General Ministry
Josh Griffin

For many students, college is a time of personal and intellectual discovery. On a fresh autumn day, it is easy to remember the first brisk days of school and all of the excitement that came with the discovery of learning and making new friends. In recent years, much attention has been paid to the apparent lack of religious commitment among college students.

Some say the college experience is to blame, while others cite intellectual skepticism as the source. Others say that the statistics are misleading and that students are simply worshiping and studying faith in new ways – independently or within student ministries. Regardless, intellectual skepticism seems to be a topic of conversation worth addressing, as it pertains to students and parishioners alike.

New College Students Experience New Intellectual Demands.

College is a transitional time for students, not only socially, but intellectually. Derek Melleby, with the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding wrote in a 2008 article that churches need to focus on preparing students for life after college by teaching them to learn to think.

“Many students lack critical thinking skills, failing to take what knowledge is at their disposal to form their own beliefs and convictions. We must continually create space for students to wrestle with the big questions of life. College should not be the first time that students engage in abstract or deep thinking, but for many students it is. Critical thinking and Christian discernment are spiritual disciplines that need to be developed. Like anything worthwhile in life, the developmental process takes time and is difficult,” he writes.

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In 2010, the American Family Association held the panel discussion “Church Droupout: Overcoming the Youth Exodus.” The panel found that intellectual skepticism was the key factor in the cited 75% dropout rate. But is higher education really to blame?

Wait a minute. What exactly is critical thinking?

Before continuing, let’s review what critical thinking actually is and why it can be difficult to apply in a religious setting.

Critical thinking is a type of reasonable, reflective thinking that is aimed at deciding what to believe or what to do. It is a way of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false. – Compliments of Wikipedia.org

In order to apply critical thinking skills to religion, it is necessary to consider the possibility of fallacy. That’s right. In order to become a critically thinking Christian, we have to listen to arguments against our beliefs. This is incredibly hard because it can be intensely offensive! Imagine if someone came up to you and began insisting that God is imaginary?

When Christians lack critical thinking skills developed in regard to their faith, it is easier for anti-Christians to make false claims to logical and rational thinking. Christians who have committed time, research and reflection to their beliefs are better prepared to apply critical thinking skills to anti-Christian attacks; but they have also experienced the blessing of being intellectually confident in their beliefs.

Intellectual Christians

It is entirely possible for Christians to defend their beliefs using critical thinking; however, there are always limitations in logic when discussing faith. By its very nature, faith is mysterious and beyond experiment. That is something we, as Christians, accept and revere.

However, critical thinking is often absent from church environments, especially evangelical churches. The shades between intellectualism and religiosity are often painted in black and white, and, somehow, political views have begun to creep into the evangelical faith to define beliefs outside of the church doctrine. The pressure to conform to all church community views can sometimes squash disagreement and dialogue; and those who hold the majority beliefs simply view (and portray) the opposition as wrong.

If students can’t find answers to their intellectual questions at church, where will they go? Friends, professors, the Internet? What can youth groups do to help high school and college students develop critical thinking in terms of faith?

Doubt, like temptation, is something that young adults must learn to face. A Christian who is unprepared to face doubt may never return to the church.

Mariana Ashley is a blogger and freelance writer for www.onlinecolleges.net. She offers advice for choosing the perfect online program for prospective students and parents and welcomes comments via email at mariana.ashley031@gmail.com

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  • Bill MacPhee says:

    Very helpful guest post. Learning to both ask questions to students and listen to the questions from students is an essential 21st century student ministry skill. Listen more than lecture. Earl Palmer was fond of quoting C.S. Lewis when faced with perplexing ideas and experiences with, “Hmmmm, it makes one wonder, doesn’t it?”

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