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Who's afraid of the big bad... University experience?

There are two scare stories about Christians going to University.

I don’t think either is ever told with malicious motives. In fact they’re usually told to try and mobilise people, cos a little fear often does that! Scare stories slip off the tongue and into the general consciousness very easily... when the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...
  • The first is an old one and it goes like this: some research was done that shows that the vast majority drop out of the faith within five years of graduating. Various statistics accompany this. It’s widely accepted as true. It’s not. The research doesn't exist. A small study done at Cambridge suggests the vast majority press on strongly, as do my 15 years in the student world, though many can name a small number who fall.
  • The second story is new and goes like this: a shocking 73% of Christians arriving at University don’t make it to graduation as Christians. That's 73 out of the 100 in your (larger than average) youth group wont make it out the other side. This second claim is based on some research.
You can hear it cited in this 10 minute presentation by the incredibly articulate Miriam Swaffield of Fusion at the Youthwork conference recently. Her presentation is compelling, honest, insightful and rests on this statistic.

The research is also cited by Fusion worker Pippa Winterburn in the Baptist Times. Its use is really well meant I'm sure.
I don't know Miriam or Pippa personally (just Twitterifically) cos they live at the other end of the country. I've got absolutely no case to make against them.
I just have problems with the numbers, and then the implications...

I don’t deny that some don’t make the transition. I equally think many students miss the opportunities of University. But fifteen years at grass-roots level in the student world has convinced me that we’re not losing 73 of every 100 students who pack their belongings into their parents car and head off to University as Christians.

The impression given that University is basically fatal to Christian faith. Yet, nothing that goes into a person from the outside can defile them, says Jesus. 

There are challenges to Christians, doubtless. But none of them is fatal - the gospel is too big for that to be the case. 

Nothing can separate us from Christ, not drinking too much in freshers week, not being picked on in a lecture or even having to be a bit socially awkward by not following the crowd...  

The current of the University water may look strong but it's full of lonely and insecure 18 year olds, and the Christian is streets ahead. The Christian has Christ! And while everyone else is trying to define themselves and make friends, the Christian already has brothers and sisters at the University and many more in the city.

The research comes from Christianity and University Experience project The research was carried out on a sample of 4596 students, and a Christian student is classed as one who claims to be a Christian. 53%, nearly 2500 called themselves Christians. Which is a bit lower than the last census but still sufficiently high that you know this is largely cultural Christianity not actual Christianity, and certainly not evangelical Youthwork Conference, Fusion or UCCF Christianity.

72% of those Christian students claimed to attend church before University, which is just under 39% of all students. Quite what that attendance means – at Christmas? – isn’t immediately clear, but perhaps its true. Most of these apparently still attend church while at home, though again the frequency of that isn’t clear. And are there really nearly half a million student aged people back church in the student holidays? Not to mention the non-students in that age bracket?

Just under half of "Christian students" then don’t attend church at University, meaning just over half do.  Now, I simply don’t believe that over 26% of all students go to church at University, even including attending a CU carol service that’s higher than I think anyone is seeing anywhere in the UK. I really don’t think we’re seeing over 3000 students set foot in church at any one point of a year in cities with 12000 students, like the city I live and work in. Actually the Carol Service gets close to that, but no one is claiming that's a Christian crowd.

Then comes the disturbing bit. Just over 70% of Christian students , that is about 39% of all students aren’t involved in any weekly Christian activity (Church, CU etc). This claim seems a little inflated... Where is anyone seeing 60% of "Christian students", that is about a third of all students attending something weekly at church or CU... that'd be about 4000 students in my city.... really? Where are they?

As Gregory House M.D. taught me, everybody lies. Nonetheless, an interesting bit of data for this student evangelist: people might not want to show up at anything Christian, but they still want to tell Mummy and Daddy, or a Statistician, that they do. Something appeals...

Anyways, the scary  application given is: we’re seeing 73% of the kids in your youth group not make it to graduation as Christians. Now, it might be that we’re seeing 73% of those who claimed to be Christians before University not doing so afterwards, but that’s no where near the same thing.

The scare statistics are going to promote a bunker mentality that makes Christians and their youth workers and their parents petrified... unnecessarily. I say, come to University, make friends - make a few good Christian friends including some non-students in a local church, and then make friends with as many people who aren't Christians as you have capacity for. Live, learn, ask questions, think really really hard about your subject and your Christianity (this is University!)... be interested in people, love them beyond what seems reasonable... and introduce them to Jesus.

