The transition from high school to college is a tricky one. If you believe the statistics, the majority of graduating seniors have a remarkable propensity for distancing themselves from the faith in which they were raised. I won’t burden you with numbers, but in over twenty years in campus ministry, I have never seen a study that shows otherwise. Even students who stay local and live at home often struggle spiritually in college. True, many of them will return after a few years, but many will not. No matter how you look at it, the college season is a spiritual wasteland for the many. For lots of reasons, the transition from high school to college isn’t easy, and far too often the bridges to cross that gap are missing.
What if it didn’t have to be that way?
Obviously, some students don’t fall away spiritually. They are the exceptions to the rule. They choose to embrace their faith. They seek out opportunities to worship and serve. They grow closer to God as they get further from home. It can be done! So why doesn’t it happen more often then? That’s a great question, but the answer is dark. Rather than focus on how parents and churches might be falling short, a better question to ask is how can we better the odds? What can parents do to better help their kids cross the gap between graduation and college? Although there are no magic formulas for success, there are definitely a few bridges they can build that will help.
BRIDGE 1: Pray.
Pray early, pray often, pray for and with your children to take hold of their faith and make it their own. Too often kids fail out spiritually because the faith they seem to have is merely borrowed from mom and dad. That might look good when they’re young and at home, but it fades quickly if it isn’t rooted. They’ll always be your kids, and they’ll always need your prayers."Pray early, pray often, pray for and with your children to take hold of their faith and make it their own." -Jon Smith #collegiatedisciplemaker 6 Bridges for Successful Spiritual Transitions from High School to College Click To Tweet
BRIDGE 2: Be authentic.
When it comes to matters of faith, let your kids see the struggle. Bring them into the conversation when it comes to your own successes and failures. Seeing how you work to integrate faith into your own life will help them as they work to find its place in theirs.
BRIDGE 3: Find a good local church.
One of the biggest excuses students give for not going to church is that they don’t know where to go. So, do your homework. Parents and students spend an amazing amount of time and effort to pick the right college. What would happen if you devoted a tenth of that effort to finding a spiritual connection at that school? Here’s a few subpoints just to make the job easier:
- Talk to your pastor or youth pastor and ask them to look into it with you.
- Connect with any friends you might have at the school or in that town and ask them.
- Call a local denominational leader. They should have the skinny on all the churches in your denomination nearby, or at least know who to ask.
- Visit the school website and look for religious clubs and organizations. These aren’t churches, but they can help bridge the gap with remarkable efficiency.
- Ask about religious clubs and organizations at orientation.
- Literally just pick a church and go; it isn’t rocket science. Don’t like the first one you visit? Okay. Pick another. Eventually you’ll find one that fits.
BRIDGE 4: Prioritize going to church.
There are a hundred and one other excuses for why students skip church. Almost none of them are valid. Work schedules can be changed. They’re not actually doing homework from ten until noon on Sunday. Nothing good happens after midnight. Let’s say that again for those in the back who are binge watching Gilmore Girls or playing Halo—nothing good happens after midnight! Tell them to go to bed so they can get up on time… and that about covers them all. Questions? I didn’t think so.
BRIDGE 5: Give them space.
Inasmuch as it is possible, let them do their own homework on finding a spiritual home on campus. They need to walk themselves through the door to church. They need to be the one to ask around about campus ministries. They need to make the connections on their own. If they invite you into the process, congratulations, you’re the parent of the year. However, you still need to show restraint. This is a lead-from-behind moment. In twenty years of ministry I can count on one hand the number of times I shook a parent’s hand and saw that kid join our ministry. I call it “the handshake of death,” because in a student’s mind it forever cements my association with mom and dad at the exact moment the student is trying to spread their wings and leave the nest.
BRIDGE 6: Hold them accountable.
You don’t have to be a jerk about it, but ask how their search is going. Have they found a church yet? Where did they go on Sunday? What’s the pastor like? Which of their friends go there? Then keep asking. If they say they didn’t go, then you can be a jerk about it.
There are probably a dozen other bridges you can build to help your high school grad cross over to the next phase of spiritual life, but from the on-campus perspective, these are the ones I see that I think help the most. Above all, just be intentional about it. You’ve done so much to care for your kiddo thus far in life, why ignore the single most important factor at their single most vulnerable time?