Merriam-Webster defines faith as “something that is believed especially with strong conviction, especially : a system of religious beliefs.” Faith is a pillar of private Christian universities and its importance in students’ lives varies depending on their background. But, how do students in college actually seek to develop their faith?
Over the past decade, religious affiliation within the U.S. has become more diverse than ever. In 2021, the Pew Research Center reported that 30% of Americans identify as religious nones – people who do not affiliate with a particular religious tradition but are still religious or spiritual. Simultaneously, religious institution attendance has been on the decline since COVID-19 struck the world in 2020. A 2020 National Public Radio story stated churches within the U.S. have shrunk from an attendance of 137 to 65. One year prior, 4,500 churches closed while 3,000 opened. So, the question remains – how important is faith for students at private Church of Christ universities?
One way students at Abilene Christian University develop their faith is through daily chapel at 11 a.m. Students are required to attend 50 chapels per semester with an Office of Spiritual Life seeks to help students deepen their faith. It is the universities hope that students’ faith journeys are grown through the chapel experience but in order to find the Christian community many students attend small groups. The Office of Spiritual Life offers numerous small group chapels to encourage students to find community during their time at ACU. But, faith is not only developed through chapel, it is developed in church community.
Another aspect of students’ faith journey would be to consider the timeline of how long they are at the university. At ACU, only 49% of students graduate within four years with 61% graduating within six years. Brian Lester, senior music education major from Abilene, emphasized the importance of finding small group community while in college to further instill purpose, faith, and meaning into the lives of students.
“If ACU could push harder to push for mentorship with teachers, I think students would begin to feel much more plugged in on campus,” Lester said.
Nationally over the past decade, Christianity has declined by more than 15% over the past decade with 63% identifying as Christian. Yet, Abilene has 197 churches around Abilene, with many offering some sort of small group community. In the ACU landscape, the university is on the opposite side of the trend with continued record enrollment each year and striving to build a strong faith-based community at the Division I level.
Like many ACU and Christian university students, I grew up in the church. From the moment I was physically healthy and available to go to church, I was there every Sunday. Even if my family and I were out of town on a Sunday, we made it our goal to go to a church in whatever city we were in.
Now, there’s a new normal. COVID-19 created a space for churches to create live streams and focus more on meeting the needs of their congregations from their living rooms. Now, when my family is out of town, we just live stream our home church on Sundays due to the convenience of church. The meaning of church is different now than it was three years ago because of COVID-19. Churches began to create live stream environments so their members could still be a part of the church each week. Slowly, churches began to open back up but kept the live stream service to allow their online members to still partake in church each Sunday. Current students at ACU now have the option to either physically attend church or watch a church service on their own time.
Personally, I made it a priority when I enrolled at ACU to embed myself in a church community each week. Having grown up in Abilene, I purposefully chose not to attend the same church as my family anymore, but branch out and attend a new church to build my own faith separate from my parents. Since attending Highland Church of Christ in college, I have seen my faith grow in immense ways. I am incredibly grateful to have found the community many college students long to find in a church home. Building this community for myself has taken immense time and effort, but the benefits and security this community offers me have been worth it. My faith in college has transcended my high school faith because of the independent steps I have taken to grow my faith.
Currently, three in ten Americans identify themselves as religious “nones” – people who are either agnostic or believe in nothing at all. Americans are now finding purpose and meaning in other ways instead of faith. Four in ten U.S. adults consider church or religion to be a core aspect of their lives. In 2021, around 70% of Abilenians identified as Christian, according to data from City-Data.com, roughly 87,067 of the 125,070 in the city. Nationally in 2017, 63% of people identified as Christian in a Pew Research Center study.
Not every student at ACU identifies as Christian either and finds faith, meaning and purpose through different avenues which cannot be ignored. In 2013, the Optimist reported findings from a faculty and staff research which discovered that 86% of ACU students affiliated with a Christian denomination. The other 14% identified as other – religious nones, muslim, hindu, jewish or another religious belief.
New data of the religious makeup of ACU students were collected by Dr. Suzie Macaluso, director of the Pruett Gerontology Center, associate professor of sociology and gerontology and research consultant for the Siburt Institute of Church Ministry, shows that less than 20% of the student body identify themselves as Church of Christ – the denomination ACU is affiliated with. The largest number was non-denominational at 42.6% while six percent identified as religious nones. Because so many denominations are represented across campus, Macaluso condensed the data into evangelical, catholic, and other christian based on the sociological literature for the data.
My encouragement to students would be to find the meaning and purpose you desire. Entrench yourself in some sort of community where accountability is offered and you feel seen, heard and respected. Finding community is very challenging—no doubt about it—but once you find it, you will flourish. For students who are looking for community, give yourself grace and patience but plug in to different communities to find what you’re looking for.
Dr. Brad East, associate professor in ACU’s department of bible, missions and ministry, offered advice for college students to develop their faith in college in a recent Christianity Today article. I believe his most important recommendations are to eat well, get sleep and attend a church. Many professors and other faculty and staff are approachable people who want to help you. Let them help you find what you’re looking for.
Take the time you have in college to find out more of who you are and what brings purpose and strong conviction to your life. That should be the ultimate goal rather than a degree, job, internship or some other form of satisfaction.