The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students: 5 Reflections

One of the most important goals of Christian colleges and universities is to help students grow spiritually and develop their character. Likewise, one of the biggest challenges Christian universities face is evaluating how we are doing in this area. In fact, secular accrediting agencies have begun asking such schools for evidence that they are assessing and improving student spiritual development, since it is a core part of our mission.

Spirituality can never be evaluated perfectly, but I believe we can obtain useful indicators of where people are in their spiritual development process. However, before we start measuring anything, we need a theologically and psychologically informed theory of spiritual maturity and development.  

For the past 20 years, I have been working on such a model of spiritual development. The Reader’s Digest version is that theology, psychology and brain science are converging in suggesting that spiritual development is about loving relationships with God and others, and that relationships change our brain, soul, and ability to love. In short, we are loved into loving. I call this model “relational spirituality.”  (You can read more about this in my book Psychology in the Spirit, co-authored with John Coe).  

This journey also led me to develop the Spiritual Transformation Inventory (STI), which in turn led to the pursuit of research on the spirituality of students attending Christian colleges in the hopes of helping these colleges answer the crucial question: Are our students growing spiritually?

Below I offer five reflections based on five years of national STI data from over 3,000 students at 40 different colleges, and a four year longitudinal study conducted at Biola.

1. Students are secure — but unpracticed — spiritually

Overall, students feel a secure relational connection to God, experience a strong sense of meaning and are developing a Christian perspective on life, and yet they are low on practicing spiritual disciplines.

First, I think the secure connection to God, sense of meaning and Christian perspective is noteworthy good news. Despite the instability and struggles of this stage, the breakdown of the family and increasing rates of emotional problems among children and college students, students attending Christian colleges have a secure connection with God, which is the foundation for spiritual development.

Despite this good news, students at Christian colleges are generally not practicing their faith in a substantial way. Why might this be? It may be partly due to busyness, which was the most frequently reported struggle. It may also be that students feel that spiritual input is built into their environment so they don’t need to be intentional about it — as one student, who I’ll call Jim, described to me in an interview.

“Even when you have a bad day, you are going to Bible classes, you’re going to chapel, you’re all around your Christian friends and your days look so similar,” he said. “It just seems like it’s easier to kind of coast internally, spiritually, and in my heart. Whereas being at home or being out of the environment, I have to get into the Word for the strength of the Word and that is why I have to go and be with the Lord every morning.”

In general, I think we need a better understanding of how to help students (1) be intentional about their spiritual growth and (2) continue the process of owning their faith. This characteristic may also relate to the second reflection: students’ developmental stage and how that impacts spiritual transformation over time. To the extent that students are focused on trying on new identities in love, work and faith, spiritual practices may go by the wayside.

2. Seniors report lower overall spiritual vitality than freshman

When we look at how students’ spirituality changes over time, the majority of indicators of spiritual development went down over time, but some went up. For example, scores trended worse on the frequency of spiritual disciplines, the centrality of faith and an anxious connection to God, but better on an overall sense of spiritual well-being. On national data collected at one point in time, we found that seniors scored lower than freshmen on 19 of the 22 measures.

How do we make sense of this? When we look at this in the context of brain development and “emerging adulthood,” this is likely a normal developmental trajectory. The brain goes through a massive reorganization between the ages of 12 and 18, and this continues into the early 20s. Parallel to these brain changes, students’ identity, sense of self, and worldview all go through an extensive reorganization during this period as well. With all this brain and identity reorganization, it makes sense that this is a time of spiritual instability.

Jeffrey Arnett captured a developmental phenomenon that has been growing for the past 50 years with the concept of “emerging adulthood,” roughly the age span of 18 to 29. Emerging adults tend to feel somewhat like a kid, and somewhat like an adult, but not fully like either one.

In this stage, students are at a spiritual crossroads: They are figuring out what kind of person they want to be, what kind of people they want to travel life with and what kind of work they want to do. They are also figuring out what role they want God to play in their lives. This leads them to travel many pathways in a short period of time. This means that manifestations of their spirituality will often go down.  

It may be, however, that decreases on some indicators of spiritual development during the college years actually reflect a deepening of one’s faith. This is a period that often requires a certain deconstruction of one’s identity, sense of self, and worldview in order to build the foundation for an adult identity and a more mature spirituality.

In light of this, I suspect that interviews will show evidence that seniors’ spirituality is deeper than that of freshmen, even though they report lower scores than freshmen on self-report measures.  In-depth interviews will help us better understand spiritual development during emerging adulthood.

3. Relationships are students’ top struggle

Crises and trials are common. Over half the sample reported experiencing a crisis in the past year.

When asked to describe their crises in an open-ended format, the most frequently reported crises included loss of relationship, relationship stresses and health concerns. We also asked students to describe their most difficult spiritual struggles, and the top three they reported were relational conflict, busyness, and lust/sex/pornography.

