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College-Bound High-School Graduates: Are you prepared for the spiritual, relational, and moral challenges that come up after high school? As excited as you probably are (and should be!) about going away to college, please realize that you are about to leave the comforts of home—home-cooked meals, finances covered by your parents, and the spiritual and relational support you have counted on for the past eighteen years. Your world is about to change radically. For instance, consider the following types of challenges likely coming your way:
Student groups with a secular outlook are proliferating on campus.1 And studies show that, proportionally, there are more atheist and agnostic professors in the university than in the public as a whole. Are you prepared to defend your faith in the kind of secular environment you'll find in your classes and among your peers?
Many college campuses are known for their partying. While some stereotypic depictions of the wild college scene can be overstated, you are still like to face pressures to drink, party excessively, and experiment sexually. Are you prepared to resist them?
Removed from your normal and comfortable setting, you may experience loneliness and depression, which is not uncommon for new college students. Are you prepared to handle these kinds of emotional challenges?
Your spiritual life is about to be upended, since the supports you have had at home—your church, Christian friends, and parents—will not be there for you much of the time. Have you thought through specific disciplines that will help you sustain your spiritual life?
Many students experience the "freshman 15" pounds of weight gain during their first year of college. Are you ready to avoid that by eating well and getting enough sleep to stay healthy?
Here's what all these questions boil down to: you need a plan to stay strong for your faith during your college years. It's heartbreaking to see students who were active Christians in high school disengage from their faith and the church once they've been in college for a while—sometimes a very short while. Although the numbers have often been manipulated and overstated, its fair to state that roughly one-third to two-thirds of Christian students disengage from the church after high school. They certainly don't all become atheists, but many even go that far. If you think it can't happen to you, that you're somehow immune, then you probably don't realize how serious the challenges are that lie ahead.
The purpose of this article is to help you prepare to face those challenges, so that you don't just survive college with your faith intact, but actually thrive in your faith during these formative years. I have had students whose faith blossomed in college, and I have seen others whose faith crashed. Yet there is no reason why you can't be among the former rather than the latter after you leave home.
While intellectual and moral issues tend to be the most pointed, all the issues listed above can deeply affect your faith. If you are already enrolled in college, then the following seven points are meant to help you stand strong for your faith while there. If you're not yet preparing for college yourself, perhaps you can pass these points on to someone who is.
1. Determine in your heart, ahead of time, that you will stand strong. One of my favorite characters in the Bible is Daniel. Even though he was surrounded by pagan influences in Babylon, and he obviously wanted to fit in and be successful with the king, he refused to compromise on his convictions and eat non-kosher food. He had every reason to compromise—money, power, influence, status—but he had already decided that his first loyalty was to God: "But Daniel determined in his heart not to defile himself" (Daniel 1:8). Daniel's mind was already made up before he faced the temptation, and so he was able to withstand it.
Job made a similar commitment to purity: "I have made a covenant with my eyes," he said (Job 31:1). If you want to successfully maintain your faith in college, you begin by going into college already determined that you will follow the Lord.
2. Find good Christian friends. The Bible has much to say about the power of friendship. For instance, Ecclesiastes 4:9–10 says, "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!" And Proverbs 27:17 famously says, "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another."
It is certainly important to make friends with non-Christians, but you must also make sure to cultivate friendships with some fellow believers—ones who will pray for you, encourage you, hold you accountable, hang out with you, and strategize with you about how to reach your campus for Christ. I rarely see students thrive in their faith who don't surround themselves with solid Christian friends.
3. Reach out to Christian professors. There are good, solid, caring Christian professors at even the most secular schools. They may be hard to track down in some cases, but I guarantee they are there. It would make sense to begin looking for such professors in your department of study, but if you can't find any there, then branch out.
While there may be a few exceptions, most Christian professors will be thrilled to pray with you, guide you, and possibly even mentor you. Chances are, they've been helping other Christian students for years, and so they'll have plenty of experience and insight to share with you that you'll find beneficial on your own personal journey. Visit them during their office hours and get to know them on a personal level. They're a resource waiting and willing to be tapped.
4. Join a Christian group on campus. There are lots of great Christian groups on campus, including Cru, Navigators, Ratio Christi, InterVarsity, Orthodox Christian Fellowship, Newman Centers, and Catholic Campus Ministries, among others. Many university towns also have church groups that meet on or near campus. For instance, Gracepoint Fellowship Church (gracepointonline.org/#churches) has begun planting churches and ministries in college towns around the world.
You can find out about these groups online, during an on-campus club fair, or from other students. When you've discovered one that interests you, you can check it out further in a number of ways, including by (1) contacting one of the group's leaders and introducing yourself (sometimes you can do this even before you show up on campus); (2) visiting one of the group's meetings; and (3) talking to other students about the group. While there are many worthwhile activities to get involved in on campus, make it a priority to be part of a Christian group. If you start struggling or slipping, your fellow members will be there to help and support you along the way.
5. Keep in contact with key people from home. While it may be tempting to sever ties when you leave home for the "real world," be sure not to do so completely; stay in touch with key people from your home town, such as your pastors, youth pastors, teachers, coaches, grandparents, and other caring adults. I love it when my former high-school students drop by to say hello or meet me for coffee, even when they confess that things aren't going as well as they'd hoped. My family also enjoys having former students over for dinner. So be sure to keep in contact with people from home who know you well and have guided and influenced you. They can be an important source of encouragement and strength.
6. Get formal training. Students often ask me what I consider the single most important step they can take to prepare themselves to thrive as Christians in college. My answer is simple: Go to a Summit Ministries conference. In case you're not familiar with Summit (www.summit.org), it's a twelve-day intensive (but fun!) training conference in apologetics and worldview open to students between the ages of 16 and 22. Conferences are held in Tennessee, Colorado, and southern California. In fact, I personally host the California conference at Biola University every year at the end of June.
Summit brings in the best Christian speakers to help students learn to think Christianly about politics, economics, and theology, and to grapple with such issues as the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, and other tough questions. I regularly meet former Summit attendees who tell me they consider their Summit experience to have been a "game-changer." It's simply a must for students who want to develop and sustain a Christian worldview in their college years.
7. Realize there are answers to the toughest questions you will encounter. Undoubtedly, you will encounter new challenges to your faith. Whether it's on issues of science and faith, the existence of the soul, the historical Jesus, or morality, you will be faced with many challenges from smart and (often) likable people. It's okay not to have all the answers. But it is critical to realize that there are answers, if you're willing to do the work to find them.
There are a variety of great apologetics ministries committed to helping students find the answers they need to defend their faith. My own website, SeanMcDowell.org, has videos, articles, books, and other material that may help. And I also highly recommend ReasonableFaith.org, STR.org (Stand to Reason), ColdCaseChristianity.com, and CrossExamined.org.
College can be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable times of life. But it's also a time when it's easy to get off track. If you prayerfully follow the seven points listed above, you'll give yourself the best chance to stand strong in college, and ultimately to look back at your experience with satisfaction and gratefulness. •
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