The greatest threat to my relationship with Jesus in college was … college.
You’re probably familiar with the horror stories associated with secular universities: the debauchery of dorm life, the loneliness of being the only Christian, the challenge of hostile and derogatory professors, the constant pressure to conform. Secular universities are undoubtedly challenging places for Christians. There’s a reason why ministries that prepare high school graduates to thrive at such places have exploded during the last 20 years.
But I didn’t go to one of those universities. My time at college wasn’t spent warding off the temptations of alcohol or combating secular ideologies in the classroom.
I went to a private, Christian university. I was faced with the impossible struggle of deciding whether to attend chapel on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, or Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sunday night. We prayed before class, prayed after class, prayed before meals—the really spiritual among us even prayed before bed.
We consumed so much of the Bible in our classes that the university practically handed us a minor in it. And our environment was so unique that we would jokingly refer to the “bubble” that surrounded our beautiful little campus, keeping out the forces of evil and Britney Spears.
OK, so we weren’t joking about the bubble; we were convinced it was really there, Truman Show style. Some even claimed to see it if they squinted hard enough.
I have fond memories of my time in college. It was incredibly beneficial in ways that I am only now starting to realize. But having the benefit of hindsight, it’s also clear to me that I waltzed through my college experience oblivious to some of the hidden challenges and threats it posed to my faith.
A Firm Foundation
When I left for college, I had one mission: build a “firm foundation.” I looked at those four years as a period of intense theological and pastoral training, and I was determined to set myself up for a lifetime of spiritual success. I was going to leave behind the moral failures of high school and finally reach maturity as a Christian.
That language—of building a firm foundation for our faith—is pretty common for students heading into Christian universities. And there is something admirable about it. It conveys a sense of longing for stability and depth in our relationships with God. And those are precisely the sorts of qualities we should pursue.
But it also obscures a deep fact about the nature of Christian faith, a fact that undermines the language of foundations: We don’t get to build the foundation of our faith. If anything, it’s built for us. To switch the metaphors, faith is a gift, not something we buy for ourselves.
But in Scripture, when gifts are given we’re expected to do something with them. When Luke tells the parable of the talents, the steward gives the servants money, then chastises one of them for not increasing what he was given. The same applies to faith: When given, it engenders a desire and an obligation to cultivate it. Paul can speak in one sentence of the fact that his justification comes from outside of himself, and switch to earnest and passionate language about pursuing the prize of the upward call of God in the next.
But the one thing we’re incapable of doing is building the foundation. At best, we participate in building the house on top. (But even so, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” —Psalm 127:1.)
What does this have to do with keeping your faith in a Christian college? Plenty. Because the foundation is not of our own making, we should not approach the issue out of a fearful anxiety. Instead, we can be courageous, taking into account not only our weakness as Christians and the reality of a spiteful adversary, but the triumph of the resurrection of Jesus and his empowering Holy Spirit.
A Holy Intentionality
When people go off to secular universities or colleges, they know what they’re getting themselves into. Judging by the increase of enrollment at Christian universities, I’d say we have done a pretty good job of warning folks about the challenges and dangers of secular higher education.
But the awareness of those dangers allows for—and requires—a significant degree of intentionality if Christians aim to flourish in a secular environment. Because the institutional pressures are working against cultivating a robust faith, maintaining one requires the discipline of structuring your life to make room for a deep relationship with God.
But in a Christian college, it’s easy to let the environment do all the spiritual heavy lifting. Like it did for me. I did my chapel time. I prayed before classes. I even talked to the occasional non-Christian or two on the weekends (conversations that went something like, “Decaf venti white-chocolate mocha … thanks”). Christianity—and the peculiar language of “Christianese”—pervaded the atmosphere. As a result, I struggled to carve out time to cultivate the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, Scripture intake and fasting.
In other words, Christian colleges enable students to confuse the culture with the relationship, which empowers external factors to take precedence. I’m all for Christian community, and the friendships I gained during my time are still the deepest I have. But there is no substitute for quiet contemplation of God in His Word and through prayer. And the easy and pervasive spirituality of the Christian college environment can dull our awareness of our sin, and even more foundational, our need for grace.
I eventually wearied of the environment and longed to get beyond “the bubble.” Chapel went from welcome refreshment as a freshman to dreary drudgery as a senior. By the end, I was no longer grateful for the opportunity (of a lifetime!) to worship communally multiple times a week and to be fed by the preaching of God’s Word. I was required to go, so I went. And if the sermon or the worship didn’t meet my standards, well, I had both barrels of biblical information (thanks, Bible classes!) loaded to critique and dismiss the speaker.
But my irritation had nothing to do with the godly frustration of being inside a cocoon for too long. Instead, I nursed a subtle and pernicious cynicism about the people around me. By the time I was a senior, I had no desire to go to chapel and hear one more bad sermon. I couldn’t deign to sing another theologically trite worship song. And everywhere I went, I began to distinguish between the real Christians (who, like me, managed to be unremittingly depressing in their authenticity) and those who were just playing the game.
Cynicism of that sort isn’t simply a lie about the world or the people around us. In my case, it was grounded in a false view of my own spiritual maturity that was quickly exposed when I left the Christian college environment. As I entered the “real world,” it became clear that I had failed those four years to build the disciplines and habits of the spiritual life in the way that I would have had to do in a secular environment. But rather than appreciating the environment and maximizing it through cultivating personal holiness, I sneered at the simplicity of it all and mocked those who didn’t “get it.”
Copyright 2010 Matthew Anderson. All rights reserved.