“God didn’t create people,” the professor shook his head. “People created God.”
The statement swept across our classroom like a slow wave, washing over us with the full weight of secular humanism—the worldview which claims humanity is its own god.
Throughout my science degree, wave after wave of humanist teachings inundated me like they do countless other students. At any cost to society and the church, this tidal force of humanist education has been altering our cultural landscape for generations. As humanist Charles Francis Potter exulted in 1930,
“Education is…a most powerful ally of humanism, and every American school is a school of humanism. What can a theistic Sunday school’s meeting for an hour once a week and teaching only a fraction of the children do to stem the tide of the five-day program of humanistic teaching?”
Hoping to find out, I embarked on a DIY solo mission trip after graduation to learn from Christian students in other countries where non-biblical worldviews rule the schools. I called the project 360 in 180, an endeavour to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ experiences across cultures. From getting stranded in unknown places, to falling into the ocean, to showing up for a flight on the wrong continent, I prayerfully stumbled from one adventure to the next across 17 countries. Along the way, I tracked down Christ-following students, professors, pastors, university chaplains or campus ministers in every place to ask them four questions:
- What are the challenges of being a Christian student here?
- What are the opportunities of being a Christian student here?
- What advice would you give a first-year Christian student?
- How can churches more effectively support Christian students?
As the months ticked by, I began to see interesting patterns develop. For one thing, I noticed that—not surprisingly—students’ answers to the first two questions varied across locations and cultures. After all, a Buddhist-born student who converted to Christianity in a communist country would encounter quite different challenges from a student who grew up attending church in small-town New Zealand.
Despite these varied responses to the first two questions, however, students’ answers to the last two questions showed incredible similarity. Over and over, campus Christians emphasized the same themes in their advice for Christian students and for the parents, pastors and mentors who support them. In other words, even though the problems Christian students face in different countries may be different, the solutions are largely the same. This means that focusing on a few key, strategic areas in student ministry could make a difference for the future of the church across cultures.
So, what are these major recurring themes? As it turns out, they all fall into three categories of personal foundation building:
- Spiritual foundations: developing and maintaining a close personal walk with God.
- Intellectual foundations: having access to solid apologetics information and critical thinking skills.
- Interpersonal foundations: maintaining consistent, meaningful connections with other Christians.
Based on my own university experience, I had hypothesized that the best way for Christian students to prepare for secular education is to focus on building these three foundations. The cross-cultural interviews confirmed this, with students’ main emphasis being interpersonal foundations—especially in regards to discipleship, mentorship, and Christian community.
Ultimately, these interviews from 360 in 180, backed by my own student experience, revealed nine practical ways that Christian students can best build these foundations. If I were a parent, pastor or mentor with the chance to sit across a table from a high school or college student and offer these nine bits of advice, here is what I would say:
1. Spend consistent time with God and His word. (Psalm 199:9-11; 2 Timothy 3:16-17.)
A main theme I encountered across cultures is the need for young people to know God personally though scripture and prayer. As a high school or college student, one of the most important things you can do is to study God’s word for yourself. Know what it says. Understand what the gospel is. Be able to explain it to someone else. Let your understanding of the gospel color every area of your life. After all, no student can keep a tight grip on a Biblical worldview without clearly understanding what Scripture says in the first place. As one campus ministry director told me,
“It’s kind of simple, but the best way we can prepare students is to teach them the Bible well. Then when they go into university, they’ll have a deep understanding of the gospel, how it impacts our lives, and how to read and understand the Bible for themselves, without just relying on a pastor to explain everything. I see that as lacking in some churched students’ upbringings.”
Researchers confirm that consistent Bible reading, frequent prayer, and making faith an important part of everyday life are some of the most important factors predicting whether Christian teens will keep their faith after graduation. So, get to know God and His word, and you will be equipped to root your identity in the fact that you belong to Christ, rather than in anything transient.
2. Build your apologetics base. (1 Peter 3:15)
Knowing what the Bible says is one thing; knowing why it’s true is another. This is where apologetics comes in. Apologetics is a field of study that looks at why the Christian worldview makes rational sense. By all means, take advantage of the many solid apologetics resources available to students so that you can address some of the most common questions and arguments you’ll encounter for your faith. Along the way, make sure to learn about other worldviews from a Christian perspective, so you won’t be blindsided by new ideas when you hit campus.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t stop looking for answers. (Proverbs 2:2-7; James 1:5)
You won’t be able to learn every angle of apologetics or memorize an answer for every argument. New questions will come. But when they do, you’ll find that knowing where to access good apologetics information, critical thinking tools, and mentorship support will be invaluable. Seek sound, informed responses from mature Christians. Ask God for wisdom. You might never find out everything you’d like to, but you can commit whatever you don’t understand to God and trust that He holds the answer.
