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My Take: Don’t blame college for young people leaving Christianity
The author says the politicization of Christianity is responsible for young people leaving church.
February 28th, 2012
12:39 PM ET

My Take: Don’t blame college for young people leaving Christianity

Editor's note: Tim King, the communications director at Sojourners, blogs at sojo.net. Follow him at @tmking.

By Tim King, Special to CNN

(CNN) – Christianity in America is in danger. As former Senator Rick Santorum recently pointed out, young people are leaving the church in droves.

In the mid-1980s, evangelical 20-somethings outnumbered those with no religious affiliation – the so-called “nones” – by a ratio of more than 2 to 1. By 2008, those proportions were almost flipped, with young “nones” outnumbering evangelicals by more than 1.5 to 1.

An entire generation, my generation, is leaving the church. What’s the cause? Santorum blames higher education, telling Glenn Beck last week that "62% of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it."

The “war on religion” has become a frequent bogeyman among Christian and political leaders. But the reason church leaders have failed to stem the tide of a generation heading for the exit door is that they keep looking for an outside enemy to blame when the biggest problems are inside the church.

The years young adults spend in college aren’t causing them to leave their faith; those college years are exposing the problems with the faith they grew up with.

The exodus has little to do with liberal college professors, which insurance plans should cover contraception, where mosques are being built, or whether or not the Ten Commandments are hanging in courtrooms, even if many religious leaders act as if these are the greatest Christian “battles” of our lifetime.

In doing so, they are actively pushing young people away from religion.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think young people are leaving the church in record numbers just because some Christians are Republicans. There are a lot of wonderful Christians who happen to be conservative and who are great witnesses for the faith. Many of them are in my family.

Rather, the exodus is about hypocrisy.

Last year, we saw Christian leaders raising the alarm about the encroachment of “radical Islamists.” They call for the restriction of Muslims religious liberties to practice their faith and build houses of worship. But this year, when it comes to contraception, the rallying cry is religious freedom.

Last week, Franklin Graham was asked whether or not he believed President Obama was a Christian. He gave a fair answer when he said it wasn’t his place to judge.

But when asked the same question about the faith of Santorum and Newt Gingrich, Graham’s standards changed. He answered that yes, he did think those men were Christian because of “political interests” and “spiritual interests.” Graham later backtracked, but the message was already out.

What did a lot of young people hear? To be a Christian you need to look like, talk like and vote like Franklin Graham… Oh, and something about sinners and grace.

Such political spectacles are driving a generation away from faith. It almost did for me, an evangelical Christian in my 20s who attends church on an almost weekly basis.

Most of my life I went to private Christian schools or was homeschooled. I had some wonderful examples of faith that inspired me. But as soon as I heard Christians on the radio or saw them on TV, I was ashamed to call myself a Christian.

The Jesus I read about in Scriptures taught love, acceptance, peace and concern for the poor, but the Christian leaders on TV and radio always seemed to be pro-rich, pro-white, pro-America and anti-gay.

By college I was getting ready to leave it all behind.

Thankfully, I had found meaning in work with the homeless and tutoring refugees. I heard Jim Wallis, for whom I now work, speak about God’s heart for the poor and oppressed. I sat in Scot McKnight’s North Park University classes in Chicago and learned about a Jesus who didn’t think like me, talk like me or live like me but who presented a radical challenge to be a disciple of this one they call Christ.

By 2004, I realized that the highest Christian calling in my life might not be to vote Republican. I still casted my ballot, but what was most significant to me that November was inviting 15 homeless men and women into my campus apartment to celebrate Thanksgiving with some other students and spend the night indoors.

I like politics. I think it’s important. Public policy matters because it affects people’s lives every day in ways we often don’t realize. But my primary concern for it comes because it affects the people Jesus called me to love and that the Bible tells me to be a voice for. This is why the use and abuse of religion during this election season is so troubling.

When Franklin Graham sets up double standards of faith for Republicans and Democrats, when Pat Robertson intones about a coming “secular atheist dictatorship,” when the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins goes off about the dangers of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and other “anti-family, anti-religious, anti-Christian policies,” when the great test for the next President of our country is who has “real” theology and who has “phony” theology, it might make for good sound bites.

But it’s bad faith.

Blaming colleges, like Santorum did, is a lot easier than reforming the church. Finding an enemy outside of your religious faith might keep some young people in line for a little while and is probably great for fundraising. Heck, it might even mobilize an important voting bloc and win a few elections.

But it’s hastening the decline of Christianity for an entire generation.

I have a simple request for our nation’s religious leaders who keep finding “enemies of the faith” at every turn without ever looking inward. For Christ’s sake, stop talking.

