By Gordon Govier

Growing Interest in Spirituality Opens Doors for Campus Ministry

Students at American colleges and universities are interested in spirituality. When polled on the question of whether students are becoming more interested in spiritual issues, more than twice as many InterVarsity staff respondents (41%) chose yes, over the choice of less interest (18%). And 23% said there was no change. While the perception is not overwhelming, and the survey done by InterVarsity represents a small percentage of field staff, the results correspond with other data indicating that a clear spiritual hunger exists among college students.

A 2004 survey of college freshman by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California-Los Angeles found 80% have an interest in spirituality. Statistics from InterVarsity field reports for the 2006-2007 school year show more student conversions than any year in the last several decades.

Additional comments by survey respondents indicate that campus ministry is as challenging as it ever was, no matter what the spiritual climate:

  • “Interest in faith issues is largely out of the desire to become more tolerant of people from faith backgrounds, rather than out of a personal desire to explore the possibility of joining a faith community.”
  • “Actually, they seem to be more interested in Jesus but not in Christianity or church.”
  • “I sense less overt antagonism; their interest comes from genuine spiritual openness and interest.”
  • “Students are looking for opportunities to ask questions about faith.”
  • “In some ways the spiritual climate is becoming more antagonistic towards evangelical Christians. Although spirituality in general is viewed positively, it’s almost considered hateful and bigoted to believe that Jesus is the only way to God.”

InterVarsity president Alec Hill commented, “My sense is that students are more spiritual but more vague about what that means. It’s a cafeteria approach to spiritual issues. We have to be careful about taking this openness to spirituality as a totally good thing. It’s an open door to raising issues of deeper importance.”

The InterVarsity survey also asked staff to assess the factors shaping the spiritual climate on campus. Not surprising, most mentioned the culture’s obsession with entertainment media. But more than half also chose to credit InterVarsity and other campus ministries for the work they do, which seemed to indicate a positive attitude toward the results of their own work on campus.

One respondent saw “increased involvement of followers of Christ among the faculty” as another factor in the improved climate for spirituality on campus. The same person raised concerns about a “lack of preparation for college by youth ministries and parents.”

In answer to another question posed to InterVarsity staff about what best prepares Christian young people for the challenges of campus life, 75% of respondents said that successful students typically had parents who obviously invested time in their sons and daughters. Only 51% of the respondents credited attendance at a church with a good youth program. “A solid church background and youth program are factors, but I also think that the most well-prepared students have at some point consciously decided to personally own their faith in Christ, apart from their parents,” one staff person commented.

Factors that draw churched kids away from the faith during college were also posed in the InterVarsity survey. More than half of the respondents noted “students are poorly prepared by parents and church youth ministries to face the realities of college life.” Only 34% blamed professors who present information in class that conflicts with students’ values. One respondent also mentioned “a lack of conversations and friendship with Christian adults other than their parents or teachers prior to college.” An equal number of respondents (40%) blamed busy schedules and licentious lifestyles for luring college students away from their faith.

An openness to spirituality does not necessarily correspond with an openness to Christian faith. As one staff member wrote, “There are a lot of students I’ve met who are so jaded by who they think Jesus is that they won’t even engage in conversation about Him.” But because InterVarsity is on campus, the conversations are taking place. And from these conversations students often realize that Jesus provides the focus that vague spirituality lacks.

Alec Hill is interviewed about this story

Charisma magazine, Sept. 2007 cover story: God on Campus

Religious Engagement of American Undergraduates, report by the Social Science Research Council

Advice for students from
Making the most out of college
Help I’m a freshman