Where I am, on the ground, in the South West of England, we have about 750 Christian students in 10 Christian Unions (based on a conservative mid-year count) among 75000 undergraduate students... that's 750 regularly active-on-campus-and-in-church-people many of whom were probably in a Youthwork conferencer's youth group before Uni. That’s 1% Christian, not 53% Christian.

Actually the numbers are slightly higher because I think there’s more like 1200 Christian students in churches in the region, of which about 750 are in CUs. A massive 1.6% - I'd love to see them all actively engaged in the Christian Unions but people make their own choices.

But the statistics suggest two other things.
  • Either, if 73% fall, then based on the 1200 visible students in church, there are 4000 fallen Christians in the South West...
  • Or working from the other direction if 53% are Christian, then 38550 have gone missing… in which case we’ve actually lost 97%...
Neither of which is great, and neither of which seems very likely.  

Perhaps the research confusingly indicates: that nominal Christians give up on calling themselves Christians at University which is hardly surprising.

In a Hall based University like Exeter I think we do a pretty good job of connecting Christian students to a hall group and then into church. And the CU's two main priorities every October are to get Christians connected to church and to actively engage those who aren't Christians with Jesus. Some do fail to transition to church, but most make it.

There are Christians in hall’s actively connecting with everyone in the hall. Sure there are those who fall and I don't want to minimise the utter heart break of that. And falling from faith is certainly connected to not connecting to Christians, so any move in life is going to make things hard. And, please do use a student link up to connect to a CU (on the ground in your hall) or to a church in the city you’re going to.

What am I saying? Don’t go to University, or send your youth group members to University in fear. Send them to have the time of their life - to go deep with Jesus and introduce many to him. 

The drinking culture and the sexual freedoms don’t kill Christians and neither do atheist lecturers. 

The entire University experience is an open door for a Christian to thrive and bear fruit, as many do. It's daunting of course, but the opportunity is great, and Other Christians tend to be among the easiest people to find in a University by virtue of their Christ-motivated activism. Christians have the opportunity to set and shape the student culture, and the former University Football First Team Captain who now works on my team is a great example of that.

Most youth workers and student workers and pastors know how good it gets cos many of us laid our foundations at University, seeing friends won to Christ.

So that while some fall, perhaps more are won to Christ…  equipped to read a gospel with a friend, to introduce them to Jesus. Never taking a "holier than thou" keep your distance approach to the University, but getting stuck in. I don’t have the research for that, but I can think of person after person I’ve met who came to Christ at University, and a tiny number who I’ve known who’ve dropped out.

You can use UCCF Student Link-up to connect yourself or someone else starting University with the Christian Union at their University. Someone will get in touch. On arrival the CU will direct them to quickly find a local church and get involved in mission at University. About 10,000 Christian students are involved in these Christian Unions. 

In the age of social media no-one is ever alone at University. Other Christians can be found easier than ever, and if you step out of your room you'll probably find one sooner rather than later... if in doubt go to the coffee bar and look for someone reading a Bible. 

Find the CU on Twitter or Facebook, use the UCCF website which is designed to equip you. Search for information on churches before you arrive - visit no more than three and then pick one and make it your home.

And when you 'come out' as a Christian you might just be the one to introduce some of the vast majority who know nothing of Jesus to him... you might turn the world upside down. That's the opportunity at University, and beyond in the workplace, and the neighbourhood... in fact wherever you happen to set your feet, as far as the ends of the earth.


  1. Brilliant piece.

    Have you included Christians from Apostolic communions and other traditions who may be involved in various chaplaincies? Obviously some overlap. I have seen Christians of all traditions thrive at University.

    1. Hi Edward. I can't accurately speak for the other traditions and chaplaincies though my observation is that the numbers are relatively low and/or overlap strongly with those seen in churches. In any case, via the medium of statistics I suppose my point is - University is a place to thrive as a Christian.

  2. Dave,

    I fully agree with your conclusion, the fact is that University should not be a no go area for Christians, and they will thrive if they are allowed to do so. I am not convinced by Fusions fear tactics, although as you know I am a big fan of what Fusion does, as it may put off wary parents and youth workers. I would hate for Christians not to go to University, or if they do isolate themselves, to not join societies, not socialise, to live exclusively with Christians and avoid contact with anything that may taint them

    However, I also fell there are issues we need to address, and that is the fact that many Christians do drop away at Uni, and I know because I did, despite being part of the CU, and I know many friends who did. I also know many who survived University, but failed to survive the workplace. So although you are right to challenge the statistics, the fact is that there are less and less 20's-30's in our churches than any other age group, that trend starts with the move to University. So we need to start helping Youth Workers prepare for that process, which is what Miriam is trying to do in the video, and what Pippa has done by getting articles in the Baptist Times, and we need to get Student workers preparing students for the world of work.

