|The young man slid a chipped black cajón away from where it rested against the wall, and sat down on it, facing me. Unlike most of the students I’d spoken with, who attended the state university, he studied IT at a Christian university which a missionary founded in the 1800s. Several people had suggested I interview him, so I pulled up a plastic, aqua-coloured chair across from the cajón, curious to hear what he had to say.|
“I’ve heard that my school is Christian,” he began, speaking above the fingerpicked notes of someone practicing acoustic guitar behind us, “but the majority of the students aren’t actually Christians. They don’t adopt the original religion.”
Still, he explained that all students are required to take a “Doctrine of Divinity” course, for which the Bible is a required textbook. “But I can see the difference between what the divinity school teaches and what I learned in the conservative place where I grew up,” he said. “The school’s study of the Bible is just really shallow.”
But the challenges of moving from a conservative region stemmed not only from the big city’s more liberal theology, but also from its more liberal moral standards.
“But being here out of my comfort zone,” the student told me, “is about walking by faith everyday, knowing that I came to this school because God has a plan for me, even though it’s a different atmosphere than from where I came.”
“What has helped you here?” I asked, not realizing that his answer would reveal four keys to staying Christian in college:
1. Learning from Godly Adults
“I’m really thankful that my parents have taught me well,” he said first. “Before I came here, they did preparation. I still fall and sin, but I know what the right thing or the bad thing to do is. I’m really blessed for my parents, and that I grew up with a strong foundation. I don’t easily get affected by what the world is doing right now.”
This emphasis on the importance of Godly parents, I realized, perfectly matched the results of the National Survey of Youth and Religion. 1 According to this study, the presence of strongly religious parents was one of the four biggest factors predicting whether religious teens would keep their faith into adulthood. And as a university chaplain in Canada emphasized, pointing to the same research, even one Christian adult’s involvement in a student’s life can make a huge difference toward helping that student keep committed to Christ.
2. Consistently Walking with Christ
The personal responsibility to stay close to Christ, however, still rests with the student. So, along with having strongly religious parents, other key factors which the study found to predict whether religious teens would later keep their faith included praying frequently, studying scripture consistently, and making faith an important part of everyday life. In other words, students who stay Christian in college have developed habits which foster a close walk with God.
As the student on the cajón said,
“I still get in touch with God, especially in this school. I had a friend here whose dad was also a missionary, but when he came to university, he got sucked into the culture. So, it’s really important to build your own foundation.”
“How did you build that foundation?” I asked.
“Before my dad became the chairman for our ministry in the Philippines,” he answered, “we started with nothing. Our life was really by faith. We transferred from place to place as missionaries, without any money. So, I’ve really seen miracles in my family. I realized that working for God is better than working for the government. I feel secure, and until now, that’s built my foundation. I always remember where everything came from the start. It was a really big eye-opener for us: we bound together as a family.”
I smiled. This also matched the survey’s findings that young Christians who keep their faith into adulthood can often point to an earlier personal experience with God. I had to know more.
3. Personally Experiencing God
“Could you tell me one of the miracle stories from that time?”
“One Sunday,” he began, “when I was in elementary school, we went to the mall to just have fun, but we didn’t know that my parents were really broke. So while we kids were playing, my mom and dad were praying. When we came back, I was the first person to open the door to the house. I saw this envelope lying on our small table, and I gave it to my dad. It was full of money. But the door had been locked! It would have been impossible for someone to put it there. ‘Are you sure this was here?’ my parents asked. When I said I was, they cried and thanked God.”
“That’s amazing!” I exclaimed. I love hearing about stories like this, especially when the person telling it is right in front of you. But I still had some final questions for this student.
4. Grounding Your Identity in Christ
“If you had a younger sibling coming to your university next year, what advice would you give them?” I asked.
“I’d tell my younger brother to try to ‘fix himself’ first, before going out of his comfort zone,” he replied. “It’s really hard not knowing who you are and then going out to the world. My brother is an explorer, adventurous. But if you’re personality is like that, and you don’t know what your identity is, then that’s really a big problem. So, I’d say to him, ‘Never stop going God’s way. Always keep God in your sight and try not to get out of touch with Him.’”
Identity again. My memory flashed back to a dinner table in New Zealand, where Christian student housing managers had stressed the importance of students having a solid identity in Christ before coming to university.
“But what does it really mean to know your identity in Christ?” I wondered aloud, “I hear a lot of people say that, but what does the process look like?”
“In my own experience,” he replied, “I’ve made a mask, trying to be this guy I’m not. I was already a Christian at that time, but I felt that something was lacking. Even though I kept saying ‘my identity is in Christ,’ there was still something about it I didn’t understand. But in the long run, I realized that it’s really true that Jesus really loves me. Now, I try to build an identity like Jesus’s. I always tell myself that God loves me, and that is enough.”
Everything about the way he spoke, from his steady hand movements to his relaxed voice, bespoke a strong, quiet confidence in what he was saying. All the while, an undercurrent of a smile never quite left his face, like he knew a great secret which left him totally at peace.
Maybe it really is that simple, I thought, the realization’s cadence uniting with the acoustic guitar strains which continued to swirl through the air and settle around the plastic chair and the cajón.
Maybe the strongest spiritual foundations, and the soundest personal identities, are grounded foremost in the absolute security of knowing, beyond a flicker of uncertainty, the love of Christ.
In the end then, perhaps this prayer for early Ephesian believers is also the greatest prayer for Christian students in secular universities today.
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:16-19, NIV)
So, beginning with the foundation that Christ’s word is certain, students can proceed to build their lives on the knowledge that Christ’s love is certain. Students can then grow in this assurance through learning from Godly adults, seeking to walk closely with Christ, and personally experiencing evidence of His love in their lives. Thus rooted and established, a Christian student can not only successfully navigate secular classrooms and cultures with Christ, but also naturally infiltrate them with the overflow of His unending love.
- Smith, C., and Snell, P. Souls in transition: The religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults (Illustrated ed.), Oxford University Press, New York, NY, pp. 234, 2009