Spend some time in prayer and think about what you say before you say it. Ask yourself, is the political gain, the next spot on cable news or the notoriety I can achieve really worth the damage to the church?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tim King.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Politics • Rick Santorum

soundoff (1,729 Responses)
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    January 4, 2014 at 9:03 am |
  2. lol??

    Actually now is a very good time to get out of the fully leavened gubmint churches. Get your name off the membership rolls. Coming up during the next "crisis", it'll be open season on the Christians. Wake up! There is a cycle of wickedness if you haven't noticed. The socies went after Jacob in WWII. They won't make that mistake again and have the bride, Israel, in sight.

    1)white horse-Bush I
    2)red horse-Clinton
    3)black horse-Bush II
    4)pale horse-Obama

    July 27, 2013 at 9:29 am |
  3. John*

    It seems the problem is that many I couldn't the poster have swallowed whole the stereotypes a out true Christians. The fact is that Christans offer true help to others investing time and their own money and not simply voting for government people who give disinterested service to a narrow band of people with oceans of waste. God is anti- gay – it is an ABOMINATION. You can regurgitat the PC stuff, but many have been raised beliv g th absurdities of evolution, go e to churches which don't preach th scriptures and who long ago forsook biblical morality. To be sure th church beds a lot of work but NOT in the direction you advocate.

    July 12, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
  4. shaydawkins

    This book is the most ideal book for anyone questioning or leaving the religion of Christianity as my book answers all the controversial questions that the local pastor, sunday school teacher, or church as a whole won't or can't answer. The book uses 200+ Scriptures to directly address Christianity's most controversial issues and problems. http://www.TheGoodNewsBook.com

    February 6, 2013 at 7:48 am |
  5. shaydawkins

    This book is the most ideal book for anyone questioning or leaving the religion of Christianity as this book answers all the questions that the local pastor, sunday school teacher, or church as a whole won't or can't answer. Not to mention, the book uses 200+ Scriptures to directly address Christianity's most controversial issues and problems. http://www.TheGoodNewsBook.com

    February 6, 2013 at 7:47 am |
  6. Diane

    Amen to your post! People aren't leaving churches because of an attraction on the outside, but repulsion to something inside – usually hypocrisy. I have taught at 4 different "christian" schools and left church and their schools out of a disgust of a system that is intended to serve the few leaders of the church and has no true concern for its children or teaching them to think for themselves. My principal/pastor in one church school even demanded of me that I "obey without question"!!! I have seen "christian" women touted as devoted "christian" teachers do NOTHING for the kids behind closed doors – they just wanted an easy 8-3 job for themselves and all the glory of being a "christian school teacher" without doing any of the work (including getting a proper education to be qualified to teach). Being on the inside I can tell you that it is all about power and money, period. If you happen to find a christian school that you truly have found to be devoted to serving the children hold on tight – there are not many left. Sadly, at my last school I even saw the disgust in some elementary school children's eyes as they saw some of their teachers sit at their desks on the computer as they needed help for their schoolwork and were told "you don't need my help" by some selfish "teacher". Those kids will be the next generation to leave the church.

    December 11, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  7. http://www.topchristiancolleges.net

    I read your article with great interested and agree with much of what yo have to say. However, there can be no doubt that the colleges and universities of this country have been "taken over" by liberal, anti-religion (Christianity in particular,) professors.

    August 21, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  8. imarketebooks1

    An interesting article to be sure. I agree that college is not completely to blame, but there is no doubt that the "attacks" on Christianity coming from the universities and liberal professors have contributed to the "poisoning" of the well. There's nothing wrong with being pro-rich, most who are contribute far more to charity and church and as far as pro-white or anti-gay, those are the minority put forth as the majority by the liberal media. Consider a Christian College or University in your search and visit sites like http://www.TopChristianColleges.net for concise and accurate information.

    August 21, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  9. Compuamerica

    Too bad there wasn't any pictures of the girl in the barncgoukd she was the hottest costume, hottest legs just the best of everything all around! She was a firegirl! smokin hot! sorry dear i didnt mean to rain all over your picture youre cute too!

    May 22, 2012 at 12:03 am |
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    May 12, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  11. DIANNE

    More people would embrace Christianity if their Spiritual leaders would teach the simplicity of the Gospel of Grace.
    Quite simplly put., THAT CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES ,AND THAT HE WAS BURIED, AND THAT HE ROSE AGAIN THE THIRD DAY ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES. HE LOVED US SO MUCH TO GO TO CROSS TO PAY FOR OUR SINS. ALL WE HAVE TO DO IS BELIEVE AND ACCEPT THE FINISHED WORK .WITH OUR HEART AND MIND TO HAVE ETERNAL LIFE WITH HIM FOREVER. THAT'S PURE GRACE AND THE LOVE OF GOD TO US ALL IF WE ONLY ACCEPT IT.THAT'S WHAT EVERYONE NEEDS TO HEAR TODAY TO REALLY BE HAPPY.!

