How Not to Lose Your Faith in College

Sep 22, 2009 |Thabiti Anyabwile

If you don't want to lose your faith in college, you need a plan.

The opportunity to counsel people in the midst of important life transitions is one of the great privileges of serving as a pastor. There are marriages, deaths, new birth and career transitions. In all of them, people tend to come for prayer and counsel.

Sherry was about to make an important life transition when her parents brought her to see me. It happens a lot. And it's a joy as a pastor to be there. The young person is about to go off to college, the parents are nervous and the prospective collegian is all kinds of excited.

The trick: How can I both encourage their excitement and not send the parent into cardiac arrest?

What I've found in these counseling situations is that typically the prospective college student has no definite plan for surviving college as a Christian. They've very often been raised in the thick, semi-transparent plastic Christian bubble, and the challenges of toxin-laced, free oxygen-based life is new, alluring, and usually more than the perky teenager is bargaining for.

Sherry is intelligent, a good student who makes friends easily. Her father has invested in her spiritually and given her all "the talks" he can think of. Sitting across the table, he needs the reassurance that comes from having someone else tell her the same things. Sherry needs the external confirmation in order to know her father isn't some overly anxious, overly protective dad. She is smart, but she knows little about the world. He knows a fair amount about the world, but he can't know how his daughter will fare in the world. Ignorance wears many faces ... bliss and worry.

In these cases, I usually share a few basic exhortations.

Find and join a good church

This is task number one. In fact, if there's opportunity to influence the list of prospective students, it's wise to first pick the cities with strong churches and then consider schools nearby. Why should someone neglect their spiritual lives for four or more years simply because they're going to college? Many don't intend to inflict such neglect on themselves, but that's what happens when they head off to college with no idea where they will receive regular instruction from the Word, spiritual care and fellowship.

A good church is one where the exposition of the Scripture is central to the preaching and the life of the congregation. It's a place where membership is practiced; that is, where pastors take seriously their responsibility for overseeing souls in their care and members submit to that care and care for each other, in part, by officially joining the church.

Joining a church is a declaration that you want to be cared for spiritually by the congregation and that you're pledging yourself to care for others. And a good church, then, is a place where accountability, encouragement, and both positive and corrective discipline are practiced.

Forget about the allurements of singles groups or college ministries. Those can be very beneficial, but they're not the stuff upon which a solid church is based.

Sherry hadn't thought of finding a church. She didn't know the area surrounding the campus at all. If she were to remain a growing Christian in college she needed to correct this omission right away. I scribbled a note to contact pastor friends who may have some recommendations.

Choose your friends with biblical criteria in view

Sooner or later, most people come to realize that they need to relinquish their passive approach to friendships. It's better if we realize it sooner rather than later.

Since Sherry wasn't going off to schools with a bevy of friends in tow, she would be addressing this issue very soon. "How will you select friends?" I asked her. "Friends?" she replied. "I assume I'd just meet people and make friends the way people normally do."

Her assumption was that she'd just "bump into" friends. They would grow up around her ... naturally. Though we talk about "making friends," few people really set out to "make" them. However, intentional cultivation of friendships may make all the difference between a rich college experience and one filled with frustration, alienation, broken relationships, and other kinds of pains. Since most adults look back on their college days as the time when they discovered lifelong friends, being intentional at this point is fairly important.

Sherry and I opened the Bible to Proverbs 31 and 1 Timothy 3. "Why not think about potential friends through the grid of one or both of these chapters? If these characteristics are representative of people that God commends, why not look for these characteristics in your friends?"

Now, I wasn't recommending an interview form with background checks. I save that for the potential courtship talk! But, in order to have a healthy college experience, a healthy set of friends is near essential. Campus Christian fellowships are a good place to start (InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, etc.).

And don't be afraid to keep an eye out for older students of the same gender, Christian graduate students. They'll offer both friendship and mentorship, having already passed through undergraduate school and picked up a measure of skill, responsibility, and mature outlook.

At all costs, remain sexually pure

This is really the point that dads listen most interestedly. His head nods rather vigorously like those bobble head figures glued to automobile dash boards. Moms are more pensive, but they're thinking the same thing: "God, I pray you would keep him or her out of sexual sin."

