Many students entering college struggle to maintain their Christian faith, according to a Barna Group study.
In fact, the study said 40 to 50 percent of Christian youth group graduates fail to stick with their faith or remain connected to their religious community after graduating high school. Approximately 40 percent have a hard time finding a church home.
While many churches work to build fellowship among students, another recent study funded by the Lilly Endowment, indicated that what might actually be helpful in contributing to young adults’ long-term faith is connecting them with other generations.
“Conventional wisdom is that you increase young adults’ faith by connecting them to one another in youth groups or mission trips,” said Dr. John Weaver, Dean of Library Services and Educational Technology. “But, studies show that it is also important to connect them with other generations, even generations of the past, to provide models and wisdom for how young adults should relate to God and relate to God’s mission in the world.”
Weaver said there is an important link between students’ understanding of about their Christian heritage and strengthening their spiritual identity and faith.
“Students often come to college pulling away from their faith partly because they don’t know what’s behind their faith and the history of it,” Weaver said. “But when you look into that history, you find stories of women and men who had deep and active trust in God, and seeing those stories provides not only information, but inspiration to our own lives as Christians.”
To address this need, Brown Library and the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning, are collaborating with ACU faculty to develop the Center for Heritage And Renewal In Spirituality, or CHARIS, which is the Greek word for “grace,” or “gift”.
“CHARIS is helping ACU have a healthy understanding of its religious past to realize the best possibilities for a future lived in God’s will,” Weaver said. “It’s a broader vision to help ACU live a 21st Century vision of its 19th Century roots.”
Because ACU’s inception is strongly connected to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, in the past ACU has used the Center for Restoration Studies (CRS) to help connect students and faculty to ACU’s heritage. Weaver said CHARIS is a continuation and re-imagination of the CRS that will continue to be developed over the next year as part of ACU’s strategic planning process.
The Stone-Campbell Movement was named after two movements that came together in the 1830s to form the larger Restoration Movement, said Doug Foster, distinguished CHARIS professor. The purpose of the movement was to create unity among Christians based on the Bible.
One of the slogans of the movement, ‘We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent,’ had two dominant interpretations that later caused division among the Stone-Campbell followers. Foster said a government census ultimately recorded the division of the larger movement into the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ in 1906, the same year that ACU was founded.
“The folks that established ACU were part of the more restrictive view of scripture that would be called Churches of Christ,” Foster said. “Historically that’s who we’ve been and that’s how we’ve been shaped. So, to tell the stories, the good and the bad, helps us to see why we do things.”
In a book that Foster co-wrote with Gary Holloway, Renewing God’s People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ, he said seeing how the church responded to the broader culture in the past can help Christians see how they might best respond today.
“The Churches of Christ, like any other Christian body, develop and change because we’re in a different time period and the issues of the 19th century aren’t necessarily our issues today,” Foster said. “It’s important to know our history, not so we can duplicate or be bound by the way we’ve always done things, but so we can understand why it was the way it was and determine if it needs to continue.”
CHARIS’s focus will be on more than just the history of Churches of Christ, since less than 50 percent of students are members of the Churches of Christ. CHARIS will address Christian heritage in a broader view to enable students to connect with their own personal religious identity.
“We can’t understand our religious history unless we put it under the context of the larger Christian history,” Foster said. “So we’re not going to go back and only look at Churches of Christ. We can’t understand our history in isolation but it has to be done in conversation with all Christians.”
The CHARIS steering committee is seeking faculty, staff and student ideas for how best to do this. It is currently organizing lectures and campus conversations with scholars and church leaders, making more historical resources available, funding research and developing spaces to learn and discuss heritage and spirituality, among other things that will support student learning and faculty development.
“Going forward, we need to connect the spirituality of our faculty and students to stories of Christian faith that can renew our commitment to Jesus Christ, both as individuals and as a university,” Weaver said. “So it’s about sharing stories, stories of the past and present that inspire more active faith in the future.”