Over the years we’ve found the Barna Group’s research on faith and Millennials to be helpful, as well as consistent with our experience. Their 2006 study gets at the heart of why Impact 360 Institute’s Gap Year was started in the first place, namely the problem of Millennials disengaging from their faith during and after the college years. The study shows that the “most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings – 61% of today’s young adults – had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying).”
“Only one-fifth of twentysomethings (20%) have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences.”
This statistic is consistent with my own experience in college and beyond (including first-hand reports from parents of college students). I can remember one young lady in my class in college—I’ll call her “Katie”—whose story is one of losing faith through a slow and steady loss of gospel-centered morality. She lost her biblical saltiness (Matt. 5:13-15) with each year she was in college. She came in on fire for all things Christ-oriented her freshman year and left stone cold. She married an unbeliever after college and is already divorced—all of this within the span of 3 or 4 years after we graduated. Did she “know” a lot about biology when she left college? Sure. How well did she fare regarding her soul? The early church father St. Augustine believed that what we know is to a large degree determined by what we love. Katie’s love for God was easily outmatched by the scintillating things college had to offer her at the time. Looking back, her faith was more or less “niceness.”
If you are currently in college or are about to be, then consider this: You will likely face the challenge of waking up your brothers and sisters to the realities of the gospel and its implications more often than you will find yourself arguing with an atheist. What do I mean by “waking them up?” Well, what do so many of them tend to think the central message of Christianity is by their actions?
True gospel-centered morality isn’t so easily whittled away. Faith as niceness is another story.
British abolitionist and cultural reformer William Wilberforce (1759-1833) pointed out one of the great misconceptions of the heart of true faith which can lead to the kind of “dying by inches” syndrome which ultimately overtook Katie’s vibrant faith:
“There is a common assumption that is highly injurious to the cause of true religion. It is the exaggerated recognition of certain amiable and useful qualities of life and the assumption that they substitute for the supreme love and fear of God. The following assumption is commonly made. That kindness and a sweetening of spirit (that is sympathetic, benevolent, and generous in affection), together with attention to what the world esteems are domestic and social duties, and above all a life of useful busyness—these, it is assumed, can all make up for the lack of true religion. Indeed, many will declare ‘the difference between these qualities and religion is verbal and illogical, rather than the real and essential. For in fact, what are they but religion and action. Is it not the great end of religion, and particularly the glory of Christianity, to illuminate the bad passions; to curb violence; to control the appetite and smooth the aspirations of man; and to make us compassionate, kind and forgiving of one another? Is it not to make us good husbands, good fathers and good friends? Is it not to make us useful and active citizens? If the end be effective, surely it is unnecessary refinement to dispute about the means?’ Thus some bring in a fatal distinction between morality and religion. This is a great error. For there can hardly be a stronger evidence of the cursory and superficial views with which men satisfy themselves in religious affairs than the prevalence of this view. Anyone who admits the authority of Scripture must acknowledge the falsity and persuasive reasoning of such a view” (Real Christianity, 116).