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June 2008 – I will never forget the day. I stood in the middle of a parking lot isolated by a vast world of uncertainty. Through a blur of tears, I watched as the last 18 years of security, comfort and guidance drove out of my life and into its own familiarity – without me.
My parents were gone now. I was on my own with countless opportunities at my fingertips. There I stood … ready to conquer the world as a college freshman, but paralyzed by fear of the unknown. Little did I know what was in store during the next four years.
My freshman fears are echoed in the words of Jeff Schadt, founder and executive director of the Youth Transition Network (YTN): “They have left me completely alone without a shepherd in a hostile environment.”
That’s what many seniors feel like as they try to transition from high school to college.
“This is the first transition where all … is stripped away, and they need to be loved and accepted and fit in,” Schadt explained.
In their quest for love, they get sucked down roads that lead them to being beaten, bruised and hurt.
Why? Because they are searching for something they always thought they had – truth. Sadly, what many church-going teens take from their youth group experience is nothing more than a misunderstood Gospel, which explains why they fall away from their “faith” during college.
According to a 2007 study from LifeWay Research, 70% of the people 23 to 30 years old are nowhere to be found in church on a regular basis for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22. (See AFA Journal, 5/08.)
In their formative years their hearts were not transformed by the Gospel because church was meaningless entertainment for the masses.
“It’s a confluence of things that have just gone bad – very bad – for the Body of Christ,” Schadt added.
“Right now, we have about 800,000 kids a year go astray from the church,” Schadt explained.
He said some parents excuse the seriousness of their children’s church departure by rationalizing, “Well, aren’t the kids going to go wild no matter what we do? Once they go wild, then they’ll come back to the Lord, and they’ll be stronger for it.”
But Schadt said he doesn’t see that in Scripture. He put it this way: “When I look at Timothy, I don’t see Paul saying, ‘Timothy, you’re 19. You don’t know enough to be a pastor. Go take a walk on the wild side so you can learn and then come back and then you’ll be a better pastor because of it.’
“What parents … and churches need to stop and realize is it’s [during] this four-year period where these kids are going to select their lifestyles and careers, and a lot of them are going to select their spouses.”
Doing so apart from the Lord has lifetime consequences.
While about two-thirds of the runaways do return to church at some level in their 30s, many come back with non-Christian spouses.
“I’m wondering if this issue isn’t why we have such a high divorce rate in the church,” he added.
Therefore, Schadt said it’s so important to pay attention to the spiritual transition of the student, in addition to the physical transition. Students will make some of life’s most vital decisions during their college years, so parents need to have prepared them, early on, to make wise choices. Effective and healthy lifestyle choices must be made from the internal motivation to be right before the Lord, rather than the external motivation to please parents.
While recognizing the importance for parents and churches to ground their young people in real Gospel teaching, organizations such as the YTN are working to decrease the dramatic loss from the church by guiding parents, youth pastors, college ministers and students during this transitional period.
YTN is a coalition of some of the nation’s largest denominations and ministries that are working together to emphasize the importance of collegiate ministry and how parents and churches can help their students get involved even before arriving on campus.
“The people who are in the trenches, who work with high school and college students know how big an issue this transition period is,” Schadt explained.
That’s why campus ministries, like the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) of Georgia Tech (GT), are using a variety of ways to reach students early in their college careers by paying special attention to the transitional problem.
“We want to provide a point of security, yet not be an extended youth ministry, and to provide opportunities to be stretched,” said Mike Whelan, senior campus minister of BCM at GT.
“The purpose of the BCM is ‘to reach university and college students for Jesus Christ in obedience to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission,’” said Cyndi Forman, campus minister of BCM at GT and Emory University.
“As students come to college, they are looking for ways to connect to anyone who has something in common with them,” she explained. “Campus ministries are a welcoming face to the campus, giving new students opportunities to make friends, build initial relationships and get accustomed to the place they now call home.”
BCM attempts to smooth the transition to college by offering activities that are fun, community building and informative.
But it’s more than just a social affair.
Whelan said he doesn’t assume that just because a student participates in BCM that he is a believer.
“We strive to provide an atmosphere where it is safe for them to express doubts and ask questions,” Whelan said.
One significant factor is the opportunity for spiritual growth offered through BCM. This is the ministry’s way of addressing the authenticity of a student’s faith.
“As students get plugged in with BCM, we connect them immediately with a small group of other students and upperclassmen leaders,” Forman said. “Those small groups immediately begin a discipleship journey through studying the foundations of the Christian faith.”
Through these groups, the campus ministers and BCM leaders are able to get to know the students personally and gain a sense of where they are in their relationship with God.
“For some, we find that they are still extremely young Christians, having never been discipled and challenged,” she explained. “And, yes, there are some we find, that may know a lot about God and His story of redemption but have never truly connected their own lives with that big story. Through discernment and prodding of the Holy Spirit, we work together … to make sure they have a personal relationship with God that is genuine, meaningful, fruitful and growing.”
The key for students plugging into ministries like BCM is to connect prior to college because the first few days on campus are crucial. Schadt explained how students are going to strive unintentionally to get their needs of love and acceptance met within the first three days of arriving on campus. College ministries have 72 hours to connect with a student. If they don’t, it’s very unlikely that they will ever connect due to the student’s involvement in something else.
“That’s why preparation is so important,” he said, which is where YTN comes into play.
Preparing and connecting
YTN functions to foster a healthy transition from high school to college by providing resources with a two-fold purpose to prepare and connect.
Resources to be used by parents and youth pastors to prepare students for college can be found at www.youthtransitionnetwork.org. A Be Prepared kit and video are available. The kit walks leaders through an hour-and-a-half digital presentation.
“It gets the student thinking through the stress points they’re going to have in the transition, talking about culture shock and looking into the life of Joseph, …” Schadt explained. It includes a leader’s guide and a PowerPoint presentation with embedded video clips that are intended to prompt discussion.
One church, which had never offered any type of prior preparation, used the Be Prepared kit. “They tracked the seniors that came to the session, … [and] 100% got connected to a [college] ministry that next semester,” Schadt said.
In addition to the kit, a preparation video is available online at www.liveabove.com and on DVD. It’s 13 minutes of commentary from college students talking about their transition.
“It is not an uplifting, motivating video from the standpoint of ‘rah, rah, rah – get involved with a college ministry; it’s the best thing on the face of this planet,’” he explained. “Instead it’s students talking about all the stresses, all the changes … the mistakes they made as a result of the loneliness and the importance of connecting to a college ministry.”
Schadt encourages parents and youth pastors to direct students to the resources and host the preparation session, but allow the students to connect on their own.
The point of connection comes through LiveAbove.com where there are 4,700 ministries on 3,000 campuses waiting to connect proactively with high school seniors around the country. (The ministries listed on this site go through an application and approval process to insure their credibility.)
All it takes is the student clicking a “send me information” button, and the connection has been made and the transition has begun. Ministries then follow up with the interested students.
While connecting with a campus ministry is not an end-all solution, it is a helpful way to reduce the dramatic loss of youth from the church and provide them with a haven for spiritual growth.
“You can’t send students off alone and expect them to do well. It’s not happening,” Schadt admitted “We’ve got to wake up and realize that we need each other. We need these college ministries, and we need to pass our kids off to them. We need to bless those college ministries with credibility in the lives of our students.”
Large ministries and organizations that want to get involved should contact YTN through its Web site. Independent college ministries can apply for participation online at LiveAbove.com.