Souls in Transition – Role of Campus Ministry in Lives of Emerging Adults

The fourth chapter of Souls in Transition is loaded with statistics! Smith and Snell trace the changes that occur as teenagers move into young (emerging) adulthood. Reading through the chapter a pattern appears. First, three groups see little decline in numbers, and perhaps in some areas a growth in commitment, during these years: evangelical Protestants, black Protestants and Mormons. Second, three other groups experience much decline and shrinking commitment: mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Smith and Snell sum up the chapter:

“In sum, the importance and practice of religion generally declines between the age periods of 13-17 and 18-23. Some or even many American youth go into something of a religious slump during these years. But that decline or slump does not seem to be cataclysmic for their religious lives – at least, as far as statistics can reveal. Most of them do not appear to abandon their faith, decide that it is entirely unimportant, or radically alter their beliefs.”

Basically, many emerging adults walk away from involvement in community but they retain their faith. They still believe, but being active in church is not part of their life right now.

Some of the research was on college based ministries, right up my alley! Smith and Snell found that one out of four emerging adults who has been to college has been involved in some group. The breakdown of the churches that 25% comes from is:

  • 46% evangelical Protestant
  • 18% Catholic
  • 15% mainline Protestants
  • 9% black Protestant
  • 7% Mormon
  • 2% Jewish
  • 1% non-religious

Only 1% if those who have been a part of a campus-based ministry identify as non-religious. Smith and Snell conclude, “perhaps unsurprisingly those who populate college-based religious groups come from religious backgrounds; such groups appear to have little success drawing in college students who were not already religious as teenagers” (132).

That is challenging and a bit disturbing. I always say the college campus is a mission field and based on a statistic like that one, we are not doing well at reaching out to the non-religious. This is clearly an area for improvement. It is tempting to become a “holy huddle” where the Christian students can come together and feel safe, among people like them for a while. Often Christian groups skirt very close to becoming cliques. Earlier in the chapter Smith and Snell mentioned how most emerging adults’ friends tend to have similar religious views; Christians are friends with Christians, Jews with Jews, non-religious with non-religious, etc. This is the place to start outreach on campus, the question for the Christian students is, do you have friends who are NOT part of your Christian group? If not, get some.

I do think there is some encouraging news here. Smith and Snell find that in general emerging adults’ commitment to religion declines during these years. One of the exceptions are students from evangelical Protestant backgrounds. I doubt it is a coincidence that most campus ministries I know of (CSF, Intervarsity, Campus Crusade for Christ, Coalition for Christian Outreach) fit under this broad umbrella. Smith and Snell do not make this connection, but I have to assume that one reason why more evangelical Protestant students manage to stay committed and grow in their faith during this time is the presence of these campus ministries. Without such ministries, would more evangelical students move into that non-religious category?

Campus ministries fill a vital gap in the life and development of Christian adults. I can tell numerous stories of students from Christian homes who were seriously questioning their faith, or only went to church because their parents made them, or weren’t sure how they would survive college, who found themselves flourishing on campus because of CSF.

From reading this chapter I found things that disturbed me, challenged me and encouraged me. What more can you ask from any book?

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