Losing your faith when you go to school.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 August

More accurately, being the pagans you always secretly were.

In my town, today’s the first day of school. I have friends in other parts of the United States who say, “You start school in August? You’re nuts.” I look at it from an educator’s point of view: The shorter the summer vacation, the less chance there is for the kids to forget everything before we get ’em back in the classrooms. Plus most of the parents do not mind at all.

Colleges and universities are also starting up this time of year. Along with that comes a common worry Christians have: They worry their good Christian kids will go away to school, and gradually ditch their Christianity.

It’s hardly a new worry. It’s been around since the very first Christians sent their kids to the ancient version of university, the academy. It’s been around since the first universities slid away from the goals of their Christian founders, and became secular.

Since I grew up Fundamentalist, I got to hear their version of that worry. Fundies suspect their salvation depends on clinging to all the correct beliefs, and since any good school challenges us to question everything, that’s the very last thing they want their kids doing. It’s why they created Fundamentalist colleges, where they question everything but their fundamentals. (Though frequently these schools have way too many fundamentals, but that’s another debate for another day.)

Hence in high school my youth pastors told me, time and again, the only schools worthy of consideration are the Christian ones. Their goal was to shelter us from the cold cruel world out there, lest it corrupt us and turn us pagan.

A lot of us Christians bought into this mentality. It’s why, as soon as possible, Christians put their kids in Christian preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools; then transition ’em to four-year Christian universities. Others don’t trust any Christian schools—somehow they’re all corrupt—so they educate their kids at home as long as possible. Heck, instead of going away to university, some of ’em take long-distance classes from home, lest the shelter the schools are meant to be, just isn’t strong enough.

In this way, parents figure the kids will never be drawn away from Jesus by the subtle, foundation-shattering perils of atheistic humanism in the classroom. Nor the drug-fueled hedonism in the dorms. Nor the distractions of popular culture everywhere else.

All the classroom subjects will be carefully based on a bible-centered worldview. And ideally so will all the extracurricular activities and dorm life. The kids’ll be totally immersed in Jesus. They’ll never fall away.

They never bother to consider: What kind of anemic, pathetic faith are we talking about, where we have to encase kids in a plastic Christian bubble lest any microbe from the outside destroy this faith?

See, that’s the real problem. These kids who abandon their faith? They don’t have faith. Their parents bungled the job of passing it down. The kids don’t love Jesus, if they even know him at all; they’ve been chafing under all the Christianity, and the instant they leave for school—even a Christian school!—there goes their religion. Cast off as fast as they can shed it.

Happened to me too: I didn’t ditch Christianity, but I totally ditched Fundamentalism. Plus various other annoying beliefs. Lemme tell you about it.

How Christian were these kids? Not very.

If you’ve been to university yourself, you might remember this fact: Kids don’t go there to learn. They go there to become adults.

Yep. ’Cause that’s what they are. They finally get treated by adults as a peer. (A dumb peer, but still.) They no longer need permission forms. They get to leave their families, set their own rules, make their own schedules, make their own choices. They can hang out with their friends, get involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities (or none), and transform themselves. Transform into what? Into whatever they believe “adult” means. And since they don’t know what that is, they’ll try a few new experiences and figure it out.

Even if the kids are going to local schools and living at home, these new adults still go through this process. Sometimes they successfully convince their parents to limit them with as few restrictions as possible. Sometimes they don’t, and conveniently find excuses to regularly be away. But that’s what they’re doing while they’re away: Reinventing themselves.

I went to community colleges and a state university. I also went to a private Christian university. At both schools I met young adults who decided to ditch their Christianity. Yep, even at the Christian school: I was there for seminary, but they were there to get away from their families and find themselves. It just happened to take place at a Christian school, but they didn’t let that fact get in their way.

Did the schools do this to them? Nah. For the most part, the kids made this the plan long before they got there. There are some “late bloomers”—kids who adopt this plan later, whether it’s in their senior year (which tends to wreak havoc on their graduation plans), right after they graduate, in their mid-20s, or whenever they finally have their “midlife crisis.” But most of the time they’re itching to reinvent themselves right after high school.

’Twasn’t the classes which changed them. Nor the environment. ’Cause if you’re a devout Christian, there’s no shortage of fellow Christians around. Secular schools have Christian clubs, and there are ministries—some run by churches, some independent—specifically meant to reach students. They know who all the Christian professors are. (These folks aren’t hiding underground, despite what paranoid Christians imagine.) If you wanna stay true to your faith, there’s so much support. It’s just the kids don’t want the support.

So why do Christians blame the schools? Because they don’t recognize, or don’t remember, they went through this transformative period themselves. In fact a lot of ’em, as they were finding themselves, became Christian—and they’ve reinterpreted the entire experience as “when I was searching for God.” So since their kids supposedly have God already, they don’t need to search for him. Or for anything. Right?

As I said in my piece on sharing Jesus with your kids, a number of Christian parents haven’t adequately introduced their kids to Jesus. They expected the kids to pick up faith by osmosis, figured exposure to church and bibles and prayer would do the trick, and assumed the youth pastors would answer any real questions and keep ’em on the straight ’n narrow. If you’ve made similar assumptions, man are you in for disappointment.

I grew up with such kids. They went to university, not with Christ standing beside them, but with nothing. Stands to reason they’d fall for anything.

