Stepping onto the college campus is truly unlike anything else. For your graduates, everything will be new and unknown. It will be exciting, but it can also be nerve-racking, especially when it comes to matters of faith.
As Christian graduates look to their first fall semester on the college campus, they’ve probably already wrestled with questions like, what if a professor challenges my faith, what if I can’t find Christian community, or what if I lose my way?
While these are daunting thoughts, they’re far from uncommon. Truly, the college experience is one of most pivotal moments in one’s spiritual formation. It can either break or make one’s faith.
I want to highlight three of the most relevant issues every high school graduate will likely face on campus, whether they end up going to a Christian university or a secular one: doubt, community and identity.
Here’s some advice I’d like to share with church leaders and parents so they can equip students in these three important areas.
The reality of doubt
Graduates need to realize that doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. Doubt, unfortunately, is too readily looked down upon in Christian cultures, but it can simply represent a fundamental gap in understanding – trying to reconcile what you do know with what you don’t know. This means doubt is a neutral thing. How you deal with that doubt, however, can either be constructive or destructive.
Students typically gravitate toward polar extremes whenever they first encounter doubt:
They blow their doubt out of proportion by immediately conceding to the doubt and holistically labeling everything they have believed prior to be wrong.
They ignore their doubt – even though they don’t know how to respond to it – by simply trying not to think about the topic at hand.
Neither approach, of course, treats doubt for what it truly is, nor does it help your graduates grow.
Conversely, there’s two healthy ways your graduates can approach doubt:
Consider it without conceding to it.
Engage and leverage doubt – meaning, they should strive to use an episode of doubt as a launch pad into a greater reasoning and better understanding. They should look at doubt as “intellectual opportunities” to constructively fill in the gaps in their understanding so that their faith can become stronger and better founded.
As church leaders and parents, you can help by encouraging students to “play fair” in the game of doubt: namely, by taking their doubt with a grain of salt and by doubting their doubts, as much as their doubts cause them to doubt their beliefs. That’s the only fair approach. Encourage your students to be alert, but not alarmed.
The necessity of community
Perhaps the most important thing your graduates can do once they get to college is look for a Christian community. Exhort your graduates to reach out to others, plant seeds of intentionality, endure the loneliness even when it looks like there’s nothing relational sprouting to the surface and toil with the social awkwardness, knowing that there will be a harvest of community eventually.
One way you can encourage students to find good community is by advising them to search for local churches and campus ministries before they even move to campus.
As someone who works in a college and young adult ministry, it’d be impossible for me to not get excited to hear from a new high school graduate who’s seeking more information about a ministry and trying to get plugged in.
If students simply send an outreach email, any good church or campus ministry employee will take care of the rest, making sure they’re included right from day one.
For church leaders, I have two challenges for you to help graduates find good, Christian community.
First, if students have questions about churches, you need to be able to name a few reputable churches in their college town. Second, keep a working file that lists where your trustworthy, Christ-following alumni go to church while they are at college. Help create discipleship opportunities!
The importance of identity
The notion of “identity” or self-worth is not new in college; it’s just exacerbated. When students get to campus, they will immediately be tempted to find self-worth in a myriad of ways, including approval from others and academic achievement.
They must realize that the only life-giving source of self-worth is not found in their particular university, their GPA, their career path, their social media presence, their fraternity or sorority, their relationship status, their role at a church or even their own degree of Christian morality.
A self-worth based on personal performance or circumstance will always lead to destruction. Why? Because a self-worth based on performance and circumstance is unstable and unreliable.
If you teach graduates anything before they leave for college, they need to know that the only place where they can find a self-worth that is stable, reliable and satisfying is through the gospel.
Why? Because only in the gospel can you find a self-worth that is not based on performance or circumstance. It’s a self-worth based on Jesus’ grace and unconditional love for them.
Only in Christ can your students have the ultimate approval, security, acceptance and love of the One whose opinion truly matters most anyways.
How your graduates approach doubt, community and identity will dramatically shape their college experience. Exhort them to trust and obey Jesus. They will have nothing to fear if they simply fear Him. And He will be with them every step, making their growth something beautiful for His glory, His Kingdom and their joy.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Austin Gentry is young adults pastor at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. Visit austingentry.com. This article has been adapted from his book, 10 Things Every Christian Should Know for College. Used by permission.)