(I posted this a year ago on my old blog. But since I did a talk on Monday partly based on it and it’s that time of year again, I thought I’d repost it.)
Around this time a year, across the world, multitudes of young Christians are embarking upon the adventure of their lifetimes. Whether they are starting or returning to college, the years spent pursuing a degree are, while difficult and challenging, deeply rewarding and, ultimately, a whole lot of fun.
These will be some of the best years of their lives.
Yet, some Christians (maybe concerned parents especially) are apprehensive about college. And not without reason. Statistics show that of all the young Christians who are active in church while they are teens, only half of them survive their twenties with their faith intact. While I don’t think college itself is to blame directly for this, I do believe that college, both in and out of the classroom, presents young Christians with real challenges. These challenges, both intellectual and moral, may – and do, in many cases – contribute to the loss of faith for many.
These challenges must be met and I think they can be. Having completed a higher degree with my faith intact and, indeed, deepened, here’s my humble take on how to do that.
1. Keep your devotional life active
Here I mean devotional life in a broad sense – prayer, study, service and personal holiness. College will eat away at your time and energy. That’s fine. But make sure you don’t neglect your relationship with God. Don’t just eke out time during the day and the week to pray, study and go to church. Take advantage of the unique opportunities going away to college, out of town, state or even country, gives you to experiment spiritually. Visit churches that do things differently from what you’re used to. Find a monastery close-by and silently pray there for a weekend. Seek God in your new natural surroundings. Use your college’s volunteer service and find way of serving people who need your help. Start doing yoga in the gym. College requires a priority adjustment, yes, but it also has unique ways to maintain and expand your devotional life. Use them.
2. Establish a Christian community
No one is a Christian alone. We are Christians together, in community. For many, going away to college means leaving their Christian community and losing the vital role such a community plays in their lives. The challenge for the Christian college student is to create a new community for themselves in order to be a better Christian. Find a good church. Make friends with other Christians. Find a mentor in someone you can look up to and who will listen to your questions and troubles. Get involved in campus fellowships. And don’t forget your community back home.
3. Don’t compromise morally
Don’t be too impressed by your new freedom. Rather, use your freedom to develop your character. Keep your wits about you. Down a pint or even two, but don’t get drunk out of your mind. Don’t move in with your significant other, even if it’s practical. Don’t date non-Christians. Don’t hook up. Smoke your pipe, but lay off the weed. Yes, your mom and dad aren’t looking, but you’re not a child anymore. Start living with integrity. You’re an adult now.
4. You’re not alone
If you do college right, it will challenge you on the deepest level. You’ll be exposed to ideas that might disturb you profoundly and make you doubt. That’s ok. You’re not alone. Everyone has doubts. At least, everyone who thinks has doubts. You can be certain that someone has asked those questions before. Smarter people than you have asked them and remained Christians. Some of the smartest people in history have been and are Christians. Be prepared to grow as you ask those deep questions. It’s painful sometimes, but stick with it and you’ll come out stronger in the end.
5. Christianity is bigger than you think
Perhaps you are finding, through science or Biblical scholarship or philosophy or whatever, that your conservative faith is starting to fall apart. Why not consider a more liberal faith? I’m serious. Not to sound too cavalier, but we Christian have 2000 years of precedent for all sorts of theological options. Dissatisfied with the Catholic hierarchy? I’m certain a lot of Protestant non-denom churches would love to have you. The aesthetic shallowness of Protestants leaving you cold? Go to an Orthodox church and admire the iconography. Christianity is bigger than you think. It would be a shame to give it up before you explored all the options.
6. Don’t overestimate yourself
There’s a particular temptation for college students to become a little too impressed by themselves. They’re there in the classroom considering all sorts of clever, challenging and controversial stuff, but back at home, things are ticking along in the same way they always have. It’s therefore tempting for college students to start associating home – and, with it, church and Christianity – with all the old, hopelessly boring stuff that must be discarded. You’re not better than your church community at home. You might be smarter than most there, but that doesn’t give you the permission to be an arrogant douche.
7. Don’t let anyone keep you down
That said, don’t let fear and peer pressure disguised as faithfulness prevent your from boldly seeking the truth. God doesn’t fear your questions. Some people, however, do and they may use the name of God to protect themselves. Don’t let them stop you and don’t let them get to you. Pray for them. Pray for yourself. Be humble, be wise and be, above all, loving.
Maybe it’s because my degree was in theology and I became aware of just how far-ranging and diverse Christianity is and has been throughout history. But one of the most important insights college left me with was that theology is secondary. Christianity isn’t really about ideas. It’s about love. God’s love for us in Jesus. Our love for him. And our love for our neighbor. Theology is the systematic reflection on that love, but love is what’s important. Truly understanding that is, in my opinion, the best way to ensure that you make it through college with your faith intact.