of their children while the priest and Sunday School Department assumes the spiritual side of things. The Biblical author of Deuteronomy presents us with a different picture: "You shall teach [the commandments] to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up..." (6:7-8). Whether out of humility or fear, handing over our religious responsibilities as parents to the parish amounts to spiritual abandonment and sets up the Church for failure.
The Church's role in the formation of the next generation is specifically to help its students answer the question that Jesus asks Peter in the Gospel of Matthew (16:15): "Who do you say that I am?" So many of our students leave home having no idea how Christ (Christology) connects to the rich and deep tradition of their Orthodox faith. Our bishops and priests have been ordained to make these personal connections relevant and clear. Their role is to help us understand how the Scriptures, divine services, sacraments, doctrine, hymnography, architecture, cannons, iconography, and saints of the Church all point to Christ and how each of them reveal a way of life in which each of us can be intimately connected to the life of the Holy Trinity. If the clergy are not purposefully and actively helping students make these connections, it's easy for them to get lost in the 2000 years of tradition, culture, custom and history. The reality is that most of our students are Biblically illiterate, insecure about explaining and sharing their faith, and feeling guilty over their questions and doubts.
The students of this generation have grown up in a post-modern world where skepticism about objective truth and morality is the norm. Students are generally more accepting and inclusive of other people, their ideas, and worldviews. This is the result of the digital connection that they have with the rest of the world (e.g., social networking, blogging, video and audio podcasts). They are at least vaguely familiar with the religious orientation, questions, and morality of other people groups all over the world, and certainly within the United States. For this reason they have lots and lots of questions.
Furthermore, they've grown increasingly resistant and tired of what they perceive to be the bigoted and narrow-minded worldview of the Church. They resist the simple explanations and narratives that fail to answer the deeper "why" questions and which ultimately fail to connect them to the substantive identity of Christ. Students have become accustomed to hearing messages of sin avoidance but are not accustomed to parents or clergy explaining why a loving God would require such moral behavior. The result is a generation of Orthodox young people who feel guilty about their behavior and questions - a generation who is fearful about sharing what's really inside for fear of judgment. They have left their Churches for college believing that religious questions and doubts equate to an inferior and weak faith.
Our students need and deserve safe environments in which they can explore their questions and doubts. They need parishes and clergy that are not fearful of their generational context or orientation. Our students need for us to understand the real depth of adolescent transition that they make when they leave home for college. Once again, most of our minds race to the moral and ideological distractions and temptations that our students face on the public campus. Rarely, however, do we reflect on the very pragmatic and emotional struggles of leaving home. Consider all of the connections that are broken during this transition. Students leave their parents, friends, parish, priest, school, and community - all those things that anchor their identity. In addition, most of them are navigating for the first time financial obligation, independent decision-making, real personal freedom and substantive educational challenges. All of these changes take place within the short space of a few months. It shouldn't surprise us that some of these same students run to relationships or substances to cope with the anxiety and confusion of their transitional context.
These are the reasons why the Church must be present to help students interpret and contextualize their experiences in light of the Christian Gospel and ultimately connect them to the person of Christ. When the Church is absent on campus, many of our students are easily captured by the ideologies of other so-called "enlightened" individuals and organizations. Our students are desperate to feel supported by the Church, not controlled. Students are at a stage in human development where it is most natural for an individual to ask questions and push for independence. We must resist the temptation to control their experiences and questions; instead, we must learn to become comfortable with the hard questions, remembering that our formational motivation should be long term, not immediate.
For over four decades, the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) has been one of the primary ways in which the Orthodox Church in North America has sought to connect with our college campuses. The OCF is one of the seven official outreach ministries under the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). At present, there are approximately 250 local OCF chapters in the United States and Canada that exist to come along side our parents and parishes for the specific task of keeping our students connected to the life giving teaching and experience of the Orthodox Church. These local chapters are critical for a variety of reasons.
First of all, many campuses are not even within driving distance of an Orthodox Church. On the other hand, some are but regular student attendance is challenged by a lack of consistent transportation options. This makes the college campus much like an island - it can be challenging to get on and off. Even the priests of nearby campus parishes struggle to get on the "island" to meet with students. Given their heavy responsibility loads and many "hats", most priests are lucky to get on campus once or twice a month, if at all. Most priests who are fortunate enough to get on campus weekly will readily confess how much more needs to be done. Given the deep challenges, transitions, and distractions of the public campus, these local OCF chapters provide a safe context for Orthodox students to share their anxieties, talk about their questions, and reconnect with their Orthodox identity.
All of the aforementioned studies reveal that time is a luxury that the Orthodox Church cannot afford. We must act now, and we must commit to a new course. We must invest the necessary time, energy and money to recapture the hearts and minds of our Church's future. We must be willing to train up an army of competent lay persons who will work along side the clergy to be present on these campus islands and help these students make sense of their challenging realities. This is a course to which the OCF is committed and for which it was commissioned. Everyday we are looking for creative ways to build bridges between our students and their Orthodox faith. Orthodox Church cannot afford. We must act now, and we must commit to a new course. We must invest the necessary time, energy and money to recapture the hearts and minds of our Church's future. We must be willing to train up an army of competent lay persons who will work along side the clergy to be present on these campus islands and help these students make sense of their challenging realities. This is a course to which the OCF is committed and for which it was commissioned. Everyday we are looking for creative ways to build bridges between our students and their Orthodox faith.
It doesn't profit the Church or our students to over-simplify the challenges of our modern context. We must resist the black-and white categories and easy answers that are so typical for us. More-and-more colleges and universities are career oriented. Lost are the days when the university existed for the sole purpose of pointing students in the direction of truth. If we want to retain the precious treasure that our loving Father has entrusted to us, we must first of all own the responsibility that is ours. Parents must find the humility and courage to wrestle with the spiritual formation of their own children, and our clergy must recommit themselves to teaching the relevant connection of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to every aspect of our Orthodox tradition. The synergy of these worlds is what allows our students the freedom to share their questions, doubts, vulnerabilities, and failures. It's a context of social support and not social control that helps our students in their life journey toward Truth, namely Jesus Christ. Where we fail to sustain this environment, we fail to retain our students.
- Fr. Kevin Scherer
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