These open-ended responses all suggest that emerging adulthood is a time of relational difficulties and this affects every aspect of students’ spirituality. Relational loss, stress, and conflict is the norm for college students, which stems from their identity exploration and instability that is an intrinsic part of this stage of life.

The challenge for this stage is to navigate relationships with God and others in the process of solidifying one’s identity and learning how to love.  

4. Students tend to fit one of five Christian spirituality types

Every student has unique needs. There is no “one size fits all” spiritual growth plan. While colleges and universities cannot tailor spiritual growth programs for every individual, they can start to identify groups of students with different needs. The Spiritual Transformation Inventory and the national data from this project help us move in this direction.

We found five different types or groups in terms of their pattern of scores on the 22 scales. This suggests that we need to identify these groups so that we can tailor spiritual formation plans to their needs.

• Type 1 (21.4 percent of the sample) is secure and engaged; in other words, quite spiritually mature for this stage. This group was highly secure in their sense of connection to God and highly spiritually engaged in practices and community. We need to further strengthen these mature students and encourage them toward leadership.

• Type 2 (15.2 percent) can be described as distant yet engaged. They reported a distant connection with God, and were moderately engaged in spiritual practices and community. We need to help this group develop relationships in which they feel seen and known to address their distant connection to God.

• Type 3 (25 percent) has average security and engagement. This group reported an average degree of security with God and spiritual engagement. We need to help these students find their strengths.

• Type 4 (27.2 percent) can be described as anxious and disengaged. This group was highly insecure in their connection to God (mainly anxious) and moderately low in their spiritual engagement. This group needs help with developing what attachment theory calls a “secure base”; that is, a deep, gut-level sense that caregivers are consistently responsive to their emotional and relational needs.

• Type 5 (11.2 percent) is insecure and disengaged. This group was highly insecure (both distant and anxious connection to God) and very low in their engagement in practices and community. This group is the most spiritually immature, and represents a high-risk group for emotional problems and dropout. We need to proactively identify these students and begin mentoring them at the beginning of their freshman year.

The Five Spirituality Types: Summary

I used a statistical technique called “cluster analysis” to put students into groups based on similar patterns in their answers about their spiritual practices and relationship with God.

- Secure and engaged: 21.4%

- Distant yet engaged: 15.2%

- Average security and engagement: 25%

- Anxious and disengaged: 27.2%.

- Insecure and disengaged: 11.2%

5. Relationships, theology, and suffering play important roles in spiritual growth

We asked students across the United States to rate how various aspects of the school environment and programs impacted their spiritual development, ranging from very negative to very positive.

The top three growth facilitators were peer relationships, working through suffering, and Bible/theology classes. This and numerous findings from both studies highlight the centrality of relationships and a biblical worldview for spiritual development. This suggests that we need to communicate a theological framework for growing through relationships, and for the role of suffering in spiritual growth.  In addition, we need to develop a relational environment that will help students process their suffering in a growth-producing way.    

This is a stage when students begin put together the theological pieces of a Christian worldview. A junior I interviewed, who I’ll call Steve, talked about how he views his whole faith differently as a result of his Bible/theology classes at Biola.

“[There were] all these things that I guess I didn’t think about before and didn’t really know existed from my faith in middle school and high school, before Biola,” he said. “So I would get in the Word but there was no theological understanding of piecing things together from Scripture. … I just feel like there has been this whole transformation of the way I view God and Christ and even my relationship with him.”

A Christian worldview, however, must transcend our head knowledge and permeate our souls. Research clearly indicates that a biblical worldview, morality and character become real in one’s life through close relationships, one of which is our relationship with God. Close human relationships, particularly with authority figures, are also crucial to help students see what it looks like in real life to live out integrity, a biblical worldview and, most of all, love.  

Processing suffering is another catalyst of spiritual growth, because it often gives us access to deep places in our soul that move us away from God — places we would not otherwise know existed. Trials shake up our negative gut-level expectations of God and other important people in our lives. Working through trials, however, always occurs in the context of relationships and community.

A group of scholars recently developed the idea of “authoritative communities” as the kind of community that is necessary for human development. These are communities that provide structure (e.g., morality is embedded in the community) and love and warmth. These communities have an idea, even if implicit, of what it means to be a good person, and the leaders provide love to the younger members in order to help them become good people. At their best, this is what our Christian college communities are, and hopefully what they strive to be.  

What Impacts Students’ Spiritual Growth?  Summary

Students were asked to score different activities and programs on what kind of a spiritual impact they made (with 7 being a “very positive impact” and 1 being a “very negative impact”). Here are the seven highest-ranking items.

- Relationships with other students: 5.71

- Working through trauma and struggles: 5.68

- Bible/theology courses: 5.65

- Praise/worship sessions: 5.6

- Academic courses: 5.55

- Study or discipleship groups: 5.54

- Relationships with staff and administration: 5.53

- Short-term missions trips: 5.53


* This post is an adaptation of an article that first appeared in the Biola Magazine: Spirituality at a Crossroads (2010).

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Dr. Todd Hall |
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