Youth leaders who haven't yet called their graduates-turned-college freshmen might want to pick up the phone soon, suggest ministry directors researching the Christian youth fallout.
Fuller's Center for Youth and Family Ministry (CYFM) conducted interviews with former student leaders currently in their sophomore year of college as part of their wider College Transition Project, a longitudinal study researching the critical period when high school seniors enter college. For the most part, faith didn't prevail.
A college freshman's biggest priority is to establish friendships and figure out where they fit in, according to CYFM directors Kara Powell and Brad Griffin and Fuller Theological Seminary faculty member Cheryl Crawford.
"Across the board, the freshmen we interviewed indicated that these first two weeks are absolutely critical for creating a social life. The primary – and most accepted – way to do this in college is to engage in the party scene," they stated, as reported in the November/December issue of The Journal of Student Ministries.
College life during the first few months can be "incredibly" lonely for students away from family and close friends for the first time, CYFM research affirmed. So many tack on to their roommates and floormates to find friends, typically at a party scene.
While their youth leaders may have told them what not to do when they get to college, many students have found themselves ill-equipped with healthier strategies for finding friends and other needs.
According to CYFM, Christians who enter the party scene place their faith on the back shelf by not committing to Christian campus groups because they feel hypocritical or by shelving their faith altogether throughout college to enjoy the party scene "guilt-free" for a while.
"Students recognize that faith is 'good for them' in some way as part of an adult lifestyle, but see it as something to put on hold in order to attend to the more immediate needs of their college lifestyle," according to the report.
Sociologist Tim Clydesdale labels the freshman phenomenon "identity lockbox." Quoting one freshman, Clydesdale stated, "I feel like God dropped me off at college and said, 'I'll be back to pick you up in four years.'"
"It is not that his religious identity was unimportant (quite the contrary), only that he did not see its relevancy to his college education and campus experience," Clydesdale said in his article, "Abandoned, Pursued, or Safely Stowed?: The Religious Life of First Year Undergraduates."
CYFM interviews also confirmed that alcohol consumption is a major part of the college scene. A majority of full-time college students drink, according to a recent Columbia University study.
Reasons students gave for drinking and participating in the party scene were that's where "everyone" is and students become aware of their new-found freedom away from their parents.
With all that partying and drinking, the young interviewees said they were on a downward spiral in their faith. Many said they missed the "feeling of God."
What might have helped in their transition to college was a phone call from their high school youth group and more practical training describing the college context and relevant issues they might face along with discussion on how to make transition easier, according to the two most consistent responses among the students who completed their freshman year.
Many also said they wish they had maintained contact with friends or youth group leaders post-graduation.
Encouraging youth leaders to make that phone call to their graduated youth, directors at CYFM caution not to give students a sermon on why they shouldn't be drinking or having sex.
"Their primary need is to be known and loved for who they are," they noted. "We can be a voice who assures them of their identity in Christ and of God's unchanging love, while also reminding them that their extended faith family can be a safe place to be real about the struggles they are facing."