I spent the last week with a group of college kids, doing a service project in the inner city of Chicago. It was a great time. I didn’t know any of the kids before the trip, so this was truly a learning experience for me. And one thing I learned is that we are absolutely telling college kids the wrong things.
By “wrong”, I mean “inconsistent”. We want them to believe certain things and behave in certain ways, but we also expect certain other beliefs and behaviors which militate against the former. It happens in four areas.
Go West, Young Man
We tell our college kids that it’s time to grow up, to become independent. They must learn to think and act for themselves, to be responsible. They will succeed or fail on their own in college, because mom and dad aren’t there to make sure the homework gets done.
We also tell them to lean on God, to behave like a child toward him. They are to look to him for guidance and support, for direction and strength. They are not to lean on their own understanding. They are not to choose their own way.
Which one do they choose? Sure, the conflict is there for us “grown ups” as well, but the college years are a time when independence is pounded into these folks. I submit that these messages contradict each other, and the data backs me up. More on that later.
Grades Are Job 1
Who can deny that a college student’s primary responsibility is getting good grades? Does anyone tell his college-bound child, “Just do enough to get by”, or “70% is what I’m looking for, son” ? Of course not. We parents have an expectation that our children will be doing their absolute best. College is expensive, and time there is not to be wasted or misused.
At the same time, we expect spiritual growth from our children. However, the pressure of doing well in school takes its toll. Talking with some of the young adults on this trip, it seems that the spiritual equivalent of treading water is about all that many of them hope to achieve during their college years. And I don’t blame them: we demand so much of them each semester that for these kids to focus on developing their spiritual life seems virtually unattainable.
For example, which parent swould accept this statement from their college student: “I spent so much time in Bible study [or whatever] that I didn’t have time to do my best on the term paper, and I only got a C.” Sounds like a flimsy excuse, doesn’t it? Is there any activity or focus which we would accept as an excuse for a result below what our students are capable of? I’ll ask it again: is there any voluntary excuse for our students not doing their absolute best?
Sure, sure, we have similar pressures as adults. Work life often conflicts with spiritual life. I know that some (most? all?) companies will be happy if we devoted every waking hour to working for them. However, it’s a rare job that consumes us as much as attending college does. The pressure from parents, peers, and self to do well is high. Students are told that their careers, their future success, hinges on the results they deliver in college (untrue, but we tell them that). Do we dare tell them that success, in and out of the workplace, depends on things utterly unrelated to their GPA? Andy Stanley says, “You become successful the day you embrace the vision God has for your life.” What parents are risking telling their college kids that?
Show Me the Money
How many of us tell our college students to spend quantity time devoted to spiritual things over the summer? None of the kids I talked to got that message. They are working, working, working. (Ok, one of the guys doesn’t have a job this summer, as his athletic scholarship and other grants cover his schooling. But he’s by far the exception.)
The other kids, however, have the opposite story. They are working hard over the summer, earning money for school, necessary transportation, or other living expenses. And the jobs they have aren’t even contributing to their careers or teaching them life skills: one young man will be delivering pizzas, and a young woman will be waitressing.
This isn’t a knock on these students; not at all. It’s rather an indictment of us as parents that we tell our kids that it’s more important that they make a couple thousand bucks doing jobs which provide no training or long-term benefit, and we don’t make sure these same kids are serving their communities, encouraging their friends, or learning more about God. The mission trip we were on to start the summer is the only plan these kids had in the way of spiritual activity — one week, then off to work.
What parent will welcome this from their students: “I don’t see how I can have a summer job. I lead a Bible study for the middle schoolers twice a week, I meet with my accountability group every Friday, and with regular visits to the old folks home and tutoring inner city kids, there just isn’t time for a job. Besides, what company will have me when I’ll be gone on mission trips for three weeks?”
(As another example, I know a young man who wants to be a youth pastor. He just graduated from high school, and his parents nixed his plans to work for an inner city ministry over the summer. It wouldn’t make as much money as working the night shift on the loading dock of a big-box store in town. It makes me so mad, I could just….)
Debt: The American Way
My good friend Matt Schoenfeld of Heartland Financial Concepts tells me that the average credit card debt incurred by a college freshman is $1500, and it’s up to $3000 by the time he or she graduates. Bear in mind that this is credit card debt only; it doesn’t include school, car, or other debt. The total debt is around $20,000. This is an average, so there are many, many who have much more than that.
What are we telling our students, when we encourage them to start off their independent lives by shackling themselves to such a financial burden? Will they be free to serve God, to go where he leads them? How many can afford to become missionaries, to serve in poverty-stricken areas, to accept low-paying jobs where the need is greatest? I suspect that the majority will be worrying about how to pay off their loans, not about how to follow the call of God.
Yes, we adults are victims of the debt monster, too. It’s not right for us, either. I submit that there are two main causes for a Christian who wants to serve God to be unable to do so: one cause is shame, and the other is debt. To reference my buddy Matt again, who counsels many people with financial problems, he hears this statement over and over: “We really want to serve God. We’d love to be missionaries. However, we have this huge debt that we can’t get out from under.” It’s unfortunate that we’re starting our kids off with this strike against them.
And you’re out
So these are the four strikes I observed while spending a week with these wonderful kids. They had such a heart to serve the church we were sent to help, and to a man (and woman) they wanted to find a way to help more. But they had jobs to get to, and life had to go on. And this brings me to the data I mentioned earlier. Reports show that 75% of teens no longer share their parents’ religious views and/or stop attending church within two years of graduating from high school. With the pressures put on them during college to become independent, do well in school, make money, and incur debt, I’m surprised that 25% are still hanging on.