    May 7, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  12. Prince

    Okay, next to my family and my kids, this is my Passion topic! It's what gets my jieucs flowing.First and foremost, I believe that those statistics are proof that the church has fallen asleep. The church has narrowed itself into a corner and unless willing to adapt to some change, this statistic I fear will grow. Churches have been doing what they do because that's the way it's always been done. Some churches hold tight to Tradition. The church can never compete with culture. They will never win. Its just the way it is. But the church can certainly change from "doing" to having a strategy.If You read my "About" section on my blog, you'll see a line where I wrote, "I bleed Orange." I encourage you to check out http://www.whatisorange.com to learn more about that and to see where my firm stance on what the church should be doing.We (as in Us, Moms, Parents, etc) put So much responsibility on the Church for those poor statistics. I see it as a 50/50 deal. Parents need to wake up and realize that they are the primary spiritual leaders in their kids lives. The church is a "Partner" to you as a Parent. Or at least it should be. There in lies the problem. Churches are failing to see that they need to come along side of us as parents and support us and understand that what happens at home is far more important than what happens at church. I am a product of Christian parents, christian private schools and church all my life. I saw friends come and go within the church. From my experience, The leadership within the church are all on different pages. Nursery, elementary, youth and "big" church are all doing their own thing. There is no strategy. They are silo'd. I beg of the church to align themselves together with parents and have a strategy for how to get a child from birth through college not ever wanting to leave the church! It is possible. It just means people are going to have to adapt to change and let some things go. Sorry for the rant. I warned you that it was a Passion area for me. I could say so much more.... : )

    April 4, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  13. Danielle

    Well Said

    March 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  14. Father Doug

    People are leaving churches and Christianity because churches have replaced the person, the very presence of Jesus Christ with dogma, lifeless Theology and arguments. As a priest, I don't want to go to most churches either, for the same reasons. God is alive and well and inhabiting His people who open up to Him personally. If you don't know Him or love Him, you have nothing but a dead religion and a dead church. It's time to wake up, let Jesus be truly Lord and quit playing games. Get real, He is!

    March 21, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Duh

      "God is alive and well and inhabiting His people who open up to Him personally. If you don't know Him or love Him, you have nothing but a dead religion and a dead church. It's time to wake up, let Jesus be truly Lord and quit playing games. Get real, He is!"

      There's no proof of that what so ever. The reason people are leaving is because your god doesn't exist.

      March 21, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
      • regarding DUH

        There is also no proof of air – can't see it, taste it, smell it, but it exists because some person said it does. Yet you breathe it in multiple times a day to sustain your life. Let's say your right and God doesn't exist. Then what have "Christians" who believe in a God lost for their faith: They live a life of compassion for hurting, broken, poor lives all around them, and the desire to help those people make it through. They die and that's it. But, let's say your wrong. Those "Christians" live a life as described above, and the Bible says they are rewarded in a post-earth life era. Those who opposed God are in deep sludge!

        July 27, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  15. Geraard Spergen

    Here's an hypothesis: people of ALL ages and ALL education levels are leaving Christianity because they simply no longer can deceive themselves into thinking they believe all that bronze-age hooey. And they're finding a welcoming, supportive community of like-minded atheists dealing with important social and political issues from a perspective that actually has merit.

    Adiós pretend invisible man above the clouds – we've matured as a species and don't need you anymore.

