Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sunday Sentiments: College Backslide

Sunday Sentiments is an attempt to record what God has been teaching me and the way in which He does it.

Yesterday I received a newsletter from my friend Kim, who is on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ.  She was discussing the start of another school year and noted that statistically 70% of students walk away from their faith in college.

I contributed to that percentage 12 years ago.  I didn't start my freshman year planning to drop out of the church but it didn't take long to happen.  I mentioned in my testimony that my faith journey took a few side roads and detours.  College was one of those detours.

While there was a Christian group on campus, I only went once or twice.  I'm not sure why I felt such a disconnect there; it may be I was already listening to the siren songs of what I thought would fulfill me.  I was lucky that not one, but two of my best friends went to college with me.  Erin fully embraced the campus ministry and got involved in a local church, as did Tracy.  You would think that it would be enough to keep me in the fold but it wasn't.  For the first time in my life, I was free of rules and expectations.  Life was a blank slate.  No one else at Augie knew who I was and I felt I could reinvent myself, or at the very least, allow the real me to shine through.  It wasn't that I did a complete 180. I slowly became apathetic towards God one degree at a time. 

During my 4 years at Augie, I gained a better sense of who I was and what I believed.  That was essential for me to figure out, no matter how difficult a process it sometimes was.  It was during college that I finally went to counseling and improved my self-esteem.  It was during college that I stopped hiding behind preconceived notions of who I was.  It was during my sociology classes and the 2000 election that I realized I was, lo and behold, a Democrat.  It was through new friendships that I realized I was a great listener and good at helping solve other people's problems.  I became a stronger, more whole, more authentic person.  It was during college that I formed lifelong bonds, ate fried pickles for the first time, made mistakes, got my first tattoo, and figured out I wanted to be a social worker.  In short, I found my voice.  I falsely believed that my faith had previously prevented me from finding that voice.

At that time, my voice didn't seem to match the voice of the church.  Or at least it didn't match the voice of the church I had been raised in.  This was before I discovered Jim Wallis, who helped me reconcile my political beliefs.  And this was before my friend Andy recommended I read Brian McLaren, who helped me reconcile my faith.  By my senior year of college, I realized that I could not divorce faith from my life but I was at a loss of what faith should look like given the person I had become.  Was it possible to be a Democrat and a Christian?  Was it possible to question certain interpretations of the Bible?  What if my faith never looked like the faith of my parents and those in their church?  Whenever I'm thinking or praying something through, I invariably turn to books.

I was on a road trip to New Orleans with two friends when I first cracked open A New Kind of Christian.  Megan and Liz were fast asleep, tired from our hours on the road.  Thanks to my sleeping difficulties and the fact that it was early in the evening, I decided to read for awhile.  McLarens's words were balm for my soul.  The book is written in a more fictional style: the story of Pastor Dan and his mentor Neo discuss all manners of faith and the key issues that believers face.  McLaren allows for Christians to think outside the box.

I had never considered that faith was not one size fits all. I simply knew that I didn't fit the mold anymore.  And when that happened, along with my apathy, it was easier to walk away than to wrestle through my concerns.  McLaren helped me engage with my faith once again. God was gracious in bringing people like Andy and so many others in to my life that were asking similar questions and good about challenging me to figure out what I believed as well.  About a year after I read A New Kind of Christian, I went back to church and my faith began to thrive.  It was on my terms, based on my relationship with Christ and not what the church had told me faith should look like.  This was the freedom I had sought in college and could not find.

I know some people have issue with the emerging church and don't like what McLaren has to offer.  I have family and friends all over the spectrum of faith, from fundamentalists to those who believe the story of Jonah is simply allegory.  Since I don't fit into cookie-cutter faith, I'm OK with different beliefs, backgrounds, and denominations. I feel it's important to keep asking questions and to keep coming back to God.  He is more than capable of handling whatever we bring to the table.

I don't know what the solution is for today's incoming college freshman.  I know, for me, questioning what I believed was an important step to bring me back to God.  I hope that that campus ministries can provide students a safe place to do this, no matter what they believe.  There is certainly much more conversation now than there was while I was in school.  At some point, every believer has to make their faith their own.  College is a great environment in which to do that.  I'm glad that Kim and my friend Ryan and so many others are there to walk alongside these students.

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