It was August of 2009. I was just days away from moving into a Missouri State University residence hall and beginning my college experience. I was a nervous wreck.
I had grown up in a church environment that discipled me well. I was taught the Word of God accurately, I was given opportunities to serve in various ministries, and I had a community of peers and mentors that supported and encouraged me in my walk with Christ. Yet, as I approached the day when I was to move out of my parents’ house and take up residence in Scholars Hall, I felt woefully unprepared for what was to come.
I had seen the movies. I had heard the stories. The secular university, as I perceived it, seemed to be antithetical to my relationship with Jesus. Many of my godly mentors told me stories of their deviant behavior while pursuing their degrees. My older high school friends who had gone off to college returned home during breaks bragging about their sexual conquests.
I was aware that many university professors used their academic influence as a platform to mock religious beliefs in the classroom. As I moved into my dorm room, an upperclassman, knowing that I was a “church kid,” told me not to look out my bedroom window after midnight, “because that’s when everyone on campus walks around naked.” (Of course, this wasn’t true. He was just trying to scare me. Mission accomplished.) This was going to be my environment for the next four years.
How was I going to survive college with my faith intact?
Fast forward to today. Yes, my faith did survive college. In fact, I grew leaps and bounds in my walk with Christ during my undergraduate years. Though I hadn’t had many specific conversations with mentors about navigating the spiritual pitfalls of university life, I was provided a firm spiritual foundation by my upbringing that gave me the tools I needed to thrive.
Unfortunately, many “church kids” who enroll in secular universities have not had those much needed conversations and have not been given the necessary tools to persist in faith, and so they abandon the beliefs that they once held. As a campus minister, I see the effects of this firsthand; I have met a tragic amount of Christian freshmen who ended up turning their backs on God by October. Various surveys tell us that 60-75% of churched students walk out on their faith during their time in college.
Churches must begin preparing our youth to persevere in faithfulness during college; if not, the consequences are dire.
Our Christian students will continue to enroll in universities to pursue degrees in medicine, education, business, agriculture, and many other fields. This article is part one of a series on preparing our youth for the university. It is my hope that, in writing these articles that combine personal experience with nationwide statistics and trends, I can encourage pastors, youth leaders, lay people, and parents to equip students for pursuing Jesus in college.
In order to do so, we must learn the lay of the land at the university. Surveying the college campus reveals that there are many spiritual pitfalls that ensnare our churched university students time and time again.
Pitfall #1: Newfound Autonomy
College freshmen quickly discover that they are free to make their own decisions. No longer do they have a curfew, someone forcing them to eat their vegetables, or someone telling them to make their bed! (This newfound autonomy was hazardous to my health: I gained the freshman 15 by eating two giant bowls of ice cream a day.)
Of course, gaining this freedom and responsibility is a necessary aspect of growing up and can lead to many positive outcomes. However, it is this newfound autonomy that often enables churched college students to embark upon ungodly pursuits.
Though movies and television often exaggerate the ubiquity of the reckless college lifestyle, the reality is that every student, regardless of their religious background, has access to the party scene at their university. The allure of this subculture is powerful; the pressure to conform, the excitement of breaking the rules, the affirmation found in hanging out with people who accept you because you join them in their revelry, and the freedom felt in losing your social inhibitions all play a role in drawing our youth into this lifestyle.
Whereas parental restrictions previously governed a student’s ability to party, now a college student can do so without anyone at home ever knowing.
The hook-up culture on a college campus works hand in glove with the party scene.
Casual sex is readily available and easily accessible for most university students, and college parties have historically served as a pipeline for those activities. Now, dating apps and other social media platforms have become another prominent impetus for such sexual encounters.
Casual sex is so normalized on campus that it is not uncommon to overhear friends loudly swapping stories about the last guy or girl they hooked up with. The tendency to sleep around is brought on not only by sexual appetite: loneliness, boredom, and the desire to be known and valued are major factors in promoting this behavior. Once again, newfound autonomy allows churched students to easily participate in the college hook-up culture.