And, here too, people need a plan. How will compromising sexual temptations be avoided? There are some obvious things to do:

  1. Pray. Be aware of the temptation and the danger before it comes. It's difficult to develop character in a pinch. Develop it in prayer and other disciplines before the temptation comes.
  2. Never place yourself in an intimate setting (dorm room or apartment) with a person of the opposite sex. Simply mark some places as "off limits" and avoid them like the bird flu.
  3. In courting or dating relationships, establish clear boundaries not to be crossed. Save your first kiss for the marriage altar. After all, why even rub your lips together with someone you have no interest in marrying?
  4. Seek transparent accountability with those trusted friends you've made at the good church and campus fellowship you've joined.
  5. Spend the lion's share of your free time with families from church instead of in undirected peer groups. Adopt an older couple as surrogate parents, invest in them and let them invest in you. Though college is seen as a time of increased autonomy, there is no reason that autonomy should be disassociated with family and the nurture of older persons who care about you.

The fleeting, momentary "pleasure" of sexual sin will not be worth the potential lifetime of scars and difficulties that follow. The backs of many a college education, career ambition, and family aspiration have been broken over the strong anvil of sexual sin.

Study

OK, this seems like a no-brainer. But considering the amount of remedial education now being funded in community college and university settings, and considering the dropout rates, this really needs to be said. Study. You are in school to receive an education — and that's a great privilege many people long to have.

But studying also has a spiritual benefit. Whatever it is you've decided to study may be used for the purposes of God. In retrospect, I wish I had been a better student during my college days. Fifteen years after college, I see how much of what was available could now be used of the Lord in the pastorate. I couldn't anticipate it then; I wasn't even a Christian. But I can see it now and there is a small pang of regret.

Almost any degree — engineering, nursing, teaching, accounting, you name it — can take you into world missions or local church service for the glory of God. Don't underestimate the importance of your study in the economy of God.

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). The older translations render this verse, "Study to show yourselves approved." It's the pastor's study of Scripture that is in view, but I think a legitimate application can be made to the student in the college classroom or the college grad entering into a new career.

Call home

If I've done my job in these treasured visits, the young adult is a little less sure of himself or herself. They have questions to think about that they didn't have when they arrived at my office. Now for the failsafe option: Remember to call home.

No one has all the answers. No one is prepared for everything that may come their way. And no one has to live their Christian lives alone, as though following Jesus is a solo sport. When you hit those situations that are beyond you, call home. When you have questions that require prayer and careful thought, call home. No one will have your best interest in mind quite like your parents and family who are cheering for you.

And if in God's providence parents or family are not available, see recommendation number one above. Take it to members of your church family who are spiritually mature and who desire to see Christ Jesus exalted in your life and choices.

Remember the counsel of God

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight." (Prov. 3:5-6)

This is really the first, the continuing, and last thing to do as a Christian in college or young adult. Trust God in everything.

Charles Bridges, a famous English pastor during the 1800s, offered some very helpful words on Proverbs 3:5-6. He wrote:

Always plan for yourself in simple dependence on God. It is nothing less than self-idolatry to conceive that we can carry on even the ordinary matters of the day without his counsel. He loves to be consulted. Therefore take all they difficulties to be resolved by Him. Be in the habit of going to him in the first place — before self-will, self-pleasing, self-wisdom, human friends, convenience, expediency. Before any of these have been consulted go to God. Consider no circumstances too clear to need his directions. In all thy ways, small as well as great; in all thy concerns, personal or relative, temporal or eternal, let Him be supreme.Charles Bridges, Proverbs: Geneva Series of Commentaries (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust), pp. 24-25

In the final analysis, this is the answer for both the worried parent and the excited student. Trust the Lord in everything. There will be every worldly temptation and seduction, every fleshly deception posing as advantage and "wisdom," that subvert continual trust in the Lord. Resist them. Oppose them. Go to the Father in the Word, in complete reliance on Him and His promise.

* * *

After exhorting Sherry and her father to trust God, we turn our hearts to the Father in prayer. I can hear mumbled agreements as we ask the Lord for grace, wisdom, peace and every fruit of the Spirit. The prayer ends with a lingering "Amen."

The conversation has stirred more than either dad or daughter expected. Hearing what you know you need to hear has a way of both reassuring you and opening your eyes to the challenge of following Jesus in a fallen world.

Warm thank you's are offered. Then the sight I love to see most: dad and daughter walking down the corridor holding hands, smiling, and talking. The transition is still a big one, but they're welcoming it together.

Copyright 2007 Thabiti Anyabwile. All rights reserved.

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