Relationships, Theology and Suffering: How College Students Grow Spiritually

Part 5 of series The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students. The fifth and final reflection on the spirituality of students attending Christian colleges based upon Todd’s national research project, informed by Spiritual Transformation Inventory (STI) data from over 5,000 students attending CCCU and ABHE colleges and universities.

by Todd W. Hall, PhD

We asked students across the United States to rate how various aspects of the school environment and programs impacted their spiritual development, ranging from very negative to very positive.

The top three growth facilitators were peer relationships, working through suffering and Bible/theology classes. This and numerous findings from both studies highlight the centrality of relationships and a biblical worldview for spiritual development. This suggests that we need to communicate a theological framework for growing through relationships, and for the role of suffering in spiritual growth. In addition, we need to develop a relational environment that will help students process their suffering in a growth-producing way.

Worldview Formation and Spiritual Growth

This is a stage when students begin put together the theological pieces of a Christian worldview. A junior I interviewed, who I’ll call Steve, talked about how he views his whole faith differently as a result of his Bible/theology classes at national known Christian University.

“[There were] all these things that I guess I didn’t think about before and didn’t really know existed from my faith in middle school and high school, before attending a Christian College,” he said. “So I would get in the Word but there was no theological understanding of piecing things together from Scripture. … I just feel like there has been this whole transformation of the way I view God and Christ and even my relationship with him.”

A Christian worldview, however, must transcend our head knowledge and permeate our souls. Research clearly indicates that a biblical worldview, morality and character become real in one’s life through close relationships, one of which is our relationship with God. Close human relationships, particularly with authority figures, are also crucial to help students see what it looks like in real life to live out integrity, a biblical worldview and, most of all, love.

The Role of Suffering in Spiritual Growth

Crises and trials are common in the loves of most college students. Over half the sample reported experiencing a crisis in the past year. When asked to describe their crises in an open-ended format, the most frequently reported crises included loss of relationship, relationship stresses and health concerns. We also asked students to describe their most difficult spiritual struggles, and the top three they reported were relational conflict, busyness and lust/sex/pornography.

Processing suffering was a key catalyst of spiritual growth, because it often gives students access to deep places in their soul that move them away from God — places we would not otherwise know existed. Trials shake up their negative gut-level expectations of God and other important people in our lives. Working through trials, however, always occurs in the context of relationships and community.

The Role of Relationships and Authoritative Communities in Spiritual Growth

The challenge for this stage is to navigate relationships with God and process of solidifying one’s identity and learning how to love.  A group of scholars recently developed the idea of “authoritative communities” as the kind of community that is necessary for human development. These are communities that provide structure (e.g., morality is embedded in the community) and love and warmth. These communities have an idea, even if implicit, of what it means to be a good person, and the leaders provide love to the younger members in order to help them become good people.

At its best, this is what a Christian College community can and should strive to be. College students, like all of us, are loved into loving. I think I speak for the Christian College administration, faculty and staff in saying that we are on a journey to try to do this better than we ever have before.