After two years of college, my faith was on the rocks. There was no one thing to blame. Doubt crept in with the new ideas presented in my classes. Away from family and the church I grew up in, some of my traditional beliefs didn't make sense anymore. Prayer and Bible study were no longer a regular part of my daily routine. There were moments when I was ready to walk away from God and the church. We had a good run, I thought, but this just isn't working out.
When, in my junior year, I had the opportunity to spend a semester abroad, I jumped at the chance. With several thousand miles and an ocean between me and all that was familiar, I would finally have the space I needed to sort things out. I wouldn't have told you that at the time; I didn't realize it myself. But deep down I knew this would be a turning point—either toward a faith that was really mine or to no faith at all.
My experience was not so unique, I suppose. If the statistics are right, then my story plays out all over the country thousands of times each year. Some researchers estimate that as many as 80 percent of students like me—who grow up in church and are active in their youth groups and are, by all accounts, faithful Christians—will leave the church in college. That's not to say that all of them will lose their faith. Some won't. But many will. In other words, college is a critical season in a person's Christian life. What is it about college that makes it difficult to continue in your faith?
Different Challenges, All of Them Real
The major threat to Christian faith at a secular university is the general lack of support for Christian beliefs and behaviors. A "good time" at college often involves some combination of sex, drugs, and alcohol. In the classroom, professors are often committed to a secular worldview, and some delight in undermining the religious convictions of impressionable freshmen. Students will feel pressured to conform, in both behavior and belief.
It is certainly not impossible to find Christian community on a secular campus. But it is often limited to denominational student ministry programs (i.e., Baptist Student Union) or parachurch ministries (i.e., InterVarsity or Campus Crusade for Christ). Students who join these groups do so because they are Christian-oriented. The good news, then, is that Christian peers are easy enough to find, if you're willing to look for them. If you don't, the pressure to conform to the conduct that is stereotypical of college life can be overwhelming.
Secular colleges are committed to secular education, which means professors will teach worldviews that contradict the Christian worldview. For example, most faculty will likely reject the idea of miracles and doubt the truth claims of Scripture. Some professors gleefully try to dismantle the faith of students. For many of them, becoming educated meant leaving their faith behind, so they'll try to "broaden" students' minds beyond the confines of religious belief. Students who are conscientious about their grades, who are committed to learning, may feel threatened to conform to these ways of thinking.
With these observations in mind, you might assume that the best way to secure your Christian faith is to attend a Christian college. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Christian and secular colleges present different challenges for Christian students. But I can tell you from experience that it's just as easy to lose your faith on a Christian campus.
The great strength of a Christian college is also its primary challenge: Christianity is everywhere. The first week or so might bring the excitement of a perpetual summer camp. Over time, though, the daily small doses of faith and religious language you receive can make you numb to personal faith. A friend of mine calls this process "inoculation against the gospel." A flu shot introduces enough disease into your system that your body can develop a resistance to it. Christian colleges can do the same thing with faith. The big challenges to faith on a Christian campus, then, are nominalism and hypocrisy. You'll feel pressured to seem like a faithful Christian, so you might act like one and talk like one. It was pretty common at the Christian college I attended for people to sleep in on Sunday morning and then put on their dress clothes to eat lunch in the cafeteria. That way they looked as if they'd been to church when they hadn't. Witnessing this sort of behavior—and doing it yourself—can lead to cynicism. It is easy to assume every other so-called Christian is a hypocrite, just because many are clearly faking.