While students often begin freshman year bright-eyed and ready to grow in their faith, by junior year, many find themselves sitting in the shambles of their former beliefs, according to a new study.
The two-part study, published in “Christian Higher Education,” researched the spiritual journeys of 14,000 students at 136 universities across the country. While students at most schools increase in faith during their studies, those attending Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) member schools “tend to feel secure in their faith at the start of college but three years later, they’re in crisis,” according to Christianity Today.
When Maddie Madewell, senior intercultural studies major, was completing a study-abroad in Costa Rica during her junior year, her struggles with loneliness and unexplainable physical pain drew her into a time of questioning God. “The last week that I was there I started feeling bad. But in January, I started feeling worse and in February, even worse. By then, I started to go to doctors,” Madewell said. “In April, I actually got a diagnosis of arthritis. The whole time I was just angry because I kind of felt benched from God’s plan.”
Eventually, Madewell found this anger to be debilitating, so she began to lean on spiritual practices that she learned during her freshman Gateway course. “It got really hard to get out of bed, because being angry at God, there’s not a whole lot of rest in that. So, I started this practice of getting out of bed and doing daily gratitudes, saying the things I was thankful for. However many times I had to say, ‘God I’m thankful for the sun, I’m thankful that it’s less cold today than it was yesterday because the cold hurts,’ … that’s how many it took to get out of bed,” Madewell said.
“Sometimes I didn’t get out of bed. Sometimes I didn’t make it to class. I started getting treated, which is wonderful and amazing, but there’s nothing quite like sinking your toes into the carpet in the morning and some days being grateful that you’re getting up and some days being grateful that it’s not painful,” Madewell said. “Just relishing that in those first instances, I can feel how the day is going to go, and either way you get to dedicate that to God.”
Tracy Balzer, director of Christian formation, says she has seen similar experiences with students throughout her 22 years at John Brown University, beginning with incoming freshmen. “They get really attached to that way of believing and expressing their faith and it feels secure, and then they come to college and are suddenly confronted with a lot of questions,” Balzer said. “We’re an interdenominational university so that happens perhaps even more so at JBU because students are out there in the midst of all kinds of different Christian backgrounds and, of course, some who have no faith at all.”
Growing up in a conservative Christian home, Nehemiah Hein, a JBU alumnus who graduated in 2019, held tightly to his parents’ beliefs before college. “Then, I came here as a freshman and it started probably more my sophomore year, but I started to make friends with people who had a lot of different views and perspectives,” Hein said. “As I started to learn about those, it started to cause me to question a lot of things that I used to think. Very quickly I started to find things that my parents believed that I couldn’t reconcile with what other people were saying was true about the world.”
In light of these perspectives, Hein began to question his beliefs. “There isn’t a good answer to the question, like the problem of evil. I can’t reconcile in my mind … the idea that God existed and that there wasn’t suffering and then he created beings and then there was suffering. It’s irreconcilable with the idea that God is good or that God is not the creator and active agent in causing evil to exist because he was in a place where there wasn’t and now there is,” Hein said. “These were the questions where I started to become skeptical and once you become skeptical, everything just falls apart.”
Many students struggle in feeling alone during a faith crisis, as Balzer describes. “Everyone else looks like a Christian here, do I have to look like a Christian? I’m having some real questions right now. Are people still going to love me even though I’m struggling?” Balzer said. “We can be struggling with anything, fill in the blank, but faith when you’re at a Christian university and you’ve got to go sit in chapel. Can you sit there in your struggles when everybody else seems to have none? Even though, if we could see inside everyone’s heart and mind, there’s plenty of struggles to go around.”
While it can be a difficult process, Balzer encourages students to think through their beliefs. “We see that as a natural and actually a healthy growth process because young adults have to, whether they’re in college or not, make their faith their own,” Balzer said. “I’m not suggesting that they have to invent their own faith, but they have to actually own it themselves.”
“What we’re hoping is that you don’t come away saying, ‘Oh wait, I thought there was a God and now I think there’s not’ but instead, ‘I thought there was a God and he is so much bigger than I thought he was,’” Balzer said.
