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Preparing Students for College: Intimate Relationship with Jesus

My church youth group experience was quite exceptional. We had robust teaching, great parental involvement, and lots of peer accountability and encouragement. We went on mission trips. We had small groups. We were encouraged to serve in the various ministries of our church. For the most part, students felt welcome in that community; we belonged. It seemed that all of us were doing really well in our faith, with maybe one or two exceptions.

Then I graduated high school and left the youth group, as did my peers.

Several students almost immediately had nothing more to do with the church and with the Christian faith, but those were the students that were already struggling. It unfortunately came as no surprise.

However, as the months and years went on, more and more students who seemed to really love the Lord were either renouncing their faith entirely or choosing to distance themselves from Christian fellowship as they pursued less godly lifestyles.

Maybe it’s just a phase, I thought.

Surely they’ll grow out of their rebellion and return to the Lord! Yet, now more than a decade removed from my high school days, almost half of the members of my former youth group are living lives outside of the will of God.

Throughout the years, this fact has burdened me greatly.

A 50-60% success rate seems rather abysmal. Yet, compared to the national average, our youth group was quite successful; according to various surveys, between 60-75% of churched students in America walk away from their Christian faith when they graduate high school and move on to college.

Much attention has been paid to what goes wrong when churched students walk away from faith in college, but we have not focused as much on what goes right when those students persevere in faith.

Many of my fellow youth group members are thriving in their walks with God today: several of us are in vocational ministry roles, a few are either cross-cultural missionaries or work for missions organizations, several are teachers who demonstrate the love of Jesus to their students, others are raising their children to love and obey the Lord, and many are active members in their local churches.

What went right for those who have continued to follow Jesus after high school?

This is a question that the Barna Group seeks to answer in their book Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, written by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock. (Faith for Exiles is a must read for anyone engaged in helping prepare students for the university and life after high school.)

After extensive nationwide surveys, the Barna Group has discovered five key practices of young adults who continue a robust faith in Christ after high school. As a campus minister, I have seen these practices at work in the lives of faithful college students. As a former youth group member, I can reflect on the lives of my faithful peers and recognize that these five practices were present in their lives during their adolescent years.

Therefore, it is my intention with this series of articles to draw your attention to these five practices so that, as a church, we can better prepare young people for the university.

Practice #1: Faithful College Students Experience an Intimate Relationship with Jesus

Perhaps this first practice seems obvious. Of course we should encourage our youth to have intimate relationships with Jesus–that’s what Christianity is all about! Unfortunately, as a campus minister, I encounter many churched freshmen who have had many religious experiences, who know a little about God, but who clearly don’t know God.

When asked about their relationship with Christ, these students respond by reporting their church experiences and/or describing the things from which they refrain because of their “faith.” Ironically, Jesus is barely given a mention in their answers.

According to Faith for Exiles, here are some statements with which students who experience an intimate relationship with Jesus agree:
  • “My relationship with Jesus brings me deep joy and satisfaction.”
  • “Jesus speaks to me in a way that is relevant to my life.”
  • “Worship is a lifestyle, not just an event.”

Although I have come across many churched students who clearly don’t have this type of relationship with the Lord, I have been blessed by many other students who wholeheartedly agree with the above statements.

What does this intimate relationship with Jesus look like practically in the lives of these faithful students?
  • They understand the core of Christianity to be the two greatest commandments, loving God and loving others, as opposed to merely following religious rules and keeping religious traditions.
  • They tell of personal experiences in which God’s love for them was apparent.
  • They understand how the death and resurrection of Jesus applies to their everyday lives.

In the next article, we will look at how we can encourage an intimate relationship with Jesus in our youth.

How Can We Encourage This Practice in our Youth?

#1 – We ask and answer big questions.

I was blessed to be raised in a church and a family where the big questions about faith and life were dealt with quite seriously. While in high school, I had lots of questions regarding the origins of the universe and the reliability of Scripture. My parents and youth leaders were comfortable with hearing my questions and responding to them with grace and truth.

They were also quick to recommend books and other resources that would help me in my quest for answers. (The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel was a game changer for me and sparked my love for apologetics.)

When I found robust answers to my questions about Christianity, they didn’t just satisfy me intellectually; the more I could trust Christianity to be true, the more real Jesus became.