    March 16, 2012 at 2:05 am |
    • scot

      they say there are no atheist in the fox holes. lol meaning it's easy to say you don't believe untill you get in a fix. But the people i know who have been in some precarious situations said they were all yellin for God when the bullets startin fly'in.
      I Love God more then anything literally because i have asked him to reveal himself and he has. But sadly churchs have become dead in alot of ways confused and not being taught by God, with his word thru his people. This is So sad But thank God i am free of that because my relationship is one on one with God not a church. I do go to church however and it is a blessing too. But again my relationship is with God througIh christ not the church I try to ask God everyday everymoment really, about all situations in life and search the Bible for how to do things, and man can that produce harmony in a family when you have the same instruction manual for life. But it does so much more. It is above all! I love it! best thing i have ever done and gets better everyday., If i'm wrong and i'm not, what have i lost? a great life a wife and kids that love and support Godly principals concerning life and don't lie and don't steal, don't cheat don't sleep with their boyfriends and girlfriends, And we all. really walk in the greatest blessing that comes from abiding in Gods teachings concerning life, Read Deut chp 28. It tells what we recieve when we harken or listen dillegently to the voice or teachings of God and it also tells what we get when we don't listen or abide in his ways. We don't loose our salvation because that's a gift that we don't earn, but we just live a bad life hear on earth. We have access to the Kingdom when we abide in his ways! Jesus said the The Kingdom Of God is here on earth. It means protection, Unmerited favor from God, it means the greatest guidance from the greatest teacher, it is everything! good health it means being intuitively lead away from danger or warned in our spirit of bad things. It means wholness, nothing broken nothing missing, It trully covers everything. We have to develop our spiritual eyes and ears to really be good at following correctly. Sadly so many christians have accepted christ but never mature this way. But Who here really believes you can outlive the life he has planned for us who loves us enough to send his son. How many times do we see people who make tons of money but another part of their life is broken? Everytime God is not there correctly! They make tons of money but then maybe fornicate with their girl friend. God said the wages of sin is death. Not necessarilly physical death, but death in our finances, or maybe in our relationship, or maybe we can't communicate with our kids anymore, whatever but we will pay a price for sin somewhere some how because it is a promise from God the same as we are promised blessing if we obey. You mean we can control the way our life is lived. Good or bad? Pretty much! he is a just God he has to punish everytime when we disobey and he has to bless when we obey. Otherwise he would,nt be a just God! This is awesome Then to know that we are forgiven when we do miss the mark.. Shoot what's not love about that!!!!! If that's as bad as it gets if Gods not real! I'll take that deal any day of the week! But on the otherhand what if he is.
      Whoa to those with unbelief! better to find out what the word says about unbelief, it's not good and you don't wanna be a hard - and be wrong. i can gaurantee you that! Just my experience and by the way i lived the hard way for years and struggled with life never understood what was wrong always struggleing until i finally said God if your there i want to know you and please save me and help me understand all of this open my spiritual eyes and ears so i can see and hear the truth. Man that changed it all forever. Cheers Scot in Tulsa

      July 6, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • regarding hypothesis

      That's a bigger hooey!!

      July 27, 2013 at 8:59 am |
  16. nextlevelfaith

    I heard the whole hypocrisy argument from my 21 year old daughter some time ago, but if we look closely enough, we can find hypocrisy in anyone and anything, even ourselves. I think young people are leaving the church because it sets up a standard of right and wrong that conflicts with the lower or non-standard that they are learning in the world outside the church. Many young people decide that they don't want to do their best to hold to a Biblical standard. And they sacrifice much in their relationship with God and their faith by doing so. It is sad. Blessings and benefits come when we commit to follow God and follow His ways the best that we can, and ask Him to help us. http://www.nextlevelfaith.com

    March 15, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • Kait

      I didn't leave the church because of low moral standards and far better people than I with higher moral standards than most Christians I know have left the church as well. I left because the longer I stayed the more I realised this whole thing was rigged against who I am and who I can't NOT be. Gandhi said it best, didn't he? I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians; they are so unlike your Christ.

      April 12, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
      • leaving church

        Christians aren't some super species or something. We are fallable people. We make mistakes. We do dumb things. We make poor decisions. Seems like the non-Christians and church leavers are more judgmental than they claim we are. Fact is - it is easy to quit the faith. It takes guts to stick it out!!! Read the letters of Paul in the New Testament to the various churches and see that nothing is different today than it was back in that day. People are still the same>

        July 27, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  17. Cheese

    62% of Christians are leaving the faith during college at the prospects of plentiful booze, parties, and easy women which are incompatible with Christianity. If the author is not currently aware there is no single church to reform. Why someone would leave their church because Sanitorum says crazy things didn't have much faith to begin with.

    March 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • PhillipJay

      I have to disagree. I went to church until I went to college, and college is where I changed my mind about religion. Partying had absolutely nothing to do with it, I went to parties in high school while I still attended church. I stopped attending church because for once in my life I wasn't having religion crammed down my throat and was no longer told what to beleive. People my age are leaving christianity in college because, unfortunately, it is the first time in their lives when they are given the option to think for themselves.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • David

      College students leave the church for the same reason they stopped believing in Santa Claus. Eventually the BS doesn't stand up to the facts.

      March 14, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
      • to Phillip J and David

        I too went to college and heard their "man is their own God" mentality being pushed at me – who grew up in church with a loving, nurturing family who still attends. Problem is not that we are "told what to believe" until we get out on our own. Problem is we believe the lie that we can do our own thing we no repurcussions.

        July 27, 2013 at 9:07 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.