College Students Becoming More Spiritual But Less Religious

Kent Shaffer —  February 25, 2008

Over the past several years, UCLA researchers have been studying the spirituality of college students. What is intriguing is undergraduates tend to become more spiritual but less religious between their freshman and junior year. The Pew Forum recently shared the following findings from the study:

Religious Attendance

  • 43.7% of freshmen frequently attend religious services.
    25.4% of juniors frequently attend religious services.
  • 20.2% of freshmen never attend religious services.
    37.5% of juniors never attend religious services.

Measures of Spirituality

  • 48.7% of freshmen say “attaining inner harmony” is “very important” or “essential.”
    62.7% of juniors say “attaining inner harmony” is “very important” or “essential.”
  • 41.8% of freshmen say “integrating spirituality in my life” is “very important” or “essential.”
    50.4% of juniors say “integrating spirituality in my life” is “very important” or “essential.”
  • 62.8% of freshmen agree with the statement “most people can grow spiritually without being religious.”
    74.8% of juniors agree with the statement “most people can grow spiritually without being religious.”

Why the rise of spirituality but fall of religiosity?

Researchers believe two factors affecting this trend are:

  1. Many of these students are away from home for the first time, and we suspect that, for some students, religious observance before college is influenced by the presence of the family
  2. A greater deal of time is invested in studies during college than before college.

So what is the best way to reach these college students? Should a college ministry try to reverse the trend and get undergraduates to start attending a service? Or should a college ministry focus on bringing spirituality to the college campus?

For Discussion:
- What do you think?
- What recent college ministry success stories have you heard?

Kent Shaffer

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I live in an RV with my wife and 2 kids and work with to help Christians collaborate and build a global Church library of free, open content.

22 responses to College Students Becoming More Spiritual But Less Religious

  1. I think that the researchers missed an obvious conclusion in their final analysis. The influence of professors and college culture on the students. I have visited a number of college campuses both Christian and secular. There is a significant difference. There are professors who deliberately influence their students away from any kind of belief in God. Coupled with college cultures that maintain a full academic and extra curricular slate of required activities, students just don’t have the time to participate in religious activities.

  2. I’d expect college ministries to both try to bring spirituality to college campuses and to have worship services.

    Hasn’t spirituality been something the church has often loosed focus on in recent years? Giving way to the mind and even having gnostic tenancies? Yet, the bible has some vivid spiritual and supernatural parts. Embracing them could be a good thing.

    But, there are good and bad spiritual forces out there. I don’t, personally, know anyone who would disagree with that. And, the bible tells us to teach everything Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20). So, teaching is needed.

    What can mix teaching and spirituality? How about a worship service? Yet, how does a college ministry deal with the battered view of organized religion though this?

  3. @Russ – You might be interested in Ben Steins new movie. Check out It’s about these influences at our colleges.

  4. I think also there is a greater influence on Christ wanting a relationship with us, not religion. It is a theory that is spreading like wildfire in that I don’t need to go to church to prove I’m a Christian.

    Also, as a college-age person in church, there is a growing of backstabbing and gossipping amongst the youth of America, not just college kids. I know it is prevalent in my own church which have driven some youth away. Why go to church where people can talk about you behind your back? If they have been experiencing this since middle school, then they probably can’t wait to get away from church.

  5. As a college senior, I’ve grown more and more frustrated with churches. I have found a church located close to my college that is comprised of nearly 80 % college students. It has truly sparked revival in the hearts of us who are turned off by religion.

    here are some defining characteristics of the church:
    - the pastor is bi-vocational. He has another, full-time job and pastors with the rest of his time. He’s very much in touch with the “real world” and uses language that isn’t “christian-eze”

    -there is no other paid staff. The entire church staff/faculty/members/whatever are made up of lay-people. There are tons of things going on, and they are being lead by ordinary people whom God is leading. They aren’t being done because someone is paying them to do it, they are being done because God is leading and people have passions to do them.

    - those at the church know that if the church is going to grow, change, expand God’s Kingdom then the people must get active. When I’m attending a Sunday worship gathering, I am challenged, reminded of my significance, and am able to worship with fellow believers. It’s not about me, but my participation is meaningful.

  6. There are, of course, multiple reasons why this is happening. For many, it’s the first time away from home and away from many structures they had growing up. All the temptations and new experiences aside, college is a challenging experience on every level. I went to a Christian college and faced lots of new ideas from various kinds of people.