My love for the truth propelled me toward a greater love for Jesus, who is the truth (Jn 14:6).

Unfortunately, others have had the opposite experience. A few years ago, I had a conversation with the student president of our university’s Secular Student Alliance chapter. He was an “agnostic atheist,” meaning his lack of belief in a personal God was coupled with the humble recognition that he could not be 100% certain in his atheism. He had grown up in the church and had lots of questions about the Christian faith, specifically regarding the relationship between science and faith.

When he earnestly asked those questions of his faith leaders, he was met with defensiveness and deflection. His inquiries were perceived as evidence of a lack of faith, and he was implored to stop doubting. He instead began searching for answers on Google and found various atheistic communities that led him to renouncing his belief in the Bible.

Regrettably, his story is far too common.

As a church, it is imperative for us to create an environment for our youth in which asking questions is welcomed. We must not see these questions as evidence of dangerous doubt, but instead as evidence of curious faith. We must not respond to these questions with defensiveness, but rather with the joy that accompanies growing deeper in the knowledge of God. As we engage with the questions that our students have, we invite them into a more intimate relationship with Jesus.

#2 – We always talk about the gospel.

It can be tempting to overemphasize behavior modification when we disciple teenagers. After all, they are often experiencing brand new temptations, and acting upon many of those temptations can bring about lasting negative consequences.

Of course, it is important that we teach students what the Bible says about sexual immorality, gossip, drunkenness, honoring parents (!), and avoiding the company of fools. However, it is possible to teach those things to the detriment of the gospel, which leaves our teenagers with an arbitrary set of rules that they may one day reject or, even worse, maintain in an effort to “be declared righteous in God’s sight” (Rom 3:20).

The most important thing for our youth is to know and believe the gospel.

It is at the cross where we discover the essence of God’s love (1 Jn 3:16). The crucifixion is the lens through which we view ourselves and find our identities (Gal 2:20). The resurrection validates the truth of Christianity (1 Cor 15:17) and is where we derive our hope (1 Pet 1:3-5).

The gospel is how an intimate relationship with God is even possible, and the appropriate response to the mercy of God displayed at Calvary is our worship and love of God–not given in order to receive, but given because we have already received (Rom 12:1).

Considering this good news of Jesus prompted Paul to break out into spontaneous praise (Rom 11:33-36), and such will be the case for our students. With the gospel as our starting place, we can then talk about all sorts of Christian obedience with our youth, but not the other way around.

The gospel makes possible and motivates an intimate relationship with Jesus.

We must not see these questions as evidence of dangerous doubt, but instead as evidence of curious faith.

#3 – We bring them to church, realizing that church attendance does not automatically produce intimacy with Jesus.

While it is possible for churched students to miss out on an intimate relationship with Jesus, it is almost impossible to have such a relationship without being a regular part of Christian fellowship.

When parents allow sports, activities, and even academics to come before church, it communicates to their children that Jesus isn’t top priority. However, when youth observe people from all generations and backgrounds coming together to worship the Lord on a regular basis, it can stimulate a desire for knowing and loving God.

Of course, although church attendance is a vital aspect of discipleship, entering the church building does not magically make a thriving follower of Jesus. We must do much more for our students, which leads us to the next point:

#4 – We experience Jesus together not only in church settings, but also with friends and family.

Students need to observe and practice faithful living both inside and outside the church building in order to develop an intimate relationship with Jesus. When Jesus collides with everyday life in an organic way, his presence and grace become more real. When youth are exposed to the spiritual disciplines of their parents/guardians, they are more likely to adopt those daily rhythms of abiding in Christ.

Friends are perhaps even more influential in the lives of teenagers; encouraging our students to create prayer groups at school and helping facilitate real-life discussion between peers about Jesus can bring about good and lasting fruit.

Having an intimate relationship with Jesus is absolutely essential if students are going to thrive at the university. It is extremely difficult to navigate the various spiritual pitfalls in college by sheer force of will.

It is impossible to be Christ’s ambassador on campus if Jesus isn’t the center of a student’s life. As the body of Christ, let’s do everything we can to encourage our youth to develop vibrant relationships with our Lord.

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