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Fall 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 2 · pp. 186–193 

Developmental Theory and Ministry to College Youth

Randy Keeler

The student sitting in my office before me had exhausted all of his options. At least that is what he thought. The relationship with his girlfriend was in shambles, and he was lonely. His academic performance had dropped significantly, raising doubts as to future vocational options. Family tensions distanced him from his parents, adding to his sense of isolation from significant others. Substance abuse had ruined his collegiate athletic career, intensifying his sense of personal failure. A series of bad choices had snowballed; he was now wondering if there was anything in life which could give him hope.

Ministry with college-age youth needs to be deliberate and intentional in order to effectively meet the growth changes invading their lives.

Although raised in a Christian home, he had distanced himself from God. Now, however, he was ready to meet God in a new way and to find something worth hanging on to. It was at this point he was introduced to Jesus Christ in whom he put his hope and trust. In Jesus he found a genuine purpose for his life, one that has carried him into a new and positive direction.

Although this young man’s story is an extreme case, it is indicative of the life struggles and decisions with which college-age young adults grapple. Many others in this age group have shared their journeys with me, and though each is unique, similar themes present themselves. {187} Issues of relationships, significant others, meaning and direction in life, faith convictions, and family ties, although not always overtly present, are at the forefront for this age group.

College-age young adults are at a pivotal point in their life journeys. The church has a unique opportunity to challenge them to be the present and future bearers of the gospel message to their generation. The very stages where young adults exist which give the church great opportunity, at the same time can also distance the individual from sources of spiritual authority. Especially is this true when they have been removed from their communities of origin. The challenge of the church is to capture the imagination and passion for spiritual growth in the college-age student at the very time they may be experiencing tremendous uncertainty and disorientation.


Spiritual formation that takes into account the whole person considers all aspects of the individual’s life: spirit, mind, heart, emotions, will, and body. Significant work by theorists who have studied the life stages of individual persons gives us clues as to where young adults can be placed on the developmental ladder. Understanding where they are can increase our ministry effectiveness.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget’s work in cognitive development reveals that young adults are at the prime of their ability to do abstract thinking and enjoy talking about deeper and more difficult issues. 1 Unfortunately, many churches are uncomfortable entertaining these difficult questions; they may actually stifle creative and imaginative dialogue because it tests the strength of longstanding church doctrines or positions.

William Perry

William Perry has suggested that college-age students in fact need to pass through various stages of intellectual-ethical reflection in order to appropriate a personal faith. Three critical stages identified by Perry include (1) a dualistic or polarized worldview in which all problems are viewed simplistically as having either a right or wrong answer, (2) multiplicity in which several possible good answers to problems are recognized, and (3) the final level where a student recognizes the need to press through pluralism to the point of making personal commitments. 2

Students may get stuck in either the first stage mentioned above (because a two-value world is safer) or the second (cynicism makes it {188} easier to avoid commitment and responsibility). However, the end result is usually a place where the church can connect, though getting there may be conceived as a battle, and the student may even appear to have lost faith.

James Fowler

James Fowler relies heavily on Piaget’s cognitive development work in his theory of faith development and has identified a fourth stage of faith characteristic of the college-age years. He calls this stage “individuative-reflective” faith during which an individual examines and questions his or her beliefs and considers reshaping earlier understandings. A personal ownership of one’s faith emerges but not without struggles.

