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Top 10 Challenges Christian Students Face in College

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Top 10 Challenges Christian Students Face in College

April 15, 2013

William BrownIn today's post, Dr. Bill Brown, president of Cedarville University, shares the Top 10 challenges that Christian students face in college. This article was originally written as a blog submission for Relevant magazine and was then shared with Cedarville students in chapel on Monday, March 19, 2012.

"I have seen many friends that I went to high school with just completely abandon their faith, and I was in danger of doing the same when I first went to college." – Chad, college senior

During the past few years, studies have recorded the growing number of young Christians who are "leaving church and rethinking their faith," as Dave Kinnaman puts in his book, You Lost Me. This departure usually occurs after high school, and many times the blame falls on college campuses for what is perceived as an inhospitable attitude toward Christianity.

While the college experience may contribute, it is too much to say that it causes students to leave their faith. We are quick to blame the environment and not take responsibility for personal choices prior to and during the college years. It is better stated that the college experience reveals the quality and depth of a student's faith.

Most Christian students who go away to college will graduate with one of three outcomes:

  1. Take a Dive – Students walk away from their faith commitment and no longer profess to be Christian.
  2. Withdraw to Survive – Students learn to compartmentalize their faith as a personal choice while struggling though the complexities of the college experience.
  3. Strengthen and Thrive – Students grow spiritually and strengthen their faith through the challenges of the college experience.

These challenges confront college students at a crucial time of life when decisions can alter the trajectory of their future. To add to their difficulties, college students are generally left to themselves to sort through the choices they make. Willimon and Naylor refer to college students as "the abandoned generation" since their primary interactions are with teaching assistants and resident directors scarcely older than themselves. Adult mentors are not available to help them think through important responses to life and college challenges.

Faith Challenges in College: The Top Ten

"No matter what background you come from, the transition from high school to college will try your faith." –Vanessa, college junior

An important step in preparing for college is to know what to expect. I asked hundreds of college students of faith to describe the challenges they faced in their own college experience. Here is a Top Ten list reflecting their responses.

1. The Faith Challenge

Many college freshmen claim that they struggled with faith-identity. "Is this my faith or my parents' faith? What do I believe? Why do I believe it?" In high school, their faith was associated with familiar places and people. That familiarity was replaced by a college environment that made their faith seem out of place. When they faced questions about their faith, they struggled to find answers.

Nathan admitted, "I don't think we are receiving the biblical foundation we need growing up to sort through tough issues, as well as feeling like our hard questions aren't being answered."

A number of students said they had serious questions about their own faith before going to college, actually wondering if they had been brainwashed during childhood. "In college, the stakes are much higher," Eimile said. "I didn't want to commit my life to following Christ if I was not absolutely sure that it was something I would die for."

Some criticized their own "dysfunctional faith" and its inability to sustain them through their struggles. They had "the wrong view of God," one student complained. "Yes, He provides; yes, He comforts; yes, He brings peace and many other amazing gifts, but they still feel like they don't 'get enough out of God.' He's not a Redbox."

2. The Freedom Challenge

Out from under parental guidance and restrictions, new-found freedom caused priorities to change. "In college there are no parents, and the tendency is to act on impulse, make decisions based on emotion, and instant gratification," a college website warns. Tim said he was unprepared for "the greater level of responsibility without accountability" that college involves.

Freedom can be exhilarating but also paralyzing. There are so many things to choose, many students found themselves struggling to prioritize their choices. "You end up going along with what everybody else is doing or go to your room and play video games or stare at Facebook."

3. The Diversity Challenge

College provided not only ethnic diversity, but the inescapable confrontation with different beliefs, worldviews, and moral choices. Most felt ill-equipped to answer challenges raised by alternative views to their own faith - both in the classroom and in the dorm room.

Katherine felt overwhelmed by the different views. "It was hard to figure out the truth by myself," she admitted. Some students admitted they were so overwhelmed that they spiritually shut down. Apathy was mentioned by many students as a response to the college milieu.

4. The Time Challenge

The unrelenting schedule and stress of studies, relationships, and social events were temporal black holes. All of these provided quicker payoffs than time spent in spiritual growth. Serious students particularly struggled with the amount of reading demanded. "Stress can warp your perspective" Josh says. This warped perspective caused priorities to shift dramatically in a short period of time.

The idea that college is a time to contemplate the crucial questions of life seemed unreal to most students. There was little time to think and discuss important issues. The good students took too many courses for there to be time to reflect. Other students filled their time with parties and other social events.

