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Belief Struggles Appreciated

Twin studies suggest college students forge a more mature faith by grappling with religious doubts.
Students grappling with their faith is a normal and even healthy process during their years at an evangelical college or university, according to a new two-part study conducted by a Southeastern University assistant professor.

“The findings are not surprising,” says Jennifer L. Carter, who for the past year has taught leadership courses to doctoral students at the Assemblies of God school in Lakeland, Florida. “Christian students are going to doubt their beliefs; it doesn’t mean they are walking away from the Lord.”

The results, published in Christian Higher Education, are based on the Azusa Pacific University doctoral dissertation Carter wrote focusing on the patterns and predictors of undergraduate students’ levels of spiritual struggle at 136 institutions. She defines religious struggle as reconciling the teachings of faith traditions with experience and evolving beliefs.

The research investigated topics such as how students wrestle with feeling disillusioned about their religious upbringing; struggle to understand evil, suffering, and death; feel angry or distant from God; and disagree with family members about religious matters.

In her studies, Carter discovered that first-year students on evangelical campuses typically carry a belief system they acquired during adolescence primarily from family members, but also pastors and other mentors such as coaches. Some parents assume their child’s faith won’t be challenged at a four-year Christian school, but that’s unhealthy thinking, according to Carter.

Young adults must be allowed to develop their own faith and express doubts if their belief system is going to mature, Carter says.

The analyses found that usually first-year collegians are firm in their theological viewpoints. However, by the junior year, after repeatedly being exposed to new ideas, they have many questions, particularly if in that span they have experienced a life-changing event such as depression, a serious illness, death of a loved one, or their parents’ divorcing.

The findings are more than theoretical for Carter, an only child who attended an independent charismatic church growing up before enrolling at the AG’s University of Valley Forge in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

“I had tons of questions when I got there,” Carter says. “I never walked away from the Lord, but I had doubts.”

Reservations resulted from being exposed to a broader range of theological viewpoints at the school.

On the other hand, some peers criticized her for expressing queries about speaking in tongues or the Second Coming of Christ that didn’t align with their viewpoints.

Multiple studies indicate that a slim minority of evangelical students who express doubts about God and faith end up leaving Christianity.

On the contrary, Christian students who struggle at mainstream institutes of learning are much likelier to pray less often, attend church less frequently, pray less, and to drift away from the faith altogether.

As the dissertation points out, most students attend an evangelical school in an effort to mature their faith.

“Personal faith is rarely a matter of discussion at secular schools,” says Carol A. Taylor, president of Evangel University, the Assemblies of God school in Springfield, Missouri. “If it is, it often is in a negative way.”

Taylor notes that an evangelical university such as Evangel creates an atmosphere both inside and outside the classroom where honest spiritual discussions at a deep level are welcomed in multiple platforms.

Carter found that students who received such assistance in trying to resolve their religious struggle experienced fewer negative impacts and came out better prepared to handle future conflicts of faith.

“Positive coping behaviors that can assist students with resolving struggle include receiving God’s forgiveness, acknowledging doubt as a normal part of religious belief, acknowledging one’s human limitations, finding commonalities with individuals with whom one has religious conflict, and resolving that one may never have an answer for why he or she experienced a crisis that induced struggle,” Carter wrote in her dissertation.

“If we’re doing our part as educators, we’re growing their critical thinking skills,” says Carter, 40.

Indeed, Carter says the reason students enrolled at Christian schools struggle more than those in other institutions is because they are engaged in spiritual matters on an ongoing basis.

Taylor, who has been Evangel president since 2013, says it’s preferable for Christian students dealing with questions of faith to be in an environment with men and women —faculty, staff, and students — who embrace and nurture faith rather than those who don’t.

“Especially for undergraduates, it’s helpful to be surrounded by faithful, rooted people who have walked through some of the same doubts and struggles,” she says. Taylor graduated from Evangel University and Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, but also studied at the public institutions of Florida State University, UCLA, and Northwestern.

The studies indicated that seven out of 10 first-year evangelical college students lived a sheltered existence before arriving for classes.

“Some come to school having never been given permission to question their faith,” says Taylor, who grew up in a Pentecostal home and attended church thrice weekly. “But at some point during the four years at college they realize life is not fair, this is not heaven, injustices occur, and bad things happen to both evil and godly people.”

Ultimately, those who mature in their faith understand that many individuals in the Bible went through similar questioning, including the disciple Thomas, who spent three years witnessing the ministry of Jesus. Nevertheless, Thomas doubted, refusing to believe the news of Jesus’ resurrection — until he saw the risen Savior himself.

“Christ showed Thomas His wounds, but He didn’t say, ‘You can no longer be my disciple,’ which should encourage all who have experienced moments or seasons of doubt,” observes Taylor.

Carter discovered that female students reported higher levels of religious struggle than male peers.

“As a minority, women do not have the same experience as their male peers who have privilege in religious environments,” Carter wrote. On certain evangelical campuses, women aren’t given the same opportunities for spiritual development as men, she concluded.

Carter, who is the mother of three daughters, says she never felt excluded from leadership while employed at Southeastern or at the AG’s North Central University, where she earlier worked for three years. But over the years she’s heard various accounts from women pastors and district officials who felt their voices had been marginalized because of their gender.

Taylor, who is among the few women presidents at an evangelical university, says schools must be intentional in providing women role models for female students.

“We try to be attentive to all students,” says Taylor, who previously spent four years as president of the AG’s Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California. “We have both men and women engaged as faculty, spiritual leaders, and as mentors.”

Carter determined that faith-filled mothers have a stronger influence on their children than fathers, peers, or religious leaders in shaping their child’s religious worldview.

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.