Are Students Losing Their Religion on Campus?

From the day she was born, Ashley Parrish was taught to put God first in her life. She attended a Christian school, did missionary work in Mexico, and gave youth sermons at her local church -- then she left home for her freshman year of college.

"When I came to college I was so excited to get out of the bubble that I'd been in, in high school and in my family, and i just kind of went crazy," Parrish said.

Parrish and her boyfriend, Ethan Colclasure, attend the University of Georgia. For them, partying five nights a week was the norm.

"It's definitely the norm to be drunk and to have premarital sex and just kinda live a very -- it's all about me, whatever I can get tonight," Colclasure said. "My grades suffered, I had a great social life but that's pretty much all I had. My spiritual life and my academics suffered a lot."

Parrish said she was having so much fun at first, she didn't realize she had lost something important.

"When I was a freshman my first semester I did not, I didn't go to church at all," she said. "I was having so much fun with all the boys and with all the partying, with all the friends. It didn't really occur to me that I was missing something."

Having Faith

Parrish's new priorities were disappointing news for her parents, Craig and Sherri Parrish, who were youth ministers back home in Nashville. The Parrishes recognized that kids raised in spiritual homes could be challenged by a whole new world of temptations on campus.

"I was very worried about Ashley getting drunk at a party and not being able to use her full mind and make poor decisions or have someone take advantage of her and hurt her in any way," Sherri Parrish said.

But her parents knew there was only so much they could do.

"You really, really do have to just trust that God is going to take charge and he is there, because you can't be there the whole time for them," said her husband.

Tony Arnold, the director of media relations for Campus Crusade for Christ, agrees with the Parrishes. "Often times you'll hear parents say: 'Well, we're just praying for our kids,' and I think that's very important," he said.

But Arnold advises parents like the Parrishes not only to pray but to gently remind their child of the values they consider most important -- without pushing too hard.

"I would e-mail her and usually at the bottom of the e-mail, I would put like a reference to a verse in the Bible," Craig Parrish said. "And the reason I didn't write out the verse is I wanted her to look it up, then she might read on either side of that individual verse."

Arnold advised parents: "We need to be preparing our children for going out into the world where everything they believe may, in fact, be challenged."

A recent UCLA study found many college students drift away from their religious upbringings. In the study, 52 percent of the students said they attended religious services frequently the year before entering college, but by their junior year attendance had dropped to 29 percent.

In Ashley Parrish's case it was a desperate emptiness that set in during her sophomore year that prompted a return to her faith. She joined Campus Crusade for Christ, made more time for personal prayer and Bible study, and started dating someone who experienced the same struggles.

Colclasure says he's still learning a lot about his faith. "I've just been learning more just about the freedom of the Gospel, and realizing you're not perfect and that no one expects you to be perfect."

"It's hard maintaining a Christian relationship within the context of a college," Parrish said. "But we learn from our struggles and from our temptations and from our mess-ups and every time we fall we get back up and we know we are given a second chance."

And parents should realize that their kids' struggles can often strengthen their faith. "I know that in my walk with the Lord, I needed those struggles," Parrish said. "And those, those times when I was the lowest in the middle of my freshman year, like, those are so imperative to who I am now."

What Can Parents Do?

So when kids stumble, how can parents help? Many experts say it's important to let them make mistakes so they can find their own spiritual path.

"Good Morning America" parenting expert Anne Pleshette Murphy said that parents shouldn't despair -- the UCLA study also found that 76 percent of college undergraduates want to have a spiritual life.

Murphy suggested the following tips for talking to college kids about religion:

Start slowly. Suggest that your child attend one organized religious service a week, or even attend a Bible class in a friend's dorm room. If that doesn't feel right, suggest a youth group, yoga class, meditation tape or even community service -- anything that might be nourishing for the soul. Most schools have volunteer community outreach programs that aren't necessarily religion based.

Study other religions. Most colleges offer religious studies classes; some even have an affiliated divinity school. Encourage your child to take a course in comparative religions or even attend an alternative service.

Share your own struggles with your faith. Talk about challenges you've faced, share examples of kindness and compassion, use e-mail to send passages from the book of your faith, or share stories. But don't expect -- or demand -- a reply.

For more information on spirituality on campus, visit www.beliefnet.com.

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