At first, there didn't seem to be much an 80-something grandmother could do to help her church's college freshmen wrestle with the trials and temptations of their first weeks away at college. After all, she knew very little about Facebook, YouTube, online homework, smartphones or texting, let alone "sexting."
She did, however, know how to write letters. So that is what she did, writing personal letters to each student to let them know that she was praying for them, wishing them the best as they searched for a college church and looking forward to seeing them at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
According to church members, the "students sought her out and rushed to give her hugs and to say, 'Thank you,' whenever they came home," said Kara E. Powell, who teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and directs the Fuller Youth Institute.
However, another church member later stressed that the researcher had not heard the whole story. "Instead of writing one letter and that was that, she had actually written a letter to each of the students every week," said Powell.
This was one of the most striking stories that the seminary professor heard while doing follow-up work for the Youth Institute's six-year College Transition Project, which followed 500 Christian young people as they jumped from high school to college.
The goal was to find strategies for parents and religious leaders who wanted to help teens develop a personal faith that would "stick" when tested. The research was released earlier this year in a book entitled "Sticky Faith: Everyday ideas to build lasting faith in your kids," written by Powell and another Fuller colleague, Chap Clark.
The letter-writing grandmother, said Powell, was an example of one major lesson discovered during this process. After years of "segregating" teens off into their own niche, age-specific worship services and programs, there is evidence that young believers also profit from intergenerational contacts, conversations and mentoring projects with senior adults. Young people are also more likely to retain their faith if they helped teach the faith to the very young.
Right up front, the researchers admitted that the young people in this study had higher than average grade-point averages, were more likely to have been raised in unbroken homes and had grown up in churches large enough to employ youth ministers. That was the point.
Nevertheless, some of the results were sobering.
* When studies are combined, it appears that 40 to 50 percent of "churched" young people will abandon their faith -- at least during the college years.
* Only one in seven young people in the Fuller study felt they were ready for the personal, moral challenges of college.
* Events in the first two weeks establish patterns for many college careers, especially those linked to alcohol, sex and involvement in religious activities.
The finding that will inspire, or trouble, many parents, according to Powell and Clark, is that the faith practiced by most young people is rooted in the beliefs, values and choices that they see practiced in their own homes. If young people see their parents praying, it's more likely that they will pray. If they hear their parents weaving faith into the joys and trials of daily life, it's more likely that this behavior will "stick."
It's one thing to talk to children, said Powell. It's something else to find ways to truly communicate -- two-way communication -- with the young about faith, doubt, temptation and forgiveness. Breakthroughs can take place while discussing everything from homework to movies, from a parent's confessions about mistakes in the past to a child's hints about his or her hopes for the future.
"We are not saying that it will help if you lecture to your children about faith," she said. Instead, the goal is for "every parent to be a student of what their children love and, whether its sports or movies or who knows what, to be able to engage their children on that topic. You have to ask, 'What is my child passionate about?' You also have to be honest and let your children know what you're passionate about.
"Then you have to ask how you can bring faith into those conversations so that you can share your faith journeys. There is no way to force this. If it isn't happening naturally, the kids are going to know it."