The previous stage—the third, “synthetic-conventional”—in Fowler’s work is where faith is largely shaped by relationships. Faith here is affected by concerns for identity and results in conforming to the expectations of others. There is a clear perception of who is in and out of the community of faith based on their conforming to the expectations of the group. A deep hunger exists for a personal relationship with a God who knows, loves, and affirms. The tension between these third and fourth stages concerns owning one’s faith as opposed to having it predetermined and shaped by the community. Fowler notes, as does Perry, that the questioning and cynicism during stage four can be so direct that it may make those in stage three very uncomfortable. 3

Erik Erikson

An important developmental theory that helps us understand changes in the emotions and social interchanges of individuals is the work of Erik Erikson. Each of these changes, referred to as “epigenesis,” occurs as periods of conflict and resolution happen throughout life. 4 The psychosocial crisis particularly relevant for college-age young adults would be individual identity versus identity confusion which typically takes place between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. It is during this life stage that young adults are developing their personal identity while asking questions like, “What is the meaning of my life?” “Who am I?” and “Where am I going in life?” Successful grappling with this crisis will set the individual on a path which they can see as a part of the larger whole in their life. Unsuccessful resolution will leave the individual struggling to find meaning and direction.

The Erikson stage immediately following this one is intimacy versus isolation. Particularly towards the end of one’s college experience, {189} unresolved attempts at developing intimacy with a significant other of the opposite sex and other close same-gender friendships can create a sense of desperation: the individual considers the possibility of being isolated from others during the rest of his or her adult life. Security in the establishment of these relationships, on the other hand, allows one to begin their vocational career with confidence.


The developmental theories presented above have a number of implications for ministry with college-age young adults. The following are offered as suggestions for helping churches to minister to and walk alongside young adults during their college years.

Opportunities for Commitment

In light of the crucial faith stages where college students find themselves, the church needs to be aggressive in providing opportunities for spiritual commitment. At a time of life when the big questions relevant to personal identity are being asked, as Erikson points out, the issue can be shaped in a spiritual direction: “Who am I in Christ?” While students are asking, “What is the purpose of my life,” the church can propose, “What is the purpose of my life in Christ, and how will that affect my vocational decisions?”

Our young adults need to be challenged to put Christ at the center of their lives, rather than as one of several options. The college years are when a young adult should be challenged to own their faith for themselves. Being enculturated in the faith is not enough. Will their faith stand the test beyond their communities of origin?

Growing Deeper

Continued growth and development in spirituality occurs largely through the practice of spiritual disciplines, including those of abstinence and engagement. Disciplines of abstinence include solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice. Disciplines of engagement include biblical study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission. 5

Stagnation in one’s faith can occur unless intentional efforts are made for growth. First Timothy 4:7b says, “Train yourself to be godly” (NIV, passim). There is work required in spiritual growth, and we are encouraged to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in that growth. The church itself needs to be serious enough in its practice of the disciplines that its young adults are inspired to put them into personal use in their lives. {190}

Gift Discernment

A step further in the commitment process is the question of gift discernment. As young adults realize what spiritual gifts they have and are encouraged by significant adults to use them, they begin to see where God can employ them in the work of his church. Paul tells us that one of the purposes of the church is to “prepare God’s people for works of service” (Eph. 4:12).

Thomas Groome has long been an advocate for experiential learning. We can learn from his work that the more we encourage individuals to do things in the work of the Lord, the more they internalize and own it for themselves. 6 On the college campus we try to provide as many opportunities for spiritual leadership as possible for students to begin doing ministry among their peers. Examples include reading Scripture in chapel and being a residence hall chaplain.

When given these kinds of opportunities, a student can begin to get a vision for ways God can use them in the work of his church. Local congregations can also do this by involving young adults in leading singing or worship, reading Scripture, and teaching vacation Bible school, among others. Knowing that there is a shortage of ministerial leadership across denominations, the church needs to be aggressive in its work alongside the Holy Spirit in calling out young people for ministry vocations.

Importance of Relationships

When I am asked for some of the life issues which college students want to talk to me about, I usually respond that there are three. First, they want to talk about relationships, then they want to talk about relationships, and finally, they want to pursue the topic of relationships. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, because there are other life issues we talk about, but as we say in Student Life here on the Bluffton College campus, “It’s all about relationships.” As Erikson identifies for us, this is a crucial concern of young adults.

