The key to staying Christian in college is staying Christian. That is not a cop-out and of course there is more to be said. Still, the overarching truth remains that college is merely a crucible for faith. As 1 John 2:18-19 reminds us, those who go out from us were never truly of us.
Before examining factors and pondering solutions, we must consider the true scope of the problem. Although I am not a huge fan of statistics, the alarming reality is that somewhere between 50–70% of college students “abandon their faith.” Researchers, sociologists, youth pastors, and bewildered Christians are scratching their heads in disbelief. Why? What factors are causing the problem?
1. Youth ministry has focused more on attracting students than reaching students.
As the youth ministry paradigm has exploded, so have methodologies to attract students to youth programs. The trade-off is that we have largely neglected actually reaching them for Christ. The buildings, stages, bands, gear, and events are top notch. In many cases the true engine of the ministry, teaching/preaching and discipleship, is superficial.
2. Youth ministry has usurped the biblical role of parents in faith development.
With the rise of youth ministry in our local churches, an unexpected result has been parents becoming disengaged in the spiritual formation of their children. Programs, events, videos, outings, and t-shirts abound; so parents presume that they are discipling their children by trusting the “experts.” The biblical fact remains that this is not what Deuteronomy 6, Psalm 78, or Ephesians 6 presents as family discipleship.
3. Christian worldview thinking has been minimized.
When did Christianity become the religion of dunces? Actually, the early church was often viewed as the rabble of society. Throughout history there have been great Christian thinkers to correct this misperception. Today’s society is really quite similar in perception and the need for Christian thinkers. However, Christian worldview thinking (in all its varied applications) is neglected in fear that intellectualism stifles genuine faith. This raises the question: if knowledge is the opposite of faith, is ignorance synonymous with belief? Furthermore, we are commanded to love God with all our mind (Mark 12:30) and to prepare our minds for action (1 Pet. 1:13).
4. God has been compartmentalized.
Our view of life is similar to bubble wrap. Everything is neatly tucked into its own little bubble and should that bubble pop, then the others should remain intact. Even God occupies one of those bubbles in our lives. This framework of our life is flawed. God is the overarching glorious reality through which all other “bubbles” must be viewed. All our bubbles must be popped and enveloped by the one true reality of our existence.
5. False conversion
As students walk the aisle, sign cards, attend events, and pray corporate prayers the true nature of conversion by faith and through grace seems to be lost. Ironically, so are many of the students who engage in those religious activities. Students who believe they have a relationship with God, rather than actually believing, go to college and become those who leave us because they were never truly of us. Their faith crumbles under the weight of the college challenge because their faith was only superficial.
6. The Gospel has been underestimated, marginalized, and adjusted.
We are pragmatists at heart and like good pragmatists we desire results. In our quest for numbers, faithfulness has been the sacrificial lamb. The gospel is relegated, tweaked, or forgotten as we launch programs and methods until we get what appears to be success. But the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. Its unashamed and pure proclamation is our greatest “method.”
While these factors certainly don’t make up the sum of causes, they pose theories for consideration. Each of them standing alone may seem insufficient to warrant the claim of faith abandonment in college. However, collectively they show a trend of biblical neglect that should not be ignored. So how can we advise those about to enter into college?
What practical things can we consider to help?
1. Commit to a Gospel-focused and biblically faithful local church.
This is not simply a recommendation to go to church. We must be aware of what a healthy local church looks like. While church shopping is not a practice we should engage in, I do believe we should evaluate the congregation that we commit to. More important than the age demographic breakdown is the heartbeat of the church. Is the gospel itself the lifeblood of the congregation and is it committed to carrying out the work of the kingdom in a biblically faithful manner?
2. Reclaim the biblical model of multi-generational discipleship.
The notion that people who are over a certain age are obsolete is absolutely ludicrous, devaluing to life, and dishonoring to God. There seems to be an underlying disdain for learning from those who are older, wiser, and more experienced. Our culture gravitates toward youth and our churches have all but abandoned multi-generational discipleship. Find someone who is older with a Godly reputation and learn from them. Benefit from their wisdom, then teach someone younger what you have learned.
3. Consider Christian higher education.
If you are serious about your faith, then you should consider a college that is serious about your faith as well. There are multitudes of great Christian institutions that offer any conceivable program you might be interested in and that make the development of your faith a priority. Why wouldn’t you consider it?
4. Connect with campus ministries.
Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru), Every Nation Ministries, Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), The Navigators, and Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) are all ministries impacting college campuses across the country. One of the first questions when making your college selection should be what ministry opportunities the school has. Be informed and get involved.
5. Develop your head, heart, and hands in the faith.
We are complicated beings. The greatest command given to us is an indication of the diverse essence of our humanity. Loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is the overarching theme of our purpose. We must consider these aspects as avenues of accepting, treasuring, and living our faith. Are you the intellectual, emotional, or action-oriented type? Developing each of these aspects of our spiritual lives is essential, particularly in the formative years of college.
Stoke the flames of your passion for Christ. Consider the sheer weight of his glory and stand in awe of his power. Cultivate your faith by engaging in the disciplines of grace on a daily basis. Be faithful to read the word of God in order to know God more fully. Be fervent in prayer. Do not forsake attending the local church where his word is proclaimed and you are equipped for the work of ministry. Participate in God-centered fellowship and accountability through small groups. Continually meditate on and find yourself more deeply committed to the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ!
The claim that staying Christian in college is the same as staying Christian is also more fully developed in 1 John 2:20-21. Those who went out from us were never of us; however, those reading this post likely have the knowledge of the truth and the anointing of the Holy One. So cling to Christ, obey the simple commands of scripture by grace, and confirm your identity as children of God.
Is this the solution to the college faith crisis? No. However, hopefully it is food for thought. If we understand some of the reasons we are facing the problem and consider how we can faithfully approach the faith, then we can pass the greatest test in college (the test of our faith).
Chris (Michael Christopher) Dunn believes that God is worth his word being studied well and his desire is to study it seriously without taking himself too seriously. He teaches Bible at a private Christian School and serves as Director of Discipleship at Forest Hills Baptist Church in Wilson, NC. Follow him at @mcdunn85.