5. The Social Challenge

The rarefied air of the college social life caused students to engage in activities they normally would have avoided. Who doesn't want to fit in? The social expanse of college also provided anonymity - a free pass to let loose. "Alcohol and sex: that's why you go to college, man," one student said.

College years constitute "the experimental phase of life" said Jacob. One student told me that she lead a tour of middle school students around a college campus. The thirteen to fifteen year olds were obsessed with all of the details of alcohol on campus. Their expectations for college were shaped by Animal House, Old School, and American Pie 2, and they could not wait to party.

The social environment was frequently oppressive. Michayla felt the weight, "Peer pressure is intense in high school but at least you can go home and leave it at the football game or by the lockers. It's a whole different ball game when you're faced with peers 24/7, living lives that reflect a style you don't agree with."

6. The Relationship Challenge

The dating scene as a freshman is "wild and wicked." Freshmen girls talked about upperclassmen who troll for new conquests. Emotional attachments frequently dominated the college experience. Many students gave up their faith when they fell in love. Love conquered all.

7. The Community Challenge

The effort required to find a supportive community for their faith was too much. "I miss my youth group back home," many said. The lack of regular and substantive Christian fellowship was a reason many began to wander away from their faith. Ian had a friend back home commit suicide. "It completely destroyed me," he said. "I felt completely alone and depressed. It caused me to question everything I believed."

Kristen said that when she arrived at college, "My entire support system was ripped from underneath my feet." The result was a sense of loneliness that belied their crowded experience.

8. The Input Challenge

Freshmen usually are intimidated by college professors. The tsunami of information in classes made it difficult to think through the subject matter. A number of students had likable and intelligent professors who "refused to tolerate students' beliefs as viable" and actively sought to change their convictions. The lack of a commensurate input of spiritual truth began a slide away from faith.

9. The Output Challenge

Faith was not measured only by Bible study and fellowship. The need to engage in service to others was a key factor in experiencing Christ. Many students talked about the ministry and service activities that were a part of their lives in high school. But in college, while some opportunities for service were provided by local churches and para-church organizations, schedule conflicts and communication problems made involvement difficult.

10. The Commitment Challenge

A key factor in faith degradation was the missing element of preemptive commitment. In other words, too many did not decide beforehand who they were and wanted to become. They did not make commitments about their priorities and set limits on behavior. "I really needed accountability," one said. "I wish I could go back and start over."

Action Points: Preparation and Preemption

"Students have to be diligent and purposeful about their faith. every. single. day." - Kim, college junior

Let's make this practical with four action points for the prospective college student:

  • First, accept the fact that your faith will be tested. Prepare by knowing what to expect in the college environment. Ask older friends and adults about their college challenges and how they handled them. Read the series Ask Me Anything: Provocative Answers for College Students by University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski as well as his How to Stay Christian in College. Another really good one is Thriving at College: Make Great Friends, Keep Your Faith and Get Ready for the Real World by Alex Chediak.
  • Second, take the time to understand what you believe. Christianity is not a lame faith. Many of the greatest scientists, philosophers and thinkers in history were (and are!) devoted followers of Christ. Don't be fooled by attacks that claim Christianity is anti-intellectual. Know where to go and who to ask when your faith is challenged. As the writer of Hebrews cautioned his readers, "We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard so that we do not drift away" (Hebrews 2:1).
  • Third, take responsibility for your personal choices and your faith. Plan ahead for accountability with people back home. Agree to contact them regularly and communicate what you are thinking and doing. Let them know they can ask you the hard questions about your faith and your behavior and you will answer honestly.
  • Finally and most importantly, make a radical preemptive strike now about your future. If you do not decide how you will respond to the challenges of college life, you have already determined the outcome. Not to decide is to decide.

College can be an exhilarating experience but strengthening and growing your faith will not happen by default. Most students were insistent that you must be intentional about your faith in college. Go into it with your mind prepared, your eyes open and your heart already claimed.

Does Christ-centered higher education address these challenges?

More Resources

  1. J. Budziszewski, Ask Me Anything: Provocative Answers for College Students, 2 volumes (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004, 2008)
  2. J. Budziszewski, How to Stay Christian in College: TH1NK Edition (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004)
  3. Alex Chediak, Thriving at College: Make Great Friends, Keep Your Faith and Get Ready for the Real World (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2011)
  4. William H. Willimon and Thomas H. Naylor, The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995)

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Posted in Academics Spiritual Growth Why Christ Centered Higher Education? Student Life