“I believed in God,” he says, “but I was burned out on church.”
Growing up in a Baptist family and attending a small, private religious school in Huntsville, Owens went to church “every Sunday and Wednesday for as long as I could remember,” he says. And it wasn’t a choice, it was a requirement — one he quietly came to resent, though he knew rebelling was not an option.
“I went because my parents made me, not because I was allowed to think for myself,” says the 20 year old. “School was the same way … the Bible, church, God, Jesus … nobody questioned anything.”
So when Owens graduated from high school and decided to attend Jacksonville State University, church was nowhere on his list of extracurricular interests. In fact, all Owens wanted to do was “turn his back on God.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to agnosticism. Owens felt that there was something missing in his life. He indulged in all the good times a university campus, far from the prying eyes of mom and dad, can provide — partying, drinking, dating, tailgating, etc. But he stayed in town the summer after his freshman year and started attending services at local churches, most often Parker Memorial, where a few of his friends also attended.
“It wasn’t every Sunday or even one Sunday a month,” he says, “but it was there … God was there for me. And even though I’d turned away from him, he hadn’t turned away from me.”
There’s nothing unusual about Owens’ spiritual journey. In fact, it mirrors the experience of many college students. Part of growing up is stepping away from parental expectations — and possible punishments — and discovering one’s own path, one’s own sense of self.
For those coming from a religious background, often that of a smaller, private religious high school, stepping outside of a familiar, sheltered world can be frightening and overwhelming, exciting and liberating. Some walk away from the beliefs and practices they’ve known all their lives, others find strength in forging their own beliefs.
Gracie Huie attended Faith Christian School in Anniston from kindergarten until graduating in 2012. Growing up in a home where “Christ is always the main focus,” Huie, now a sophomore at Auburn University, found her “home away from home” at the First Baptist Church of Opelika, where she is involved in girls’ Bible study and spent a recent spring break on a mission trip.
“My relationship with Jesus Christ has grown stronger since I left for college,” Huie says. “Being in college has really helped me to stand on my own in my faith. I feel that my relationship with Christ has truly become my own.”
Common sense — not to mention numerous, oft-quoted studies — have declared that college is the nemesis to faith. Whether it’s being away from home for the first time, the influence of secular worldviews, or the party culture, it’s long been suggested that the college atmosphere conspires to pull young people away from the beliefs and practices of childhood.
Not so, according to a recent study out of The University of Texas at Austin, which found that college students are more likely to maintain those patterns of worship than those who did not attend college. According to the study, those who never attended college had the highest rates of decline in church (76 percent), diminished importance placed on religion (24 percent) and disaffiliation from religion (20 percent). Of the students who earned at least a bachelor’s degree, on the other hand, only 59 percent indicated decreased church attendance and 15 percent placed less importance on religion and disaffiliation from religion.
“Simply put, higher education is not the enemy of religiosity that so many have made it out to be,” researchers stated in their “Losing My Religion” report, featured in the June issue of the journal Social Forces.
What about those coming from not only a religious background at home, but one at school as well? Are they prepared for the temptations and freedoms that come with college life?
“With mass media — Twitter, Facebook, TV, etc. — I don’t think the transition from Christian to secular is that big of a deal in most cases,” says Bob Phillips, principal of Faith Christian School in Oxford. “In fact, many of them have visited Alabama and Auburn so much in high school they pretty much already know the ins and outs.
“In most cases, I think it would be a similar situation to the transition from any small high school to a large college.”
For those coming from a religious background, Phillips suggest they find a “safety net” in a faith-based campus organization, which at JSU includes the Wesley Foundation, Campus Outreach, Baptist Campus Ministries and the Jacksonville Christian Student Center.
“Our goal is to promote first-century Christianity in our century,” says Chance Hicks, college minister for the Jacksonville Church of Christ, which supports the Jacksonville Christian Student Center.
Understanding that not all the students’ friends or teachers will support their beliefs, Hicks says that organizations like the Christian student center offer a community setting for relaxed fellowship. The center is open to all students and offers a Wi-Fi connection and games. On Monday nights students can come for a free meal followed by singing, prayer and scripture reading.
“It’s important to have that spiritual backup, especially for teenagers entering college because that environment can be very difficult to maneuver through without mom and dad watching over their shoulder,” Hicks says. “We just want to help people head in the right direction spiritually.”
When students graduate from Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School in Oxford, Principal Charlie Maniscalco tries to sit down with them and just talk about the future and the challenges that lay ahead.
“Our advice is that they continue to be special in the eyes of God,” Maniscalco says. “They’re going to have to be different to avoid the wrong path … and they’ll avoid a lot of heartache and pain if they’ll just stay close to God.”
Maniscalco knows what he’s talking about, coming from parochial elementary and high schools in Birmingham before attending and graduating from JSU.
“We talk about decisions and consequences,” he says. “This is what happens when you’re on your own. You’re going to make choices, and they won’t always be positive. We’ve all been through it, and they usually come out of it. But all you can do is prepare them the best you can.”
Looking back, Brent Owens knows he was prepared, he just didn’t realize it at the time.
“I’m a better Christian now than I ever was growing up, even if I did go to church more,” he says. “But now, my faith is something I earned, not just something my parents gave me.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.