Fr’instance a “good Christian kid” I knew, who was in my theology classes: He quickly discovered everything he thought he “knew,” was actually a half-truth. His parents had taught him all real Christians believed as they did. Once he discovered Christians were allowed to believe other things, he leapt to the conclusion the entirety of Christianity is bunk, and quit. This happens more often than it should.

Another “good Christian kid” in my theater class: He was gay. Kinda knew it, and suppressed it, in high school. The other Christians he knew immediately rejected him. No grace; just judgment. So he figured he wasn’t allowed to be Christian anymore. The Wiccans, on the other hand, were quite gracious to him.

I was a “good Christian kid,” but I was a hypocrite. I figured once saved, always saved; if I lived like a pagan it wouldn’t matter because Jesus forgives all. Obviously hypocrites’ relationships with Jesus suck, and it doesn’t take long before I finally thought, “Why ought I even bother?” (When I sought the answer to that question, it had a happy ending. But not everybody experiences that.)

And of course there are Christians who come to school as solid Christians, and stay solid. Doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing; doesn’t matter where you send them to school. They know who they are, they know who Jesus is, and they belong to him.

Is a Christian school any advantage?

Short answer: No.

Don’t delude yourself. If a kid doesn’t wanna be Christian, all the Christian school is gonna do is delay the inevitable. At a Christian school there’s more peer pressure to remain Christian, so you won’t find a whole lot of out-of-the-closet nontheists. Unbelievers simply continue being the hypocrites they were back at home, when they pretended to be Christian for their parents’ sake: Christians in public, pagans when Christians weren’t around.

Or instead of Christianity, they’d adopt Christianism: They’d believe in Jesus like people believe in Abraham Lincoln. You know of Lincoln, and kinda like him, but you’re never gonna have any profound personal relationship with him (and it’d be nuts to expect to), ’cause he’s dead. In other words, keep the trappings of Christianity ’cause you’re used to them, and kinda like feeling spiritual. Name-drop God a lot, especially when you dabble in politics. But really follow Jesus? Meh.

From time to time, professors, students, and administrators would challenge the students to take Jesus more seriously, and challenge any popular beliefs which were incompatible with Jesus’s teachings. The bible and theology professors could get away with it, but when the English, social science, and psychology professors challenged these kids’ skin-deep Christianity, these students resented the hell out of it. ’Cause these kids didn’t come to school to be better Christians; they came there to act like adults, and adults answer to no one, right? Not even Jesus.

Hence by the end of their four years, these Christianists kids were champing at the bit to leave the school… and Christianity. It wasn’t working for them anymore. They wanted to be full-on pagans. Some went to graduate school or the workforce, and redefined themselves again into non-Christians. Some of the more rebellious types didn’t even wait to graduate.

Like I said, ’tain’t the school. It’s the person. But Jesus coulda told you that.

Mark 7.18-23 KWL
18 Jesus told them, “How dense are you?
Don’t you realize how anything which enters a person from the outside, can’t contaminate the person?—
19 how it doesn’t enter one’s heart, but one’s digestive system,
and winds up in the toilet, flushing all the food out?”
20 Jesus said this: “What makes the person vulgar, comes out of a person.
21 For within, out of the human heart, comes these works:
Twisted reasoning. Promiscuity. Fraud. Murder.
22 Adultery. Self-entitlement. Evil habits. Booby traps.
Lack of ethics. Stinginess. Slander. Conceit. Thoughtlessness.
23 All these evil things are within, come out, and make a person vulgar.”

The kids were never really his. All the Christian school attempted to do was provide a safe space for Christians to be Christian. All such places do for hypocrites is keep ’em in the pagan closet a bit longer. Secular schools don’t.

And neither does the military. Ever notice how this discussion about losing your faith in school, never touches on kids who “lose their faith” in the armed forces? Never comes up. (Probably because it doesn’t sound patriotic.) But it happens just as often. For precisely the same reasons.

Parents, do your job: Raise Christian kids.

Like I said earlier, there are people who both come to school, and eventually leave school, as solid Christians. School doesn’t shipwreck their faith. Might shake it a little, like seminary did to me. That’s fine; that needs to happen. But they bring Jesus to school with them, and he helps ’em persevere.

That’s because they either came to Jesus on their own, or their parents led them to Jesus properly.

When Christian parents’ lack of proper discipleship bears fruit, they wind up with non-religious or nontheist kids. And rather than accept responsibility for raising pagans, these parents will once again blow it, and blame the schools. Jesus must be wrong, ’cause what went into their kids’ bodies and minds, defiled them.


I’ve met well-discipled Christian kids at public universities, and poorly-discipled pagan kids in seminary. The difference always came down to discipleship. “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” Pr 22.6 NRSV Only has a chance of being true if you actually do put your child on the right path.

If you assume your kids are doing fine because they go to church with you, or figured their utter lack of the Spirit’s fruit is because that’s just what happens in adolescent years… you’ve put your child nowhere.

You might wind up with a Christian kid anyway. But not because of you; because the Holy Spirit got involved. Met a few of those kids in seminary too. Their parents would love to claim they laid the foundations, and many of ’em do. But no they didn’t. If the Spirit hadn’t intervened, they’d have a pagan on their hands, and nothing but heartbreak once their kid finally dropped the act.

So don’t worry about the school. Worry about your kid. It’s never too late to start training.