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Preparing Students for College: Cultural Discernment

At Missouri State University, there are clubs for everything. There’s a club for Democrats and another for Republicans. There are societies for future accountants and future dietitians. There are associations for Chinese students, Indian students, and Saudi Arabian students.

If you love playing with Nerf guns, there’s a live action role play club for you. If you’re obsessed with Pokémon, you can join the competitive league. If you want to stand for animal rights, LGBTQ+ rights, gun rights, or the right to eat beef, there’s an organization for you. There are student communities for Christians and for atheists.

Every single club wants you to join their cause. It can be overwhelming.

With the plethora of options given to new students at the university, it can be difficult to find your footing in the truth.

What should I care about? Who should be my community on campus? How do I live faithfully for Jesus in this environment? In order to prepare our youth for success in college, we need to provide tools for cultural discernment.

Practice #2: Faithful College Students Develop Cultural Discernment

According to David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock’s Faith for Exiles, here are some statements with which students who develop cultural discernment agree:

  • “The Bible teaching I receive in my church is relevant to my life.”
  • “In my church, I regularly receive wisdom for how to live faithfully in a secular world.”
  • “At church I get wisdom for how the Bible applies to my life.”

The college students whom I’ve observed thriving the most during their time at the university have developed the ability to see culture through the lens of Scripture.

For these students, every message, every interaction, every lecture, and every aspect of the college lifestyle are “filtered” through the message of the Bible. If they are unsure how to navigate an aspect of culture in the heat of the moment, they have learned to go to Scripture and/or trusted mentors and peers after the fact to regain Biblical equilibrium.

Here are some aspects of students who excel in cultural discernment:
  • They regularly connect the teachings of the Bible with how they live their daily lives.
  • They see the world through the lens of Scripture, rather than the other way around.
  • They are able to recognize when culture is in the wrong.
  • They seek to transform the culture around them rather than condemning it outright or indiscriminately consuming it.

How Can We Encourage This Practice in our Youth?

#1 – Teach and apply the meta-narrative of Scripture.

There can sometimes exist a cognitive dissonance in the lives of many Christians, especially churched college students, who have participated in hundreds of church gatherings and who have committed half a dozen Scriptures to memory–but who have adopted a secular worldview.

These Christians know that God loves them but believe that happiness is the primary goal of life. These Christians know that Jesus died for their sins but rarely consider themselves or others as sinful.

In my experience, these Christians have in some sense missed the forest for the trees.

In other words, many churched college students have some knowledge regarding individual passages of Scripture but have virtually no knowledge of the greater narrative of the Bible, thereby limiting their ability to apply Scripture to their daily experiences.

Understanding and appreciating the meta-narrative of Scripture gives rise to the development of a biblical worldview which can then be applied to cultural discernment.

  • When we consider the original creation and what God regarded as “very good,” we discover the sovereignty of God and the value of his image bearers (Gen 1:26-27).
  • When we read about the fall of man, we make sense of the brokenness of the world that was once regarded “very good” and the evil that now exists within God’s image bearers (Rom 5:12).
  • When confronted with the redemption brought about through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God’s glory and character are fully revealed to us (Heb 1:3) and we learn that grace is on offer to the worst of sinners (1 Tim 1:15).
  • As we look forward to the complete restoration and renewal of all things (Rev 21:1-5), we understand God’s ultimate plan for His people and the cosmos.
The meta-narrative of Scripture teaches us who God is, where we come from, what our purpose is, how to understand good and evil, and what the future holds.

When youth resonate with the greater story of Scripture, they are better equipped to practice cultural discernment. For example, the college freshman who is invited to get drunk at a party can say no, not only because “the Bible tells her so,” but because she wants to glorify her Creator, recognizes the brokenness of drunkenness and what it produces, is called to live in the freedom of Christ’s redemption, and desires that others would know the hope that she has.

That same freshman is prepared to engage her sexually active roommate in conversation about Jesus with the humility and love that comes from knowing the gospel–the truth that binds us all over to disobedience and offers mercy to us all (Rom 11:32).

A biblical worldview is necessary for practicing cultural discernment, and that biblical worldview is developed only when one engages with the meta-narrative of the Bible.

#2 – Don’t shelter youth from current cultural challenges.

It can be tempting to keep our youth innocent of the many spiritual pitfalls in our society, and so we shelter them from what really goes on outside the walls of our houses and churches. However, if that sheltered student steps onto a university campus, he/she is woefully unprepared to navigate all the activities and messages that run counter to Scripture.

These unprepared students typically go in one of two directions: either they experience such a culture shock that they drop out after their first semester and reevaluate their career paths, or they come to agree with the unbiblical messages and participate in the ungodly activities to which they weren’t prepared to say “no.”

While there is wisdom in providing healthy restrictions for our children and youth (it would be completely irresponsible not to do so), there is little wisdom in avoiding important discussions regarding the challenges we face as believers.

For example, I have observed many Christian parents who do not allow their teenagers to watch TV shows and movies featuring openly gay characters, even if the rest of the content is wholesome. (The recent Pixar movie Onward comes to mind here.) This restriction is often put in place so as to keep from normalizing homosexuality.

The reality, however, is that openly gay people exist in the real world, and we cannot change the channel on them. Christian college students must be able to engage the LGBTQ+ community with grace and truth.

Perhaps another option is for parents and youth leaders to use these shows and movies as a platform to have gospel-centered conversations about what the Bible says regarding sex and marriage. We can also disciple them in how to share the love of Jesus with people who disagree with us. This is much needed preparation for university life.

#3 – Practice engaging with the culture.

Finally, our junior high and high school students need to practice engaging with culture.

This practice can be provided through hypothetical scenarios. Give small groups of students a hypothetical cultural challenge that they then must respond to from a biblical worldview. Have conversations with teenagers, helping them discern through the entertainment and media that they consume.

More importantly, however, this practice should occur as real-life situations develop. For example, we must help our students walk the line between grace and truth as they interact with their non-believing peers. As they face peer pressure to participate in ungodly activities, we have an opportunity to teach them not only what the Bible says about such sin, but also why it says it.

As more and more of our daily lives are spent on digital platforms, we must persist in conversations with our youth regarding how to be faithful to the Lord with what we consume, say, and do online. In all of these things, we are preparing our youth for thriving in their faith during college.

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