4. Develop critical thinking skills. (1 Thessalonians 5:21; Proverbs 14:15; 1 John 4:1)
One especially great tool to help you process faith-challenging questions is critical thinking. For example, when you encounter new ideas and information that oppose your biblical perspective, ask yourself, ‘Is this information right or wrong, true or false, because…’
Because a professor said so? Because most people seem to think so? Because anyone who disagrees is ridiculed? Simply questioning why the information sounds true can help you spot a huge variety of faulty lines of reasoning, called logical fallacies.
While you’re at it, remember to consider the information’s source. Try to separate the information itself from ideas about the information by identifying facts and observations versus assumptions and interpretations. One way to do this is to ask yourself if there might be other, alternative explanations for the evidence, or other ways to view the information. Finally, learn to compare all the ideas, information and interpretations you encounter against what the Bible already says.
5. Develop discussion skills. (Colossians 4:6; Ephesians 4:15; 1 Peter 3:16)
One important application for critical thinking is to ask yourself why the church has a certain stance on some of the issues which culture talks about most today. Then, study the Bible and ask for advice from mentors to find out whether the ‘church’ perspective really agrees with what the Bible says. If it does, think about—and practise—how to articulate a Christlike position with grace.
6. Thrive in Christian community. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
As Christians, we are all called to be missionaries, engaging with those around us instead of living inside a Christian terrarium devoid of outside contact. On the other hand, the Bible warns that bad company corrupts good character (1 Corinthians 15:33), alerting us that in our efforts to influence culture, we need solid boundaries to keep culture from influencing us. That’s just one of the reasons why in our other interactions, we can’t afford to neglect Christian networking.
One great way you can do this is by joining Christian youth, young adult or student groups to connect with godly peers who are experiencing the same things as you. Be careful though: an hour a week with peers cannot sustain your long-term spiritual and interpersonal foundations. You also need to seek God both by yourself and with others outside your age—the whole body of Christ—at church. As a retired professor in Australia told me, “Not attending church is the biggest mistake students make.”
One great way to thrive in Christian community is to serve others. Whether through your church, your student group, or your own initiative, look for ways to use your God-given gifts and passions to bless others around you. Pray for ideas if God hasn’t already given you one, approach your leader about those ideas and offer to serve.
Another way to thrive in Christian community is through exchanging stories. Hearing how God has been faithful in others’ lives can activate your faith like nothing else, as I discovered while a teenager myself. Looking back at those years, I can see that of all the sparks which ignited my desire to walk with God, nothing fanned that flame like reading missionary biographies.
Along with fueling our faith, sharing stories help remind us of God’s truth when questions come up. As one student told me while relaying the challenges of following Christ in Japan,
“There were a lot of times when I wanted to quit being a Christian. But my churches’ elders were really supportive. They’d been Christians since WWII and they knew how hard it was to follow Christ, but they also told me how blessed they were, and what God had done for them. I think that’s how I’ve kept my faith.”
On the flip side, sharing your own stories of what God has done in your life can remind you why you trust Him in the first place, strengthening your own faith as well as encouraging those listening to you.
Having these stories of God’s faithfulness to share is one of the qualities which defines a godly mentor. And as it turns out, mentorship is the foremost theme which came up as I traveled. In country after country, the story was the same: young people need meaningful, ongoing connections with godly adults.
How do you find these adults? Here are three ideas to get you started:
- Look for a Christian who is doing what you want to do and ask if you can meet them to talk about it, learn from them on the job, or serve them in some way.
- Look for opportunities to serve alongside older people.
- Talk to older people in your church and find out their stories. Ask about what God has done for them, what He’s taught them, and how He’s led them.
Maintaining meaningful connections between students and older adults requires both sides to invest initiative, effort and proactivity. These ingredients, in fact, are essential for all nine practical ways students can develop their foundations for secular university. No student is meant to undertake this process alone, but rather with intentional support from families, mentors, and the whole body of Christ. The work won’t always be easy. But, like students all around the world are discovering, building rock-solid spiritual, intellectual interpersonal foundations which are strong enough to weather the waves of humanist education is worth every effort.
 Charles F. Potter (1930) Humanism: A New Religion, Simon and Schuster, NY
 Data from National Survey of Youth and Religion, Smith, C., & Snell, P. (2009). Souls in transition: The religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults. Oxford University Press