For many students, college is a time of personal and intellectual discovery. On a fresh autumn day, it is easy to remember the first brisk days of school and all of the excitement that came with the discovery of learning and making new friends. In recent years, much attention has been paid to the apparent lack of religious commitment among college students.

Some say the college experience is to blame, while others cite intellectual skepticism as the source. Others say that the statistics are misleading and that students are simply worshiping and studying faith in new ways – independently or within student ministries. Regardless, intellectual skepticism seems to be a topic of conversation worth addressing, as it pertains to students and parishioners alike.

New College Students Experience New Intellectual Demands.

College is a transitional time for students, not only socially, but intellectually. Derek Melleby, with the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding wrote in a 2008 article that churches need to focus on preparing students for life after college by teaching them to learn to think.

“Many students lack critical thinking skills, failing to take what knowledge is at their disposal to form their own beliefs and convictions. We must continually create space for students to wrestle with the big questions of life. College should not be the first time that students engage in abstract or deep thinking, but for many students it is. Critical thinking and Christian discernment are spiritual disciplines that need to be developed. Like anything worthwhile in life, the developmental process takes time and is difficult,” he writes.

In 2010, the American Family Association held the panel discussion “Church Droupout: Overcoming the Youth Exodus.” The panel found that intellectual skepticism was the key factor in the cited 75% dropout rate. But is higher education really to blame?

Wait a minute. What exactly is critical thinking?

Before continuing, let’s review what critical thinking actually is and why it can be difficult to apply in a religious setting.

Critical thinking is a type of reasonable, reflective thinking that is aimed at deciding what to believe or what to do. It is a way of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false. – Compliments of

In order to apply critical thinking skills to religion, it is necessary to consider the possibility of fallacy. That’s right. In order to become a critically thinking Christian, we have to listen to arguments against our beliefs. This is incredibly hard because it can be intensely offensive! Imagine if someone came up to you and began insisting that God is imaginary?

When Christians lack critical thinking skills developed in regard to their faith, it is easier for anti-Christians to make false claims to logical and rational thinking. Christians who have committed time, research and reflection to their beliefs are better prepared to apply critical thinking skills to anti-Christian attacks; but they have also experienced the blessing of being intellectually confident in their beliefs.

Intellectual Christians

It is entirely possible for Christians to defend their beliefs using critical thinking; however, there are always limitations in logic when discussing faith. By its very nature, faith is mysterious and beyond experiment. That is something we, as Christians, accept and revere.

However, critical thinking is often absent from church environments, especially evangelical churches. The shades between intellectualism and religiosity are often painted in black and white, and, somehow, political views have begun to creep into the evangelical faith to define beliefs outside of the church doctrine. The pressure to conform to all church community views can sometimes squash disagreement and dialogue; and those who hold the majority beliefs simply view (and portray) the opposition as wrong.

If students can’t find answers to their intellectual questions at church, where will they go? Friends, professors, the Internet? What can youth groups do to help high school and college students develop critical thinking in terms of faith?

Doubt, like temptation, is something that young adults must learn to face. A Christian who is unprepared to face doubt may never return to the church.

Mariana Ashley is a blogger and freelance writer for She offers advice for choosing the perfect online program for prospective students and parents and welcomes comments via email at

I really enjoyed reading Thom Shultz’s Holy Soup take on why students are leaving the church post-high school. There’s been so much discussion about this issue I enjoyed a fresh angle on how to help fix it. Here’s a clip, head there for his complete thoughts:

So, why are our young people losing faith in the church and God? It’s a relationship problem. They don’t think of Jesus as their friend. He’s a concept or an historical figure. He’s an academic subject that their churches teach. And once they graduate from youth group, they forget about the Jesus subject—just as they forget about their other high school subjects. Jesus gets left behind with algebra and early American literature.

Ironically, many youth ministry analysts suggest that the cure to the young’s exodus is . . . more academic religious knowledge. They insist what’s really needed is “deeper study,” “stronger biblical teaching,” and “more robust theology.”

Thorough Bible knowledge is a good thing. I’d like to see more of it. My organization publishes Bibles and Bible resources. But kids aren’t walking away from the church because they lack an adequate accumulation of Bible facts.

They lack relationship. And relationships—of any kind—rarely grow and bond primarily due to the accumulation of data. Relationships—with people and with God—develop through demonstrations of unconditional love, building of trust, forgiveness, reliance, and tons of two-way communication.


I recently did an email interview with a college student who was writing a research paper about the departure of students from church once they graduate. Thought I would post my answers up here on the blog as well – would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, too!

1. What kind of doubts about the Bible and Christianity do you hear Christian young people express?

Can the Bible be trusted? If God is so loving, why is there so much evil in the world? Is Hell real? What about the inconsistencies in the Bible? Why does the Bible disagree so clearly with what we KNOW is true from science?

