A Christian Faith That Thrives in College

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WelcomeToCollegeMost of us have our markers that tell us summer is over and it’s time to head back to school. For some it’s getting the kids ready for school while for others it’s the leaves turning into beautiful bright colors. For me, it’s the first full weekend of college football! It brings me back not only to my own time as a graduate student in Boulder, Colorado but also the twenty three years serving as a Cru staff member/campus director then as college pastor at the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California.

I’ve been asked by many students and parents what it takes for a Christian to thrive in college. It’s a good question because, frankly, I’ve seen a lot of students who had a vibrant faith while in high school, only to find when they went to college that it waned, disappeared, or worse, was rejected. I’m sure some who read this aren’t in college but you know someone who knows someone who knows someone in college. Feel free to post this or send it to them. Here is what I would strongly encourage any college student to do:

Get Connected with a Christian Group. I know students who chose where they went to college based on a church or parachurch (organizations that come up alongside the church that specialize in discipleship and evangelism) group on the campus. When your school hosts a day early in the semester where all the clubs/group are present at the student center, intentionally look for the Christian groups. Here’s what to look for (and interview them) – ask how long they have been on the campus, if they are student or staff led (in my opinion it’s good to have actual staff there because it is the older mentoring the younger and not just young leading young), ask if they have small groups that actually do something like evangelism or the goal is to train people to disciple others, ask if they have a summer missions program, and ask what they think the gospel is (you might be surprised at the answer you get). Here’s the critical part… find a group right away and get connected in relationally because left to itself the inertia of the first few weeks of college is to lessen the importance of faith.

Pay Attention to Your Heart.  Students have often told me, “I don’t know why but I just got into college life and put my faith on the shelf.” Like Gollum who was fascinated with the shiny ring, calling it “his Precious”, you will find yourself gravitating toward that which seems precious or fun while serving as a substitute for a real, living, personal God. There is a reason why partying, academics, watching Netflix all day and long into the night seem to pull you in. It’s because your heart is trying to answer some deeply profound questions that adults have to wrestle with: Who will accept me? What’s meaningful in my life that brings not a sense of purpose but deep fulfillment? What’s worth giving my life to? Why even apply myself at times? What comes out of you shouldn’t surprise you. It’s the core of you that wants something “transcendent” (something other than you to give you meaning, purpose and power). What’s amazing about human beings is how easy it is for them to replace God with anything else that serves as an ultimate in their life. My translation of Blaise Pascal in The Pensees would be something like, “The existential hole that seems to reside in your heart can only be filled by an eternal, loving person. Nothing temporal will ever satisfy you.”

Pay Attention to Your Mind. For many Christians who head off to college, their Christian faith has reduced to a kind of sin management. Because right behavior was the focus growing up, when the Christian faith “doesn’t work” it’s much easier to reject it. Then when you come up against thoughtful people who see Christianity more as wishful thinking, it’s easier for you to lump their spiritual upbringing as a kind of mythology that your parents used to keep you behaving right. However, in my experience, it’s absolutely essential for you to get rooted in the understanding that Christianity is not blind or wishful thinking but actually intellectually robust. There has been in history and there is today an intellectual aspect today that should not be dismissed quickly. For instance, while liberal arts departments are becoming increasingly hostile toward evangelical Christians, there has been a wonderful resurgence of Christian philosophers who are intellectually virtuous and yet hold to key tenets of historical Christianity. All this to say, as a college student you don’t need to settle for the conclusion that Christians are dumb or intellectually dishonest.  Maybe some (or many) are but you don’t need to be!

Own Your Faith. Christian Smith’s landmark study of high school students concluded that their “faith” could be best be described as something he called, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”:

Moralistic – Christianity is to help me be a good, nice, kind, pleasant person. This means I have to work on self-improvement and do my best to be successful.

Therapeutic – God exists really to make me happy or to feel good. Christianity is not to be taken too seriously because it would get in the way of me and what makes me feel good. When Christianity doesn’t make me feel good I get bored.

Deism – God exists and He’s the one who created everything. But the point of life is not to have Him involved in all areas of my life. It’s to confine Him to the religious part. There are some areas that are just too important and therefore I must keep them for myself. In effect, I acknowledge a God but He’s pretty much left it to me to fend for myself.

In short, God becomes less of a person who is intimately involved in the affairs of our lives, who because of Christ places His stamp of approval upon us (Hebrew 13:5), and promises us a Kingdom life that we have always deeply wanted, and becomes more an object who serves to meet my needs. Owning your faith is remembering that you are not the point of it all. Neither are you awesome. But there is someone who is the point, who is Awesome and who is presently with you. What if the gospel you have heard and employed in your life is simply about “getting saved” or “being good”? That’s not sufficient to carry you through life nor will it provide the goods in life that describe what it means to live well in life (not just be nice or good). Go back and gain a fuller understanding of just how robust the gospel is!

Regularly Attend a Local Church. The ongoing discussion as long as I can remember is should a church have priority or should a campus organization? I don’t want to get into all the arguments for or against. I would simply say, if you have a vibrant campus ministry, get connected and see it as training for life. Get rooted and grounded in your faith where your faith becomes your own in a way that will last when you get out of college. But don’t ignore church. Why? Probably from a pragmatic standpoint, at some point you will graduate and leave the campus. Stay connected to a gospel-centered church because at some point you will serve the local church. As a pastor we want to take everything good that you learned while giving yourself to the Lord’s Kingdom work on a campus and translate that to helping serve the local church. As pastors we want to see the value of where you in life and affirm that while continuing to invite you to remain connected in worship to a church. Now if you don’t have a college ministry on your campus, then find an older person at church who can mentor you, train you, send you out to share your faith, help you engage in regular spiritual practices, while serving the local church! Learn how to give your life away and not hoard it all to yourself!

Here’s a couple of books (besides immersing yourself in the gospel accounts and the Psalms)  I would highly recommend as reading for every Christian that’s headed to college. I know and trust both of them and they were written with a college student in mind: Metamorpha by Kyle Strobel and Mind Your Faith by David Horner. In addition, I would strongly suggest students read people like Tim Keller’s Reasons for God, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Even if you have to find others to discuss and figure out what the authors are saying, it’s worth it to find likeminded people who will keep you sharp in your thinking and living. 

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