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How Christian Students Can Prepare for Secular Higher Education

It happened on March 12, 1928, just two minutes before the clocks in Castiac Junction struck midnight. Not until 1:30, however, did the call reach a California Highway Patrol car some miles away. Sirens roaring to life, the vehicle zigzagged a life-or-death race through the nearby sleeping streets. House windows blinked awake. Slipper-clad feet stepped out of doorways. Within minutes, the area erupted into a frenzy of fleeing citizens, barking dogs, screeching tires, and confused shouts:

The dam broke!

The town of Castiac Junction upstream is already washed away.

Evacuate now!

Soon drained of its occupants, the danger zone awaited a fateful meeting with the entire contents of Los Angeles’ city reservoir. The wall of water had burst from its holding cell at 11:58 that night, after its guard, the St. Francis Dam, catastrophically collapsed. With over 400 casualties, the dam collapse remained among 20th-century America’s worst civil engineering disasters.


Because of unstable foundations.

The dam’s west side had been founded not on bedrock, but on a sandstone conglomerate that was at best a flimsy solid and at worst a soggy slough. As a result, the otherwise sturdy structure could eventually no longer resist the reservoir’s constant pressure.

So, here’s the question:

How solid are your foundations?

After all, the pressures which followers of Christ can face in secular classrooms and cultures are a lot like the push of that reservoir against the St. Francis Dam. Day after day, minute after minute, you, like the dam, face a familiar opposition: you hear the same counter-Christian messages, confront the same challenges, feel the same push to conform to a way of thinking which opposes the concrete walls of your Biblical worldview.

The good news is that when you face this push in higher education, you don’t have to break under the pressure like the dam did.

Instead, you can prepare by building at least three strong foundations on which to ground your worldview:


  1. Spiritual foundations: Knowing God and His word.

After surveying over 2,400 American youth once at age 13-17 and again at age 18-23, researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion found four key things in common among religious teens who kept their faith as young adults:2

  1. They prayed frequently.
  2. Their parents were strongly committed to the religion.
  3. Their faith was important to them in their everyday life.
  4. They read Scripture frequently.

Really, most of these factors boil down to maintaining a close daily walk with God. And while the teens who scored lowest on these four things only had a 0.4% chance of later being among the most spiritually-committed adults, the teens who scored highest had an 85% chance.

Certainly, these four points aren’t a magic formula for staying a strong Christian in college. But this study does show the importance of building spiritual foundations while you’re young, and the incredible role that Christian families play in helping youth to lay these foundations. It also shows that a lot of onus is on teens to take personal responsibility for growing in their own relationship with God. This happens the same way that any relationship grows: through consistent communication. That is, talking and listening to God through consistent prayer and scripture study, and applying this relationship to life’s everyday details. It’s the kind of foundation-building which Jesus talked about:

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25, NIV.)


  1. Intellectual foundations: Apologetics knowledge and critical thinking skills

As important as spiritual foundations are, they only count if that spirituality is true. After all, who wants to found their life upon a myth? But persistently, persuasively, the messages you hear in secular classrooms and cultures will try to tell you that your worldview is just that: fiction. That’s why it’s so important to be able to state not only what you believe, but also why you believe it. Here’s where apologetics comes in handy.

Apologetics is about logically defending the Christian worldview and knowing why it makes rational sense. Learning some apologetics basics and knowing where to access solid apologetics information will help you to do three things:

  1. Be confident in your beliefs
  2. Answer specific worldview questions that you have, as they come up
  3. Graciously defend the gospel to others, as 1 Peter 3:15b (NIV) says:

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

Topics you might want to think about include Does God exist? Is the Bible trustworthy? Who is Jesus, really? What about other religions? What about Hell? What about Scripture and science? As you look into these questions, make sure that the sources you use are both factually sound and consistent with straightforward Scriptural teaching. Then, when tough questions come up, you can respond the way Peter did when Jesus asked His disciples if they wanted to leave Him because of His hard teachings: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69, NIV.)

While apologetics knowledge can arm you with answers to specific worldview questions, secular education is going to introduce you to a lot of other information and arguments you may have never heard before. And that’s where the other side of intellectual foundation-building comes in: critical thinking skills. These are tools for making sound judgments about information and ideas you encounter. Critical thinking involves being able to separate facts from propaganda, data from interpretation, and good logic from bad logic. To do so, a key question to ask yourself is “Is this idea true because…

Because many people believe it?

Because it was eloquently presented?

Because people who disagree are ridiculed?

Other critical thinking questions include What’s the source of this information? What are the assumptions behind it? Are there other valid explanations? And for Christians, one of the most important questions of all is Does this idea fit with what God already said?

(See also: How to Think About ‘Facts’ that Challenge Your Faith.)


  1. Interpersonal Foundations

A final important foundation to lay involves having ongoing connection and discipleship with strong Christian mentors, families and communities. The reason this is so important is that humans are designed for relationship. We’re socially-embedded creatures, and we function inside multiple layers of social influence. These levels range from family and friends, to churches and schools, to communities and cultures. So, make sure that the strongest of these influences in your life are godly ones.

Wherever your higher education adventure leads you, then, prioritize plugging yourself into solid Christian communities! Find a good church, campus ministry and small group. Surround yourself with mature Christlike mentors with whom you can be honest, and who can help you find answers to questions that come up in your walk. Prepare yourself with a support network of family and friends who will pray for you, and then let them know how they can best do so.

Speaking from experience, I know what a difference this makes! Having consistently prayerful people just a text message away was one of the most valuable bulwarks of my own faith in university, especially on those days when the counter-Biblical messages were the most persuasive.

So—go equip yourself! Build strong spiritual, intellectual and interpersonal foundations to know the truth, recognize the lies, and resist the constant pressures of secular cultures and classrooms. Then when the clocks finally strike midnight, their chimes will accompany not the collapsing roar of a worldview built on sandstone, but the quiet confidence of a life grounded on the bedrock of Christ.


  1. Smith, C., and Snell, P., Religious trajectories from the teenage years. In Souls in transition: The religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults (Illustrated ed.), Oxford University Press, New York, NY, pp. 211–256, 2009

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