Can We “See” Spiritual Vitality?

Posted on Posted in University SLS

Christian colleges and universities claim to be a better place for Christian students to study, learn, and grow than secular universities provide. Recent innovations in research suggest that they may be right. Faith-based institutions are keeping their promise to catalyze student spiritual vitality. Now they can prove it.

What Christian Colleges & Universities Provide

Higher education, particularly in the United States and Europe, had its origins in Christian thought and scientific research. The two perspectives were seen as complementary. In the middle of the 20th century, however, things began to change. If you attended a science class in a public university from the 1960s on, you may have been told that faith and science are irreconcilable. The secular academy embraced the feelings of Karl Marx, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

For obvious reasons, Christian educators disagreed and renewed their efforts to provide high quality college and university experiences where both science and faith were given their due. These faith-based institutions set out to provide an environment where students could grow in faith, learning, and living. The question remained, though, do students at Christian colleges and universities actually grow spiritually? If so, how do you know?

Parents, donors, and other stakeholders want to know that their investment in a Christian higher education really pays off.

Can We See Spiritual Vitality?

In the 21st century, everyone in higher education is concerned about costs. Tuition is too high. The U.S. government has invested too much of its national debt in student loans. Default rates on student loans are too high. The entire system seems to be circling the drain…

Consequently, the U.S. Department of Education is pressuring regional accrediting associations to make sure that every accredited college and university in the land delivers on their promises. Makes sense, right? But what if one of your promises is that you help students grow spiritually? We cannot see spiritual vitality any more than we can see intelligence or personality. A student’s spiritual condition is not directly observable.

No problem. Some critics of Christian higher education urge faith-based institutions to simply drop their claim that they catalyze spiritual vitality. “Just admit it,” they say, “you’re just like us.” The critics are wrong. Christian colleges and universities provide a critical setting in which emerging adults can develop a mature faith that will last a lifetime.

Science in Service of Faith

MorningBibleStudyRecent advances in the social sciences have allowed Christian researchers to see the invisible: student spiritual vitality. As students grow closer to God, they also grow closer to other people, just as Jesus said it would be. Their beliefs, attitudes, values, spiritual practices, and actions all change in systematic, observable ways.

Working with partners who care about the spiritual lives of church-going adults, we have developed the University Spiritual Life Survey. The survey allows students to consider their spiritual lives in a systematic, user-friendly fashion, and it provides campus leaders with information on how their ministry programs are working. One dean of students wrote:

It can be challenging enough to have to identify something quantifiable and measurable for assessing the spiritual lives of students, but the University SLS manages to accomplish it while presenting a non-judgmental approach for students to be able to answer the survey honestly and critically. [more…]

Survey research like the University SLS gives Christian colleges and universities the tools they need to understand how their students grow spiritually and to design ministries that make a difference in their students’ lives.

It’s ironic. The secular scientists who insisted that faith is “the opium of the people” actually helped to develop the tools that proved their hypothesis wrong. Science is proving that faith is real and is giving us tools to see spiritual vitality in our students.

For more information on the University Spiritual Life Survey, visit

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