    I agree with you that the stats are probably not as bad as 73%, but there is a significant drop off rate, and we cannot live in denial about that.


    1. Absolutely agree help is needed - my beef is with the stats not with Miriam or Pippa or anyone else. I think ths stats breed fear for parents, students, youth workers which aren't going to help - and don't reflect reality.

      We do need to resource youth workers to equip those going to University and the workplace to have a holistic Christianity that can handle the rigour and challenges of those contexts and embracing the opportunities. I praise God for what is already happening and the rising level of youth work in the UK. I hope more can be done. Where there are gaps they need addressing, and I'm up for that - as many others are, as I know you are! I hope we can use you in Plymouth particularly on the workplace challenge.

      We need equipping for youth workers.... we need The OCCA for Youth... we need bethinking for youth... Though there's already some very high calibre people working in church youth work that I can think of!

      Some clearly drop out, but most thrive.

  3. I thought about two things when i was reading this. The first is, why do we, as Christians love a negative statistic. We hear much more about those 'lost' at uni than those saved, much more about 'divorce rates are as high inside the church as out,' than we do about how Jesus is building His church. Why not use a nationwide platform to encourage the parent of a struggling teen that an evangelical witness thrives on many campuses, and meeting people his own age who are serious about their faith might be exactly what they need.

    Secondly, i think what House taught you is helpful. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is. Being a Christian means, 'i was christened,' or 'my parents go to church,' or 'my school had a chapel,' or 'i'm white and from the home counties.' (i'm not picking on anyone but me there.) It's no surprise that we never see 73% of those people in church, or at CU, those people aren't 'lost' at uni, they've never been found!

    I doubt youth work in the UK bares any resemblance to youth work in the Bible belt, but for me, the answer lies in what kids are being taught before they leave home, by their parents, and by their church. If a kid can grow up in a church and then have his faith washed away when he steps onto campus, it's probably not the fault of the university...

    1. Perhaps it is parents who need the investing in more than youth workers... As a Christian parent I'd have to take a fair whack of the responsibility if my kids only stuck with Jesus while they lived at home only to run wild as soon as they went to Uni.

      Raising kids takes parents, and the whole church. We all have to raise our game, but thanks be to God for the wonderful victories in the student world, the new believers like Ed Goode who flourish... the Anna Hopkins who come to Christ at University and are actively engaged in overseas mission four years after graduating etc.

    2. Exactly, who is telling those stories? Shouldn't that be the focus of those promoting student work to the freshers of 2014?

  4. Good article,

    I also think that plenty of the students entering university claiming to be christians aren't - for instance I had a friend. We went to church, we went on summer camps we went to youth group together for years. I never thought he was converted though. He went because we lived in a village, and it's what all young people were doing. He went to Uni - and surprise surprise stopped going - that wasn't because he lost any faith - it was because he didn't have any faith to start with it just looked to the outside world as if he did. Most of our youthgroup went to youthgroup because they had previously been to sunday school, their parents went to church so we went too. But where youthworkers talk about their sheep being lost when they go to Uni I think it's because they've played a numbers game not a hearts and soul game. They have full youthgroups but few confessing Christians.

    Workplace too - but we have to remember the parable of the sower, and realise that whilst we sow the word of God, not every plant that grows will be in good soil - AND WE SHOULD EXPECT THAT. Strategy may be good, but it's no replacement for the awe inspiring, life changing word of God - that is how we keep hold of people - and it starts at youth level - we must feed our flocks not just pump them up.

    Love this bit you wrote "Nothing can separate us from Christ, not drinking too much in freshers week, not being picked on in a lecturer or even having to be a bit socially awkward by not following the crowd... the current looks strong but it's full of lonely and insecure 18 year olds, and the Christian is streets ahead - they have Christ... and while everyone else is trying to define themselves and make friends, the Christian already has brothers and sisters at the University and many more in the city." - that was me - I went to UNI determined to run away from God, to have a good time and party. I slightly managed, but God in his goodness surrounded me with faithful Christians. I was in his grip and he wasn't letting go - nothing I could do would change that - I was saved and couldn't unsave myself. I'd go to a lecture, see someone I vaguely recognised sitting alone and so sit with him rather than my mates, turned out he was a Christian having a Bible study that evening. I was invited - didn't want to say no to the bloke with no friends and ended up there. Then every week he asked me if he'd see me that evening. I couldn't get away.

