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.
You can find the "wrong crowd" anywhere. You tend to form relationships quickly in college, especially in your first year. And because the campus is "Christian," you might not think to look for Christian friends. Instead, you might assume that everyone is a Christian. Moreover, a Christian campus is like any other in the sense that students form social clubs, special interest clubs, and honor societies. You might arrive assuming all of these will affirm and encourage Christian commitment. They won't. Students have to be discerning about the company they keep, sometimes especially so on a Christian campus.
New ideas can also be a threat to faith at a Christian college. This is true even—or perhaps especially—if you major in Christian studies. I majored in biblical studies. And even though my professors were godly men who aimed to strengthen us in the faith, their teaching sometimes contradicted what I had learned growing up. Regardless of which major he chooses, a student is bound to encounter teaching that undermines the opinions of his parents or home church, whether they be about political, social, or theological concepts. In short, challenges to the faith at Christian colleges are much less obvious, but no less serious.
Don't lose hope! As I mentioned before, I faced a crossroads in college. Thankfully, my college experience strengthened my faith. It can do that for you. Below are just a few suggestions for ensuring that happens.
First, make devotion a priority. If you're like me, you'll likely stop behaving like a Christian long before you stop believing like one. Whatever you do, don't sever your relationship with the Lord. If you don't currently have an active devotional life, begin to develop one now and maintain that discipline throughout college. Christ is the lifeline and source of faith. You can't expect to maintain your Christian convictions if you don't remain connected to Christ, the true vine.
I was never very good at having a quiet time. When I got to college, I became convinced I didn't need to have one and stopped. Big mistake. Prayer is crucial, as is time spent reading and meditating on Scripture. But these are not the only forms of devotion that are important. It is also crucial to serve, give, and worship. That leads me to the next point.
Join a church. Many of the spiritual disciplines you will need to maintain can be fostered in a healthy local church. If you grew up in a Christian family that attended church regularly, or if you attended church with a friend, you may never have had to choose a church before. So you may not know what to look for. Look for a warm congregation that makes you feel welcome. It's best if you don't go to a church where you can slip in and out without being noticed. It's a good sign if people ask your name, invite you to lunch, take an interest in you. Look for good Christian fellowship. Look for a church committed to orthodox preaching. But don't think so much about what a church can give you; look for a church that can put you to work. As soon as you feel comfortable, get involved by serving. This will help you keep perspective because it will put you in relationship with folks who are not college students. Being part of a church can also help you get connected to the local community—beyond the campus bubble—where you can foster your sense of mission and calling.
If the idea of going to church is unappealing, consider a change of denomination before you give up on church altogether. Early in my college career, I thought I was tired of allchurch. It turns out I was tired of the sort of church I grew up in. During my semester abroad, I attended a very different sort of church. And the experience renewed my love for the local congregation. If you feel like leaving the church behind, consider attending a church of a different denomination or style. If you grew up in a contemporary, charismatic type church visit a liturgical church, or vice versa. College is a time for learning. Part of that learning could—and should—involve becoming acquainted with the beautiful diversity of the body of Christ. It might just save your faith, too.
Finally, don't be afraid of questions. And don't fear that God is afraid of our questions. He isn't. Some of Jesus' final words came in the form of a profound, piercing question: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46). If God can handle that question from his Son, then he's capable of dealing with our doubts. Whether you attend a Christian college or a secular one, you will at some point be confronted with threatening ideas. Don't feel guilty when you have questions and doubts. God is the author of truth, and he rewards those who seek the truth, even when that means asking tough questions. After all, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Self-sufficiency is. That means you'll do yourself more harm if you keep your doubts to yourself. Then, on top of doubt, you'll feel isolated and alone. I know; I've been there. Instead, pray and look for someone to field your questions, whether a pastor, professor, parent, or friend. Addressing those questions head on will deepen your faith, not undermine it.
Above all, remember that our "faith" is not simply about a set of religious practices or a body of religious ideas. Christian faith is a dynamic relationship with a living Lord. Don't worry so much about "defending the faith" against attack from outsiders. Instead, focus on fostering your relationship with Christ through devotion, Christian fellowship, service, and learning. God will not abandon you at college. James reminds us that if we draw near to God, he will draw near to us (James 4:8). I came out of college Christian not because I'm so smart, but because God is good. With this in mind, you can enter college confident in his great grace and put away your fears of the challenges you may face.
Brandon O'Brien is an editor at large with Leadership Journal.
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