Students in our ministry have all sorts of doubts, and honestly, I’m so glad they are sharing them with us. I think a crisis of faith in high school where they are trained, card for, mentored, loved and further educated sets them up for much higher rates of personalizing their faith than those in less fortunate environments who aren’t allowed to express doubts until early in their college years when it is challenged very directly and their faith crumbles in a heap.

2. What non-biblical beliefs do you see Christian young people embracing?

Evolution is taught as scientific fact in our culture, so it is a common belief that theory is how our universe was created. I would also say there is a surge in a more inclusiveness to different faiths, not just within various Christian denominations, but even non-biblical faith systems. Just Google “I’m a Mormon” and you’ll see how great of a job the Mormons are doing of fitting in with Christians and see why Christian teens may be misled.

3. What social issues are young people struggling with?

Bullying is huge in the news and the bookstore these days – it is funny since it has been around forever but just now getting the attention it deserves. In addition to that the homosexual issue is now very much at the forefront of youth culture (see Born This Way and Glee as examples), along with depression, identity issues, self-esteem and suicide. We just finished up a teaching series called Secrets, and have over 400 anonymous cards returned with real issues that our students are struggling with. It was powerful stuff and will shape our teaching topics for the next 1-2 years I would imagine.

4. What do you think are the biggest reasons Christian young people question their faith?

I think it is natural to question your faith. If you test it, and it checks out, your faith is deepened. I may even go as far as suggesting that I think that faith should be questioned, and it is a normal part of believing in something without seeing it. For that matter, I’m not sure it can (or should be) helped. I say that as a youth pastor who knows that to be true, but also as a father that fears that statement because I so desperately want my children to know and walk with God. Look at Doubting Thomas as example A for doubting leading to devotion. Sad he gets such a bad rap – his doubt led him to a depth of faith that would lead him to literally change the world for Christ.

5. What do you think are the major reasons Christian young people reject their faith?

Unsatisfactory answers. Poor foundational teaching. And I also think that the rejection of a parent’s values/belief/ideals is a somewhat normal part of adolescent development as well – we have to remember that the teenager years are leading up to this big burst of freedom to live their own life free of their parents and their past – and the run with the newfound freedom. I have a feeling that teenagers and young adults have long been leaving the church (perhaps to return as a young parent) and it has only recently come to light.

6. What do you think would help Christian young people keep their faith after they leave home?

I think parents are the first and most important key. A Godly, consistent home that reinforces the truths of the Bible is critical. I think helping graduated students find a new church in their new college home and walk through that transition is huge. The importance of the right circle of friends cannot be overstated. And a relationship with someone from back home (a mentor, Life Group leader, etc) to help walk with them through this time of freedom, tempation and maturity. The book The Slow Fade might give you some more specific insight here.

7. What are you doing to prepare your youth to face future challenges to their beliefs?

Every year we do several practical series and give out tons of usable tools to help students grow on their own. Our goal is to make sure that students have a faith of their own and not just riding the Christian culture or the pressure to conform of their parents. We also do regular apologetics teaching series and offer several workshops on these subjects to help ground them in the faith. Life Groups are the opportunity for mentorship and modeling of faith by a trained, screened and loving leader.

8. Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Do you see a correlation between how little it costs to be a Christian in America and the loss of faith that is occurring in Christian young people?

Maybe so, I suppose? I would suggest it isn’t as easy at you might think to be a Christian (outside of the Christian private school/bible college/home bubble I grew up well within myself). In the real world I see my students having to stand up for their faith, be persecuted (mildly by Tertullian standards of course) and perhaps it costs them more than we think on the surface.


I liked Terrace Crawford’s post this week about students fading out of youth group. It happens to the best of us. He gave 5 reasons why this happens – some are pretty insightful and especially timely this time of year. Here’s a clip of his thoughts, head there for the rest:

1. Everything is predictable: We live in a world that is constantly changing. It’s moving at such a fast pace. Old things are being replaced with new things and what worked 10 years ago doesn’t work any longer. Church leaders don’t seem to get this. We move at a slower pace, aren’t apt to change, or still take stock in last year’s offerings. The truth is, we’ve become boring and predictable… and teens lose interest quick. Action item: Take as much time each week to think through the environment you are creating as you do on the message or program itself.

5. The problem isn’t you: Youth pastors get blamed for many things. Sometimes we put the blame on ourselves. Over the years I’ve probably been hardest on myself when I thought a student stopped showing up because of me. We must realize that in many cases the problem isn’t us to begin with. Sometimes teenagers don’t show up because of circumstances outside of our control. I’ll offer 3 possibilities here: the student is involved in extra curricular activities and cannot come, they cannot get a ride to church, or my personal favorite, the kid is grounded from church! Action item: Continue to reach out to teenagers who aren’t regularly attending. Students need to know you care about them regardless of whether or not they are present for your program.