The process of deconstructing one’s faith impacts not only universities, but also Christian leaders that students look up to. Joshua Harris, who disavowed his book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” in 2018, announced in July that he was leaving the evangelical community and that he and his wife were divorcing. In an Instagram post, Harris shared that “by all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”
Madewell grew up reading Harris’ book and following his journey. “It was really kind of joyful for me when he produced his documentary rescinding his ideas and realizing what the effects had been,” Madewell said. “I was really happy to see a Christian leader who admits they’re wrong and pulls back from that. What a redemptive story. So, it was really jarring when he announced that he was leaving the faith because it took away one of those bastions of redemption. You were so close, but you went too far.”
“It’s unfortunate to see that because it perpetuates the narrative that if you progress on your intellectual journey, you regress on your spiritual journey,” Madewell said. “That somehow, as you become more educated, more intelligent, more involved in this academic discourse on spirituality, that you experience your own faith less, that it becomes dead. I don’t believe that has to be the case.”
Reflecting on Harris’ journey, Balzer said, “He is kind of the poster child for this idea of deconstructing your faith … There’s something really appealing for young millennials and iGen people to deconstruct their faith. I get that because there are a lot of ways that the evangelical church has not managed raising their young people well, but that’s the church. It’s imperfect. That’s not God. Deconstruction is only as good as reconstruction is. If you’re thinking deconstruct, whatever that means, then you better be able to replace it with something better.”
Around the time of Harris’ announcement, Hein entered into the final stages of deconstruction.
“The whole semester leading up to this summer I had this journal which I filled almost completely up … In this journal, the thing I prayed about most was my doubt. ‘God, I want you. I’m looking for you and I don’t want to care so much about answering these questions.’ I got to this point where I was sitting there and thinking about it and there was this sudden rearranging of the way that I saw the world,” Hein said. “That was the point of no return … What fell into place was what I’m afraid of is what other people are saying about God, not what God has told me himself. The second that fell into place, everything went away.”
While Hein expressed the desire to return to his former beliefs, he shared his most validating reason for walking away. “I keep wanting to go back but I can’t think myself into and just can’t make sense of it … If God was real and he wanted me to have a relationship with him, he wouldn’t make himself inaccessible to me. That inaccessibility isn’t something I can control.”
During this process, Hein felt that the JBU campus was a safe place to ask questions. “I could talk to Bible professors. I could talk to my psychology professors. What contributed to changing my mind is that I kept asking them the questions and they never answered them in a way that settled it for me,” Hein said. “I never felt like they were judging me for asking my questions or shutting me down. They encouraged me to ask questions and if they didn’t know if they could answer, they would direct me to other people.”
For students questioning their faith, Balzer recommends reaching out to trusted individuals on campus, such as their RA, RD and the Office of Christian Formation. “If you get to know and make yourself known to those people, then when the hard times come, you have a support system ready,” Balzer said.
Just like a plant needs sustenance to live and grow, Madewell reminds those experiencing faith crises to remember their needs. “Did you feed? Did you get water and sunlight? It’s really hard to resolve a crisis when you’re already living on empty. If you don’t have the time or the space to breathe, you don’t have the time or space to rest. It’s really, really hard to turn to God and accurately interpret your faith when you’re just trying to survive,” Madewell said. “Your ability to love God properly is severely crippled if you’re not taking care of the temple he made in you. It’s hard to worship when the temple’s falling down around you.”
Madewell also encourages students to be real with their doubts and emotions. “It’s ok to be an angry Christian … There are so many things that anger me, whether they’re worldwide injustice or just a really hard and frustrating conversation but being angry doesn’t make me less of a Christian and it doesn’t make me less close to God. That’s a pervasive lie that an at-peace Christian is always a peaceable one,” Madewell said. “There isn’t a perfect Christian, and there’s no image of a Christian that looks perfect either. Separating the human experience from who God is is a perfect recipe for a dead and obsolete faith.”