Monday, June 25, 2012

Who's afraid of the big bad... University experience?

There are two scare stories about Christians going to University.

I don’t think either is ever told with malicious motives. In fact they’re usually told to try and mobilise people, cos a little fear often does that! Scare stories slip off the tongue and into the general consciousness very easily... when the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...
  • The first is an old one and it goes like this: some research was done that shows that the vast majority drop out of the faith within five years of graduating. Various statistics accompany this. It’s widely accepted as true. It’s not. The research doesn't exist. A small study done at Cambridge suggests the vast majority press on strongly, as do my 15 years in the student world, though many can name a small number who fall.
  • The second story is new and goes like this: a shocking 73% of Christians arriving at University don’t make it to graduation as Christians. That's 73 out of the 100 in your (larger than average) youth group wont make it out the other side. This second claim is based on some research.
You can hear it cited in this 10 minute presentation by the incredibly articulate Miriam Swaffield of Fusion at the Youthwork conference recently. Her presentation is compelling, honest, insightful and rests on this statistic.

The research is also cited by Fusion worker Pippa Winterburn in the Baptist Times. Its use is really well meant I'm sure.
I don't know Miriam or Pippa personally (just Twitterifically) cos they live at the other end of the country. I've got absolutely no case to make against them.
I just have problems with the numbers, and then the implications...

I don’t deny that some don’t make the transition. I equally think many students miss the opportunities of University. But fifteen years at grass-roots level in the student world has convinced me that we’re not losing 73 of every 100 students who pack their belongings into their parents car and head off to University as Christians.

The impression given that University is basically fatal to Christian faith. Yet, nothing that goes into a person from the outside can defile them, says Jesus. 

There are challenges to Christians, doubtless. But none of them is fatal - the gospel is too big for that to be the case. 

Nothing can separate us from Christ, not drinking too much in freshers week, not being picked on in a lecture or even having to be a bit socially awkward by not following the crowd...  

The current of the University water may look strong but it's full of lonely and insecure 18 year olds, and the Christian is streets ahead. The Christian has Christ! And while everyone else is trying to define themselves and make friends, the Christian already has brothers and sisters at the University and many more in the city.

The research comes from Christianity and University Experience project The research was carried out on a sample of 4596 students, and a Christian student is classed as one who claims to be a Christian. 53%, nearly 2500 called themselves Christians. Which is a bit lower than the last census but still sufficiently high that you know this is largely cultural Christianity not actual Christianity, and certainly not evangelical Youthwork Conference, Fusion or UCCF Christianity.

72% of those Christian students claimed to attend church before University, which is just under 39% of all students. Quite what that attendance means – at Christmas? – isn’t immediately clear, but perhaps its true. Most of these apparently still attend church while at home, though again the frequency of that isn’t clear. And are there really nearly half a million student aged people back church in the student holidays? Not to mention the non-students in that age bracket?

Just under half of "Christian students" then don’t attend church at University, meaning just over half do.  Now, I simply don’t believe that over 26% of all students go to church at University, even including attending a CU carol service that’s higher than I think anyone is seeing anywhere in the UK. I really don’t think we’re seeing over 3000 students set foot in church at any one point of a year in cities with 12000 students, like the city I live and work in. Actually the Carol Service gets close to that, but no one is claiming that's a Christian crowd.

Then comes the disturbing bit. Just over 70% of Christian students , that is about 39% of all students aren’t involved in any weekly Christian activity (Church, CU etc). This claim seems a little inflated... Where is anyone seeing 60% of "Christian students", that is about a third of all students attending something weekly at church or CU... that'd be about 4000 students in my city.... really? Where are they?

As Gregory House M.D. taught me, everybody lies. Nonetheless, an interesting bit of data for this student evangelist: people might not want to show up at anything Christian, but they still want to tell Mummy and Daddy, or a Statistician, that they do. Something appeals...