    Then when I moved away from my Uni town and moved to Bromley, first through laziness, then willfully I didn't go to church, I decided now was the time to get on with my own life. Then my landlady in digs decided that having someone else in her house wasn't what she thought it was and I had to move out quickly. I found a shared house, it was opposite a church, one Sunday, not knowing anyone outside work I popped in for a Sunday evening. The two curates (who shared nothing in common particularly apart from the name Rupert) were my old camp dorm leader and someone who had been a theological college when I was at uni and had helped out the CU when I was on the leadership team. The next week I discovered I was on the south coast on a church week-end away meeting lots of people and making Christian friends. We cannot unsave ourselves.

    It seems to me that those who do fall away are probably not saved in the first place - so to say they have dropped away is incorrect. Those people, however painful it may be, were not saved. Of if they were, still are and will return. So our job with them is the same as with any other non Christian - to present Christ crucified to them and allow God's word to do his work and his holy spirit to change them.

  5. Ed, whilst I agree that it is possible that many might consider themselves to be nominal Christian, that gradual decreasing of Christendom would mean that less and less people would consider themselves to be Christian based on the criteria you mentioned, and I would certainly doubt that an 18 year old would use those as basis for religious affiliation.

    Tim, again you do make some good points, but my experience was that many of my peers, all of whom had had a "conversion" experience and were engaged with church fell away either at University or in the three years after. Now I would fully agree with Scott McKnight in his recent book "the King Jesus Gospel" that perhaps we have fallen into a trap of making converts (saving people) and not disciples. However, to assume that they were "not saved" in the first place is highly judgemental.

    I would also agreed that the Parable of the Sower does indicate that we will lose people, but although we should expect that, I am not sure that Jesus was teaching us to accept that! The warning there is that we need to be better in our discipling of people, rather than just converting them and hoping! As a Marketeer in a former life, I know that the first job is to retain current customers, before going after new ones (something most car insurance companies have forgotten), so we must look after the young shoots, as much as we plant new seeds!

    1. Mike I think the decline of nominalism is reflected in the 53% calling themselves Christians, 20 points lower than the last census... (I hear rumours that the 2011 census will maintain that 70%+ number). University might be helping people break from that commitment to tick-box Christianity... which is probably a good thing. That said, the fact that students still want to say they're Christian and even give inflated claims to church attendance tells us something about them. I don't want to pass a judgement on whether or not people are Christians - if a "nominal" Christian already thinks they are then let me spur them on to Jesus! Perhaps we need to preach more to that assumption?

      I want to see us retain people and win more and more and more. The challenge is that we're not starting from a position of "Christians are the majority" among school age, we're an extreme minority at all ages.

  6. Maybe, but i met them, and i'm only five years out of being on campus every day...

  7. I don't think that the statistics being used by Fusion tell of people now operating out of fear. Miriam's beat ends with a pledge of her hope for the students. Her belief in students to rise above those statistics. Her conclusion is not 'panic', but 'go get em!'. To be realistic about statistics (ones which are hard to quantify, and even if not 73% then at least the majority I reckon) and then realistic about God's power and His people's power creates a partnership that can see real change. Naming the fear, rebuking it and replacing it with hope that there can be a better way is a huge method of beginning to sort this out I think...

    1. Hi Kate!

      Fear needs getting rid of, absolutely. But as I said - I don't think the evidence on the ground says we're losing anywhere near most of the kids from youth group - which is Miriam's explicit claim.

      People don't have to rise above the statistics because I don't think they're underneath them...

      Most (yes, not all!) who come to Uni are flourishing and many are bearing fruit in seeing friends converted to Christ. The pessimistic picture just doesn't reflect reality. There are over 10,000 students in CUs in the UK - probably 1200-15000 in churches... we're simply not losing 30,000-45,000 kids from youth group in the transition to University... (which is what the stats and their applications are suggesting).

      Miriam is great. Outstanding communicator and I'm sure she's doing great work too. I just disagree with her observation of the state of play, which is ok!

      "Partnership that can see real change" is great - and *already happening* - eight or more churches partnering together for Bristol University (called the CU), more at UWE, the same picture in Bath, in Exeter, a few less in Plymouth and Falmouth (where the scale is smaller). There is momentum, there is new life, there is hope in abundance. And there are faithful and faith-filled people doing the stuff.

  8. Don't fear university. Fear God.

    That seems like something Jesus would say.

    Happy anniversary Dave.


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