    How strong is their foundation? How many ‘easy answers’ were they given? Have they talked much with people different from them? Do they own their faith? Students are still searching for identity in college, and if not prepared and not supported, this isn’t surprising at all.

  7. I find this conversation increasingly interesting. I work with high school students and a grave concern of mine is the growing trend of the “sunday Christian” or the “1 hour/week follower”. It’s awfully tough as a college student to know how to react and respond to a total environmental makeover, relatively overnight freedom, as well as exposure to thoughts and ideas that are foreign when the foundation of your faith has been built on 1-2 hours of church attendance a week.

    I hate to generalize, and to incriminate myself as much as anyone, but in so many ways we have over-emphasized this idea that living for Christ can be calendared or scheduled for an hour on Sunday morning and perhaps another hour on Wednesday night.

    Perhaps college students no longer have time for the “religiousity” because their schedule is more busy that it has ever been, and when casually approaching a jam packed calendar, the obviously non-essential was a calendared, predictable, “religious gathering”.

    Humbly spoken, “church” (the building) is the easiest place in the world to live for, or to appear to live for Jesus. It the rest of life, at school, in the locker room, on the internet, or at a party, the real act of faith begins to live itsself out in us.

    How do we encourage the typical high school student to experience their faith 24 hours every day and 7 days every week? Perhaps, herein lies the answer.

    I’ve already said too much.

  8. Being a college student myself, I can say that churches have a tendency to not focus time, energy, and investment in college ministries. The American church tends to, in my openion, look at the statistics on the percentage of college students that never return to church and decide that since no one is going to come according to statistics that they will not focus on college ministry. The students are seeking something real and relational to connect to. This is where God could really use a church that is willing to stand in the gap to impact college students. I think the biggest issue here is a lack of biblically focused and intentional college ministries to reach out to students.

  9. Heather Williams February 27, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    I think it is good and bad that college students are more interested in spirituality instead of religion. I myself am a youth leader that is also back in college to increase my education for my secular work. I have learned a lot being back in college. Students want authentic people. Some have been burned by “christians” that are hypocritical and do no longer wish to be a part of it. Religion will not get us to heaven, only Jesus will and our relationship with Him
    We have a small group study with high schoolers and one college student and they crave deep discussions and how to make it real.
    As youth leaders we should embrace the opportunity to do something to challenge our students to think and to equip them to handle those professors that challenge our Christian beliefs. We have to equip our students with solid principles and teach them how to search on their own and remind them always that we are human we make mistakes but to learn to enjoy true Christian fellowship and what it can do to help us along the way. We have to get deeper, and encourage our student to ask questions and help them seek Biblical answers, so college will not hinder their Christian walk, but add to it.

  10. RUSS SAID “think that the researchers missed an obvious conclusion in their final analysis. The influence of professors and college culture on the students.”

    UCLA has taken the influence of faculty into acccount. Just read the study:
    “In order to understand the impact of faculty on students’ spiritual development, a national survey of 65,000 faculty members from participating universities was also conducted during the 2004-05 academic year.”

  11. There is a problem with the idea that spirituality can be separated from the church (religion), Christ died for the church. He started it, blessed it, and uses it continually. If we forsake the church we are stepping into dangerous ground. The definition of “Religion” to most is “organized spirituality” the problem is not organization, but wether or not the organization is focused on the TRUTH of the word of God. The problem with most is that they judge the “organization/ Religion/ Church” from one or two people that identify with it ,or on the “feeling” they get from the church.
    Students need strong relationships with people that have strong relationships with the creator, to help them stay on the course. I doubt one could find anyone holding a strong relationship God if that person rejects the thing God came and died for.

  12. Where can I find the article that touch up on the research about “College Students Becoming More Spiritual But Less Religious”

  13. @AJ

    The text is hyperlinked.

  14. questionauthority April 10, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    I thought jesus sacrificed himself for people’s sins, not for an institution.
    I also see no problem with spirituality being separated from the church, unless christianity is claims: “If you’re not 100% with us, then you’re against us”

  15. A ministry from The Basement (in B’ham, AL) has done INCREDIBLE THINGS! The bars and clubs on University Blvd are down by 30%! It’s amazing! Check out the basement at

  16. Very exciting to see the rise of atheists amoung students. This means the next generation will be freer from dogma and superstition, paving the way for real progress for humanity.

  17. @Tom

    Understandably, I disagree.

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