Ministries with young adults need to provide opportunities for them to interact with their peers and form healthy Christ-centered friendships. Faith is made real when the effects of faith are seen in others, especially those of the same age. Countless students have given testimony to how their faith has grown during the college years because of the friends they surrounded themselves with and the intimacy in spiritual growth they have experienced together. My experience has shown that forming a college-age group is most effective when the young adults themselves are given leadership roles while advised and helped by an older adult. {191}

Mentors and Role Models

Young adults are seeking older adults who have worked through life’s struggles and can give them a sign of hope that there is life on the other side. It is significant for them to have mentors or role models walking alongside them who can listen to their stories, offer advice when needed, and demonstrate an unconditional love during even the toughest of times. The church should pay close attention to those with whom the college student has natural ties from within the congregation, and also those who have the potential of developing ties. Past Sunday school teachers and youth group sponsors would be natural persons to maintain contact, perhaps through sending cards and letters (or e-mails) as well as campus visits. Individuals in the same profession to which the college student aspires may want to take a personal interest in their development.

Relationships like this offer a connection to their home congregation demonstrating that they are still cared for and not forgotten. However, it is important that those individuals who relate to the college student have themselves struggled with some of the same issues. Those who have worked through stage four of Fowler’s faith development theory are the best prepared to discuss some of the questions which may arise. These mentors can help to model the intellectual resolve of difficult issues. Churches may wish to establish intentional mentoring relationships for their college-age young adults so that when the student is home on breaks, the student has someone to relate to.

Support of the Christian Community

A sense of continued interest and support by a congregation in the life of its college students is definitely felt. Students can be seen in our student union over the lunch hour excited about the mail they received that was not junk mail, and reading church newsletters or copies of past church bulletins. It is an important event for students when their pastor from home visits campus for the sole reason of seeing them and taking them out to dinner—to get away from college for awhile and experience a “real” meal. Financial support is important during these years when the individual may have limited resources to pursue their calling.

Church-college matching scholarship grants can make the attendance at a Christian college more affordable and a viable option. Congregational support for summer ministry opportunities speaks volumes to the young adult. Mission experiences, summer camp employment, and pastoral internships do not usually provide help toward college tuition for the following year, so support is needed by the student to pay {192} tuition bills. The spiritual and emotional ties with a college-age young adult are strengthened when their home congregation takes an interest in their continued development to the extent of offering financial assistance.


Developmental theorists have helped to identify key life transition issues which confront young adults. The church must consider how to best meet these challenges in order to do effective ministry among college-age young adults. When college students are out of sight on the college and university campuses, it is easy to put them out of mind.

This ministry cannot be contained within one person but requires a broad involvement of the entire congregation since the strength of the community helps to foster and maintain relational spiritual contact. The changes occurring in the life of the college-age young adult may be dramatic. These changes can also contribute to the person’s journey of faith in Jesus Christ as they are offered adult challenges and are given ways to exercise their emerging Spirit-given gifts and passions in the life of the church.


  1. James C. Wilhoit and John M. Dettoni, Nurture That Is Christian (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1995). A chapter in this book by James E. Plueddemann, entitled “The Power of Piaget,” gives a more extensive explanation of the significance of Piaget’s work for the understanding of spiritual formation.
  2. William G. Perry Jr., Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970).
  3. James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1981).
  4. A summary of Erikson’s work, relating it to the perspective of Christian Education, can be found in a text written by Robert W. Pazmiño, Foundational Issues in Christian Education: An Introduction in Evangelical Perspective, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), 200-203.
  5. For a more extensive study of the disciplines, Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives {193} (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), is an excellent resource. These specific disciplines were taken from his list on p. 158.
  6. Thomas H. Groome, Christian Religious Education (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1980).
Randy Keeler has been the campus pastor at Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, for eleven years. Previous to that he was the youth and young adult minister for the Mennonite conferences in eastern Pennsylvania. He earned his undergraduate degree from Bluffton College and his M.Div. from Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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