Opinion

High Stakes Spirituality

What if our well-intentioned push for their success is really what's killing our kids' faith?

A few scenes from this fall, recollected now at the end of the term:

In early September, before the start of classes, I asked a first-year student about her experience of Orientation Week. She told the story of her first campus tour, which was led by an extremely effervescent administrator. As the group walked around campus, the tour guide highlighted various student services, and after a short description, noted how the institution so dearly desired for students to be “a success.” The word rang out over and over again, at each stop on the tour: success, success, success. No doubt the tour guide meant well, but her chirpy optimism had the opposite effect, and this student felt the pressure building, felt shaken like a bottle of Coke, before she’d even set foot in a class. 

That same week, over conversation with a group of students I asked “how does God make a difference in your time at university?” The answers weren’t all that forthcoming. The conversation went around the table, and the last student to hold forth said “I’m not sure I can answer the question, because I don’t see what God has to do with my major.” This dear child expected most of his waking and working hours would be effectively estranged from God. 

A student visiting Waterloo this term from the Netherlands noted that the first thing that struck him when he arrived here was how intense and high-stakes the institution felt. “It’s not that way back home,” he noted with a rueful grimace. 

Pressure to perform 
At a youth retreat I gave a talk – more an advertisement, really – about campus ministry to a healthy-sized crowd of Grade 11s & 12s. As an opening salvo I asked “why would you even go to university?” The answers came back as they always do: to get a job. I answered, as I always do, that this was fine, though it was like a B-grade answer. The A+ answer had to do more with how being a student is actually a calling that can help them glorify God and learn to receive his gifts with thanksgiving. In the ensuing silence I could hear them blinking back at me.

One morning, sipping coffee and nibbling on pastries with a small group of students, I asked whether the campus culture they were immersed in valued them for who they are or valued them for what they do. “What we do” was the answer, agreed upon soberly and unanimously, and the pressure to perform hung heavily in the air.

One Sunday morning, after preaching at a nearby church, a parent shook my hand and updated me on their recent graduate’s life, telling me they’d found success: an impressive job in an impressive city.

The hustle
I’ve been kicking these little vignettes around my head all fall as I sit on the bus or walk between my two parishes. They’ve all been clarifying moments for me, capturing (a piece of) the soul of an institution and the ethos of education, as we seem to understand it these days. It might sound like I’m singing the blues here, and I guess I am, but I should clarify that it’s not a can-you-believe-the-kids-these-days? kind of lament. Judgy, out of touch jowl rattling is the last thing I’m after here; all these young people are precious to me, as I’m sure they’re precious to you.

My interest is in their faith formation, though, and so I wonder: the things that we worry about when our children head off to university – the atheist professor, the seductions of the party scene – what if they’re not the primary concern? What if our pursuit of prosperity and the haste and grind that it takes to find it – what if that’s the sort of thing that can kill a faith stone dead more quickly than any atheist professor could ever hope to? 

And if so, why aren’t we talking about that more?

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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