Autonomy does not lead only to immoral behavior. It can also encourage apathy toward faith practices in general.
No one is making you seek out Christian fellowship and practice spiritual disciplines, and so other activities can take precedence over Christian pursuits. Many churched college students fill their schedules with extra-curricular activities on offer by the university to such an extent that they no longer have time to be part of a campus ministry. Other students spend all their free time being entertained by video games or Netflix instead of studying God’s Word.
How can we set our students up for success in their faith as they discover this newfound autonomy?
Pitfall #2: Academic Challenges to the Christian Faith
Almost every Christian student will have their faith challenged in at least one class during their academic career.
Interestingly enough, for me it was a literature class I took my freshman year in which the professor attempted to undermine the authority of Scripture on multiple occasions. For many students, it’s a science class that attempts to pit biology against faith, or a philosophy course that claims that a good and powerful God cannot allow evil, or a history professor who teaches that the Bible is unreliable.
When a distinguished professor readily rejects the truth of the Christian faith on academic grounds, it can be quite persuasive to the unprepared churched student.
How can we prepare our youth to think critically and ask good questions of both their professors and their faith leaders to arrive at the truth?
Of course, it’s not just professors and curricula that challenge the Christian faith; other students often question the goodness of the gospel on more existential grounds. Christian students are regularly labeled as homophobic, judgmental, and irrational by their peers. Being “on the wrong side of history” is a common accusation leveled at those who believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God.
What steps can we take as mentors, parents, and church leaders to equip our high school students to confront these claims with grace and truth?
Pitfall #3: Lack of Christian Community
I had a difficult first semester of college. I arrived at Missouri State without a specific game plan for making new friends and creating community, and so I struggled to do so. For my whole life, community was practically handed to me–either by my parents or by my church.
I never had to seek it out for myself until my freshman year, and without adequate preparation for finding fellowship, I waited for community to find me. It didn’t. I was lonely and had only a few acquaintances on campus by December.
This is a common problem for many new college students who grew up in the church; they do not realize that finding Christian community is of the utmost priority.
The university provides many ways to find friends, but unfortunately some of those avenues can be destructive toward Christian faith. Many fraternities and sororities promise lifelong friendships and a heavy focus on philanthropy, which is quite enticing for many outgoing Christian students who want to make a difference.
However, at their worst, fraternities and sororities can draw churched students away from God and into a culture of partying and sleeping around, and at their best (at least on Missouri State’s campus) they take up so much time that, despite concentrated effort, the student has no remaining time for church or campus ministry.
Without Christian community, we have no one to encourage us and hold us accountable in our relationship with Jesus.
The digital world that we live in has also made community more difficult. We have a plethora of entertainment options at our fingertips, and those options can be more enticing than leaving the dorm room and having face-to-face interaction with fellow believers. Social media is no substitute for real community, yet interacting with other people via digital mediums can feel less vulnerable and therefore safer.
How do we encourage new college students to prioritize Christian community?
Pitfall #4: Lack of Purpose in College
As believers, our entire lives are to be lived on the altar, which means that our careers are to be for the glory of God and the proclamation of His kingdom. Yet many churched students select a major for other reasons: personal fulfillment, making money, etc. When our careers are not integrated with our faith, that also means that our pursuit of a college degree is compartmentalized away from Christian discipleship.
In my experience, it is the students who have an integrated understanding of their career paths and their faith who are most likely to remain faithful to Jesus in college.
Those who don’t can be easily swayed toward the ways of this world. How do we broaden the visions of our students to see their career paths as an extension of their love for God and others?
Though there are many pitfalls “church kids” can fall into during their university experiences, it is quite possible to not merely survive, but thrive as a follower of Jesus on a college campus!
Future articles will be focused on the attributes of students who remain faithful to God during their college careers. Let’s continue making disciples of our students together!