8 Reasons College Students Turn Away From Church

Participation in organized religion is declining in the United States and I do not see that trend reversing anytime in the near future. Working in higher education, I have seen the decline in the number of college students participating in worship services and other religious activities. So I asked both religious and non-religious students why this was happening and I was given many reasons but there were eight that formed a solid core:

1. Going to church wasn't something they did growing up so there was never an established routine nor a sense of importance.

2. Hypocrisy was a big one. Many expressed the feeling that church leaders and members of the congregation do not practice what they preach and often pass judgment on others. College students don't want to be judged. Who does?

3. Lack of trust. Scandals seem to be common with clergy engaging in illegal/immoral behavior and the way churches have responded has only compounded this feeling. These were people that were supposed to be someone you could trust and turn to in times of crisis and many took advantage of that by taking advantage of children or the person seeking help. Even when issues were made public the consequences were typically less severe than people expected and wanted.

4. Awareness of the contradictions within religions and with science. The more college students learn about other traditions the more they question which one is the true religion or if there is one. As we become more diverse as a society and are increasingly able to learn more via social media we become less inclined to believe that there is one religion that holds all the answers. College students engage in conversations about religion and often have friends or roommates from other faiths and they realize that all traditions have something to offer and many share a lot of similar perspectives.

5. Spirituality is becoming more the focus for students. With a lack of commitment to organized religion but still having a sense of something greater students are becoming more focused on spiritual practices that are often done in private or, at least, in smaller groups that often lack a central authority.

6. Churches refuse to adapt. In order to survive you must be willing to adapt to the changes in society. There are churches that have made some changes, albeit slowly, but slow change is often not acceptable in a culture where we expect immediate gratification. And growing up many of us have been taught to accept everyone so when a church doesn't treat everyone equally young people turn away. The practice of not permitting women to hold the same positions as men and the reluctance to welcome members of the LGBTQ community results in turning people away, especially in a time when marriages among same-sex couples has been recognized as legal and receives the support of the majority in most polls, and most other parts of society are working to end gender discrimination.

7. Guilt. Who wants to go to church and be told how you should feel guilt for the way you live your life? Not college students. They sit in lectures all week and don't want to be lectured, or scolded, about their personal life. Especially considering many view the church leaders and members as hypocrites. This is a time when people are seeking ways to reduce stress. If you want to attract people to church and keep them coming back you need to send positive messages that continue to offer the same teachings but do so in a positive way.

8. Interfaith marriages. While marriages between college students may not be common while still attending school relationships between college students of different faiths are quite common. To them, it's no big deal -- but to some churches it is and college students are often aware of this. Still, some traditions lose members when someone from their church wants to marry a person of a different faith. There are some major traditions that are unwilling to marry the couple or, at a minimum, make it clear that although they will permit the marriage they are not happy about it.

So, the bottom line goes back to the "Golden Rule" and treating others the way you would like to be treated. If you want to stop the decline of college students engaging in church you have to be willing to meet them where they are, otherwise, many will go somewhere else and it may not be another church.