Anyways, the scary  application given is: we’re seeing 73% of the kids in your youth group not make it to graduation as Christians. Now, it might be that we’re seeing 73% of those who claimed to be Christians before University not doing so afterwards, but that’s no where near the same thing.

The scare statistics are going to promote a bunker mentality that makes Christians and their youth workers and their parents petrified... unnecessarily. I say, come to University, make friends - make a few good Christian friends including some non-students in a local church, and then make friends with as many people who aren't Christians as you have capacity for. Live, learn, ask questions, think really really hard about your subject and your Christianity (this is University!)... be interested in people, love them beyond what seems reasonable... and introduce them to Jesus.

Where I am, on the ground, in the South West of England, we have about 750 Christian students in 10 Christian Unions (based on a conservative mid-year count) among 75000 undergraduate students... that's 750 regularly active-on-campus-and-in-church-people many of whom were probably in a Youthwork conferencer's youth group before Uni. That’s 1% Christian, not 53% Christian.

Actually the numbers are slightly higher because I think there’s more like 1200 Christian students in churches in the region, of which about 750 are in CUs. A massive 1.6% - I'd love to see them all actively engaged in the Christian Unions but people make their own choices.

But the statistics suggest two other things.
  • Either, if 73% fall, then based on the 1200 visible students in church, there are 4000 fallen Christians in the South West...
  • Or working from the other direction if 53% are Christian, then 38550 have gone missing… in which case we’ve actually lost 97%...
Neither of which is great, and neither of which seems very likely.  

Perhaps the research confusingly indicates: that nominal Christians give up on calling themselves Christians at University which is hardly surprising.

In a Hall based University like Exeter I think we do a pretty good job of connecting Christian students to a hall group and then into church. And the CU's two main priorities every October are to get Christians connected to church and to actively engage those who aren't Christians with Jesus. Some do fail to transition to church, but most make it.

There are Christians in hall’s actively connecting with everyone in the hall. Sure there are those who fall and I don't want to minimise the utter heart break of that. And falling from faith is certainly connected to not connecting to Christians, so any move in life is going to make things hard. And, please do use a student link up to connect to a CU (on the ground in your hall) or to a church in the city you’re going to.

What am I saying? Don’t go to University, or send your youth group members to University in fear. Send them to have the time of their life - to go deep with Jesus and introduce many to him. 

The drinking culture and the sexual freedoms don’t kill Christians and neither do atheist lecturers. 

The entire University experience is an open door for a Christian to thrive and bear fruit, as many do. It's daunting of course, but the opportunity is great, and Other Christians tend to be among the easiest people to find in a University by virtue of their Christ-motivated activism. Christians have the opportunity to set and shape the student culture, and the former University Football First Team Captain who now works on my team is a great example of that.

Most youth workers and student workers and pastors know how good it gets cos many of us laid our foundations at University, seeing friends won to Christ.

So that while some fall, perhaps more are won to Christ…  equipped to read a gospel with a friend, to introduce them to Jesus. Never taking a "holier than thou" keep your distance approach to the University, but getting stuck in. I don’t have the research for that, but I can think of person after person I’ve met who came to Christ at University, and a tiny number who I’ve known who’ve dropped out.

You can use UCCF Student Link-up to connect yourself or someone else starting University with the Christian Union at their University. Someone will get in touch. On arrival the CU will direct them to quickly find a local church and get involved in mission at University. About 10,000 Christian students are involved in these Christian Unions. 

In the age of social media no-one is ever alone at University. Other Christians can be found easier than ever, and if you step out of your room you'll probably find one sooner rather than later... if in doubt go to the coffee bar and look for someone reading a Bible. 

Find the CU on Twitter or Facebook, use the UCCF website which is designed to equip you. Search for information on churches before you arrive - visit no more than three and then pick one and make it your home.

And when you 'come out' as a Christian you might just be the one to introduce some of the vast majority who know nothing of Jesus to him... you might turn the world upside down. That's the opportunity at University, and beyond in the workplace, and the neighbourhood... in fact wherever you happen to set your feet, as far as the ends of the earth.