Keeping the Faith at a Christian University, Part 2

Oct 13, 2010 |Matthew Lee Anderson

While college is a time for questioning, it's not a time for doubt — at least not the way we generally think about it.  

PART 1: Keeping the Faith at a Christian University »

Let's return for a moment to why I went to college: I wanted to deepen my knowledge of God and how He has worked in history. That's a very different reason for attending a university than a lot of people will give — especially non-Christians. Colleges advertise themselves as places where students' assumptions about the world will be challenged and their horizons broadened.

That is precisely what a university should do. Mine did it, even though I wasn't looking for that kind of challenge when I went.

When it comes to the most important questions, Christian college students are in the peculiar situation of being convinced we have the answers even before we ask the question. In fact, many of our parents get a little nervous if we start asking questions too seriously — as though questions themselves will inevitably lead us outside the Christian faith.

This belief in the answers, which is right and good, too often leads to platitudes — answers that lack depth and are generally deployed far too early in the conversation. There's a process of questioning for which Christian education needs to allow room.

Let me be perfectly clear: The “Sunday school answers” are true. They correspond to reality. “Jesus loves me” is just about as good an answer as you can get to all the major questions of human existence. We can trust that those answers are true and make all kinds of arguments for them.

But part of the nature of education is to ask deeper and deeper questions and view the answers we discover in new and surprising ways. A platitude cuts off that process, and when handed to students who are honestly struggling with the intellectual foundations of their faith, it tends to make them feel isolated and frustrated.

I've seen firsthand that there are students at Christian colleges who struggle in this way. And occasionally, they get fed up and leave the faith.

Let me be blunt for a moment. When that happens, the effects of sin are almost always at work — effects that reach into a person's mind and distort the way he encounters reality. A lot of times, we derive our energy from what we're against, rather than what we're for. I call it “beleaguered minority syndrome” (BMS). When Christians head off to secular universities, they know they will be different from everyone else. That terrifies some people, but for those who suffer from BMS, being different is invigorating. Sometimes, it is a type of rebellion, except it's a rebellion into the gospel.

But when those who are contrarians at heart — and I certainly am — end up in Christian environments, we work to avoid being “that kind of Christian.” And occasionally, contrarians find enough to be opposed to that they leave the faith altogether.This doesn't explain everyone's deconversion story, of course. People leave the faith for lots of reasons. But there are people who are disposed to be contrarians, and they tend to make more waves in Christian communities than they would elsewhere.

While college is a time for questioning, it's not a time for doubt — at least not how we generally think about it. Questions asked from a posture of seeking understanding are different from those asked from a posture of skepticism. In this sense, doubt isn't benign. How we ask questions is a matter of the heart. Sometimes I would find myself demanding answers, rather than seeking answers from a prior position of faith.

Asking questions, then, is essential to a Christian college experience. After all, Christianity is true, which means that we can ask our most challenging, most penetrating, most troubling questions. And if we stare at it long enough, we'll see the answer. As some wise guy once said, all who seek, find.

Cultivating your Faith in a Christian College

How, then, should students cultivate their faith while attending a Christian college? Here are a few tips I would propose:

Cultivate a holy intentionality. Prayer chapels are generally the most underused areas of any college campus. While I would occasionally find my way there, I regret not spending more time cultivating the life of prayer in college.

The same is true of fasting and Bible study. The freedoms of college life make it the best environment many people will ever have to engage in regular fasting and Bible reading. Christian colleges are amazing training grounds to learn about Scripture. But there are different ways of reading Scripture, and studying the Bible for class is no substitute for saturating our lives with the Word in order to encounter the living God.

Do not give up meeting together. Christian colleges are not churches. They share some of the same features, but they are also one-generational communities that don't generally take communion regularly. While I did go to church during college, I attended four churches in four years, which made it difficult to cultivate the sort of inter-generational fellowship that Scripture says is essential.

Spend time off campus. I don't mean at the mall, shopping. Spend time with real people in their homes. Spend time serving the hurting and loving the lost. Spend time with your family.

Many Christian colleges do a great job of providing means of getting beyond campus, and I wish I had taken greater advantage of them to cultivate the spiritual discipline of service. But even beyond that, college is an artificial environment, and spending time away from campus would have helped me see more clearly the challenges I was facing that were unique to college life.

Be for the gospel, not against those who don't quite get it. Living “for the gospel” means being gracious and charitable toward everyone — including those with whom you disagree. This is the only way to avoid “beleaguered minority syndrome.” And it will help you avoid cynicism.

Ask the hardest questions you can, but ask them in a community of friends who love Jesus. I was blessed in my friendships. My friends encouraged me to ask hard questions and were patient with me as I sought answers. Our friendships, our knowledge and even our faith grew as we rigorously tested Scripture.

Sing praise. My senior year, when I allowed cynicism to take hold of me, my delight in worship slowly eroded. To this day, I can judge my spiritual health by the level of critique and cynicism in my heart during corporate gatherings.

The God of grace calls us, as people, to extend as much grace to those around us as we have been given. If we refuse to do so, we cloud our vision of our own dependency and imperfection. As Harold Best has put it, “A mature Christian is easily edified.” That's a lesson that college seniors need to hear.

* * *

Christian colleges are not "hostile environments." In fact, they provide an exceptional context for young adults to grow in knowledge and love. But because of that, the challenges they present are all the more subtle. By conflating my faith with the environment, I grew numb to deeper attitudes of the heart. This led to a sense of pride and cynicism that were only challenged when I traded the safe confines of the Christian college for the implicitly hostile world of business.

At some point amidst the excellent training I was receiving, the knowledge I was gaining, and the Christian activity I was enjoying, I forgot the most basic of biblical commands: “Let no man think more highly of himself than he ought” (Rom. 12:3).

Christian colleges need to be places where the gospel is repeated and reinforced. We need to be people who remind each other of the gospel, and who seek out friends who will do the same. Keeping the faith in a Christian college ultimately requires a community that is shaped by, and submissive to, Scripture and the Holy Spirit.

Copyright 2010 Matthew Anderson. All rights reserved.  

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