Parents frequently share with me their fears surrounding college and their kids. Parents ask, “Is it possible for a young man or woman who is a Christian to survive college, faith intact?”
My answer is, “Yes!” Still, I’m not sure it is the right question.
Every month a report comes across my desk with stories of students, some of whom came to college with a faith and many of whom did not. These stories usually have plenty of ups and downs, and they often track with someone who has been through a crisis. What they have in common is their honest portrayal of young people who are not just surviving college as Christians but thriving.
I’m not suggesting that college is without its share of difficulties. Parents are concerned about the hostility of American higher education to religious faith for good reasons. Just a short time ago, the entire California State University system stopped recognizing Christian fellowships on campus whose only fault is to insist that their leaders actually be Christians.
The surrounding, prevailing culture does not see faith and intellectual pursuit as compatible. Facts exist in one realm and faith in another, never to meet. And so Christians are often assumed to be folks who can’t handle reality and who are part of something that will die away as scientific discoveries supplant the need for belief in a supreme being.
So if we are steeped in a tradition that is suspicious of intellectual inquiry, and surrounded by a culture that reinforces this belief, we might not send our kids into a place of intellectual rigor with all that much confidence.
What makes me so confident students can thrive in college, particularly in light of the kinds of challenges young people face these days? First, I rely on the nature of God and the truth of Scripture. God loves and pursues college students, and Scripture affirms repeatedly that God’s affections toward His children are unchanging. I hold fast to Scriptures, such as Philippians 1:6, where Paul encourages the church: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” This reminds me that God is not done with our children as they transition to college. Neither is He done with parents as they transition to empty nests.
Now, I am going to recommend something here that may meet with considerable disagreement: unless your son or daughter knows his or her stuff, loves to debate and has a great support system, steer your child clear of the philosophy and religion departments at most schools (Christian colleges and universities being notable exceptions).
That said, I’m not suggesting Christian college kids or adults put their heads in the sand academically and fear all debate that challenges faith. I’m simply suggesting that it might not be a good idea to deliberately enter a semester-long situation where someone with grading power and an educational level much higher than your child’s tries to destroy their faith.
On the other hand, Christians should be people of intellectual curiosity and integrity. If God is in all things, we need not fear those who, in any profession or intellectual discipline, are hostile. It’s important that Christian children learn that a good portion of history’s best architects, scientists, philosophers, and musicians did their work as praise to God. When, as a parent, you model intellectual curiosity and integrity as a Christian, you do your child a genuine favor.
If thriving is the goal, connection to other Christians, exposure to scriptural teaching, and going deeper into the gospel are musts for your son or daughter during college. This is true even for kids attending a Christian school, where many students end up going with the flow when they could thrive and deepen their faith through college.
Encourage your children to join a supportive Christian community, no matter what type of campus they end up on. Help them to understand the importance of church on Sundays, but don’t stop there. Teach them the importance of regular fellowship to combat the strains of Bible-challenging professors and the regular stresses of college life. Remind them that as parents, you are always available as their biggest support system.
Dan Dupee is the former Chairman of the Board for the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a Pittsburgh-based campus ministry working annually with over 32,000 students on over 115 campuses. He brings together biblical truth, sociological research, college transition findings, and focus group work with parents of adolescents to develop principles that are fresh, clarifying additions to a growing body of research on teen faith development. Dan and his wife, Carol, are the parents of four children. They live in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. More information about his book “It’s Not Too Late” can be found online here.