Elizabeth Campbell said she took a break from things of the spirit when she first arrived at the sprawling University of Missouri campus in Columbia three years ago.
The native of Marshfield, Missiouri — population 6,686 — was just one among 34,000 students caught up in a culture that encouraged exploration, making new friends and finding one's self.
"I didn't put as much effort into my relationship with Jesus as I should have; it wasn't my highest priority," the now 21-year-old international studies major recalled. "I started partying and (doing) other things. In freshman year, if you come up with friends, it's real easy to get caught up in that."
Campbell's detachment from the faith community that nourished her — she was very active in her hometown Assemblies of God congregation — is one of the factors that could lead to a separation from faith while at college, faith leaders say. And many religious institutions respond to that detachment by creating campus ministries that give students a familiar place to reconnect with their faith.
As students explore what may be a highly unfamiliar and stressful setting, religious groups should offer "a sense of hospitality, of forming a community, of welcoming and inviting people," said Barbara McCrabb, assistant director of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"My sense, coming from … the campuses I get to visit is there is a hunger for faith and spirituality and I think the grace of campus ministry is providing a safe and substantive place for those conversations to happen," she said.
A sociological survey of 38,251 people born after 1960 found that those who hold a bachelor's degree are no more likely to disaffiliate from a religious group than those who do not hold such a degree.
Study author Philip Schwadel of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln told Inside Higher Ed, a "college education is no longer a faith-killer," noting that with more college graduates attending church, it's easier for those in higher education to find congregations of like-minded people.
But students such as Campbell say their problems stemmed from the pressure freshmen often feel to let social life take precedence over spiritual nurture. Coupling that party climate with a natural desire for independence can lead to an estrangement from one's faith, according to one campus minister.
"I think the culture of college in general is to pursue self, kind of selfish desires or ambitions. Not that those are always bad, but college is one of those times when people encourage you to explore," said Nate Tunnell, a minister with Cru, the group formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, who advises student groups at the University of Utah and at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
Tunnell said the desire to explore, coupled with a basic human trait to control one's fate, can lead to spiritual indifference. "We all desire to be God ourselves, go our own way and call the shots. We don't want to have anyone tell us what to do. Human nature is drive for selfishness and self-rule. That leads to all the other areas that students can get in trouble," he said.
In Gainsville, Florida, Rabbi Berl Goldman, a Chabad Lubavitch emissary who serves an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Jewish students at the University of Florida, agrees the new experience of college can lead to spiritual neglect.
"I think they're a little indifferent to many things," Goldman said of some students he's encountered. "I think we could group that with just in general focusing on themselves."
'Desire and hunger'
Acknowledging spiritual challenges, McCrabb also sees opportunities.
"I think the desire and hunger among young adults is prevalent on campus," she said of secular institutions such as Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where she said there's a thriving Catholic outreach. The school is the nation's sixth-largest university, with a student population of 50,000.
At the same time, secular schools can provide a "cultural environment that is not always conducive to a faith experience," McCrabb explained, so "I think there are challenges and real discernment and life questions that young adults on a college campus face."
Addressing those "life questions" is the task of 30 people who work at the St. Mary's Catholic Center at the Texas school, she explained. "They have a leadership team, there are Bible studies and social service projects, faith formation projects — getting ready to receive the sacraments," McCrabb said, noting that 1,500 students come each weekend for Sunday Masses.
It's not merely lifestyle issues that challenge students new to the college front, Cru's Tunnell said. "I think there is definitely a challenge to student's faith" in higher education, he said. "Students learn different things that challenge the belief they grew up in. But the (ones) that hold on to their faith, they come out stronger. If (their faith) is true, it can withstand the challenges and questions."
Heather Howe, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Arizona in Tucson, was raised in a home where Christian Science is embraced and practiced. The church eschews medical treatment for illness, relying instead on spiritual healing. Its underlying belief in the spiritual nature of life presented some conflicts, Howe said.
Howe said that while chemistry and physics were fine, she did not enjoy biology, where "talking about DNA made me very uncomfortable" as it was used to explain the nature of man. "We don't talk about that" in her faith, she said.
But the science instruction — in high school or in college — didn't cause her to flinch in her faith. "It never made (me) doubt Christian Science. I think that's because I've had so many physical healings with it. Biology is telling me all these things can go wrong, so Christian Science doesn't work," she said. "I would completely reject that notion."
Howe said a recent internship at the group's Boston headquarters also helped "redefine my faith, and going to church has helped a lot as well. Being involved in a Christian Science community helps a lot with being a stronger person." And when co-religionists were in short supply at her university, she said she found and associated people who have the same morals, such as a group of Buddhist students from Sri Lanka.
For some students, the journey to college also means a journey to faithfulness. Goldman's Jewish students in Florida, many having come from non-observant homes, are often delighted to discover deeper meaning to their heritage of faith.
"I have more cases the other way where students come here totally secular, but much more are taking Jewish classes" at the Chabad center that offers Sabbath services, kosher meals and a place to study.
"It's not just a synagogue," Goldman said of the new center. "Students spend days here."
Even after 15 years in Gainsville, the thrill of engaging with young students hasn't worn off, he said. "On a day-to-day basis, it's incredible to see how many students are looking for meaning in their religion. Take custody of their religion that they never had the opportunity to do on their own," Goldman said.
At campus Catholic centers, many of which are named for the late Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th-century convert who stressed intellectual pursuits for Roman Catholics, students appreciate the faith-building opportunity to unplug from a 24/7 connected world.
"The ability to detach and be present with God in prayer is I think very nourishing for students," McCrabb said. "I think often campus ministry becomes the counter cultural voice that says it's OK to detach."
Many chapters of Chi Alpha, the Assemblies of God-based campus group, organize housing — either on or off campus — where like-minded students can congregate to share faith and support each other, said E. Scott Martin, national director of the group.
Such arrangements help reinforce moral decisions, and provide the kind of community Goldman, McCrabb and Tunnell each said was important to help students stay faithful.
"The first place where people look in times of celebration was and is always the synagogue or faith center," Goldman said. "And, God forbid, if there's a (tragedy), it's the rabbis (or) the pastors who are there comforting the students. We think about the needs (on campus)."
Such outreach is not limited to designated staff in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, spokesman David Yow said, noting every congregation has a charge to reach young adults at university.
"Caring for college students is a responsibility for everyone in the church from, grandmothers to parents, and pastors and youth workers because in a virtual, fast-paced world it’s personal and physical engagement that will make the biggest difference in feeding their faith," he said.
After months of partying and feeling alienated, Elizabeth Campbell came to a point of decision. "I had wanted things to change for about two months," she recalled, noting that some church leaders back home in Marshfield confronted her about living one way during the week and another on Sunday morning. "'You can't do both,' they told me," she recalled. "That pushed me to where I had to make a decision."
For Campbell, the welcoming atmosphere of a Chi Alpha group at Missouri, where she said she didn't feel condemned, played an important role in her making a change. "I was just living a bold-faced lie, but wasn't sure I wanted to commit to anything. I had seen so many people come into the church after sinning who were looked down upon," she recalled.
One night at a worship service, she recalled the pastor's wife was preaching that night.
"She spoke ... in a very grace-filled way and a very loving way, saying 'We'll love you no matter what.'" Campbell recalled. "Her message really spoke to me, and God was speaking to me, too."