I’ve just finished reading a book that everyone who works with youth (and college students) should read. It’s not trendy, snazzy, or eye-catching and you would probably never pick it up in a bookstore, but it is a must-read because of the unsettling nature of its contents. It’s called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. It reports the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion, one of the most extensive studies ever done about this subject. One of the findings of the report is that while a vast majority of teens aged 13-17 believe in God (84%), the number of students who actually claim that their religious faith makes a difference in their lives is less optimistic. Roughly half of teens surveyed said that their faith was either very or extremely important in shaping their daily life. However, when it came to whether or not teens felt close to God, just over a third of them said they felt very or extremely close. Another third said they felt somewhat close to God and a full third feel some level of distance from God. Even the number of students who report praying at least once daily is 38%. I’ll bet that number jumps up on test day!
While this study was focused on teenagers, it is pretty safe to say that these statistics are probably pretty similar for college students as well. At the very least, they describe our incoming freshmen each semester. These statistics probably need much further clarification, but I think it is safe to draw at least one conclusion: The overwhelming majority of teens do not report “feeling close” to God. I could speculate on why they don’t “feel close” to God, but I’ll leave that for another day. The question that I do want to think about is this: Does it matter if students feel intimacy with God? My overwhelming answer is: You bet!
Intimacy with God allows for God to teach us the things that we can’t learn individually, things like integrity, courage, conviction. The person of Jesus Christ must give us his example when we learn things like forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. Intimacy with God allows for the fruit of the Spirit to develop in our lives. Without intimacy with God, we cannot know TRUE love, peace, and joy. Sure, we can know a version of those things, but not the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice in order for the Beloved to know love. Not the kind of peace that just calms the situation, but the kind that passes all understanding and restores the damaged sides to their pre-conflict status. Not the kind of joy that experiences a sense of happiness because all seems to be right in the world for the moment, but the kind of joy that is rooted in hope for the future, regardless of present circumstances. Intimacy with God teaches us what it means to be mature in Christ.
I worry sometimes about Christians who have answers about their faith that are coherent, well-reasoned, and orthodox, but don’t have the fruit of the Spirit that can only be borne out of intimacy with God. I think the apostle Paul worried about that, too, when he said: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3). The only way to know this kind of love is by spending time with God fostering one’s relationship. I would love to ask the students that feel “distant,” or at the very least, “not very close,” to God how much time they spend fostering their relationship with him. How much time do they spend in prayer, in Christian fellowship, in Bible Study, in practicing the spiritual disciplines? I pray that the distant feelings would drive students to learning about intimacy with God. Intimacy that bears fruit that sustains us when times are tough. That builds our character to do things that require conviction. That renews our mind so that we might think like Christ thinks. Intimacy that is more than just “warm fuzzies,” but rather, provides what our searching souls are looking for.