How to Stay Christian in College
“Dear Pastor John, I graduated from high school this summer, and I will be moving across the country to attend college this fall. It troubles me because I have seen many kids who stopped going to church and gave up their relationship with God after they moved out and moved to campus. Do you have any advice for me as to how to stay close to God despite all the distractions and temptations that come with campus life? How do I continue to grow spiritually? How do I balance time for school and time for God?
Thank you, Pastor John!
This is such a good question. I wish every high school graduate who’s heading off to college or university would be thinking this way and asking this question.
Let me say a word to Sharon and to all of them in the hope of being of some service to this generation of younger Christians who are heading off to school. I’ll limit myself to five words of counsel which, of course, will leave many specifics unanswered. I think these five have the effect of enabling students, if they accept them, to answer the other specifics as they arise.
Prepare for War
First, students, recognize that maintaining a Christian faith is war. First Timothy 6:12 reads, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life” Ephesians 6:11 reminds us, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.”
First Peter 5:8 declares, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” He will seek to devour on campus and everywhere else. Finally, James 4:7–8 says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
Let me put a particular twist now on this exhortation — the exhortation that you recognize maintaining a Christian faith is war. Here’s the twist. Sooner or later somebody who’s a little too smart for their gospel breeches is going to belittle your habit of meeting with God every day in the word and prayer. They’re going to say something like, “Do you still think that you have to be that legalistic? You think you must have a ‘quiet time’ and a ‘personal devotion’? Haven’t you grown up? Don’t you know that your relationship with Jesus should be more free, more natural, more spontaneous?”
Here’s the twist. I want you to have your answer to that immature objection. You say something like this: “Well, I don’t know about you, but I know that I am in a war with the highest possible stakes because of what the supreme commander says to me in his manual — the Bible. I don’t think mainly in terms of legal requirements or pious platitudes like quiet time and devotions. I think about keeping my guns clean and making sure my ammunition is ready and reviewing the battle plans. I think about making sure I know the enemy and his deceptions and restoring my zeal for the glorious cause, like George Washington, who caused the revolution. If that’s a glorious cause, what is this? This is what the Lord has enlisted me for. Whatever you’re talking about, I know what I’m doing. Join me if you want every morning, but I’m going to be there.”
That is exhortation number one. As you head off to college, the Christian life is war — no matter where it’s lived. And Christians who try to pretend like it’s not are almost certainly going to be captured by the enemy.
Love the Word
Second, make the word of God a priority in your life. When you look at the armor that Paul describes in Ephesians 6:11–17 — an armor that every Christian is supposed to put on at campus or anywhere else — it’s amazing that, among the six pieces of armor, four of them are related to the word of God.
Most obviously, the sword is called the word of God. Second most obvious is the belt. It’s the belt of truth. Third most obvious is the shoes. They’re shoes of the gospel — readiness to run to the gospel.
Fourth — not as obvious, but plain when you think about it — is the shield of faith. Faith in what? Faith in God when he talks to you — when he speaks in his word. We’re going to trust. Faith doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God — faith in the word of God (Romans 10:17). And, of course, the other two are salvation, the helmet of salvation, and the breastplate of righteousness. Those two, salvation and righteousness, are all rooted in the gospel, which is the word.
My second exhortation is make the word of God a priority in your life. Read it every day, meditate on it every day and night, memorize key portions of it that are relevant to your situation and carry them with you all day long.
Here’s another twist I want to put on this — a special aspect of this exhortation. Just as college life will lead you into increased depths and complexities of cultural and personal and intellectual life, similarly, college can increase your grasp of the depths and the complexities of the glories of Scripture. Don’t stay at a high school level, don’t stay at a Sunday School level or homeschool level. Some of you may have gone very, very deep in homeschool, but don’t stay anywhere.
The Bible says grow in grace (2 Peter 3:18). Now, what that means particularly is, as you spend time in the word, also find new challenging authors. You’re going to be introduced to all kinds of secular, global, relevant authors to all kinds of issues in your classes. Do the same for your faith.
Find out who J.I. Packer is, and read Knowing God. Find out who Wayne Grudem is, and read Systematic Theology. Yes, even if you’re not a theologian. This book is designed for every Christian. Find out who R.C. Sproul is, and read The Holiness of God. Find out the classics like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
The point is, make the word of God the substance of all the armor in this warfare — both the offensive and the defensive. Make it a priority in time, a priority in focus, a priority in maturation deeper and deeper into the depths and the complexities of the Scriptures.
Invest in a Church
Third, never, never, never leave the local church. The university is an institution created by man. The local church is an institution created by God. If you prioritize allegiance to university over allegiance to church, you are prioritizing man over God.
This, by no means, implies that Christians will work less hard at learning in the university — less hard than non-Christians do. No way. You’re going to give yourself with all your might to learn as much as you can in every class. It simply means that the church will remain central to the rhythm of your life.
God has designed corporate worship and the preaching of his word and fellowship of his people to be an essential part of maintaining a military discipline in your life with joy and triumph for the next sixty years. Think of it that way.
You are forming military habits of mind for the next battles you will fight thirty years from now. Gathering with your comrades every week in corporate worship under the word of God is essential for being ready to follow the commander into victory when you are at your peak at fifty years of age. That’s what’s at stake right now. You think you’re going to take a break from church and be powerful at fifty? You’re dreaming. Soldiers don’t function that way.
Find Good Friends
Forth, as an overflow from your experience with God’s people in church, be sure you have a handful of Christian comrades in arms who are speaking into your life and listening to your heart day in and day out.
Hebrews 3:12–13 is so important. It says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another.” How is that going to happen now? You’ve got to obey this. “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
God has designed human beings so that no battle is to be fought alone, none. Jesus never sent anyone out on a solo reconnaissance mission — never. They were always two by two, and Paul’s missionary adventures were always in teams. We’re not designed to meet the enemy alone. The challenges of college are meant to be encountered arm in arm with fellow combatants.
Ask for Help
Fifth, live a life of prayer. That is, turn everything you read in Scripture, everything you hear in corporate worship, everything that is spoken into your life by your comrades — turn it all into prayer. That is, plead with God. Plead with God to work in you what you have seen in his word or heard from others founded on his word. Never presume that you can do anything on your own. Ask for God’s help ten times a day. Be weak in the presence of God so that you can be strong in the presence of men.
Make the Lord’s Prayer the outline of your daily cry. Cry out that God would make his name holy and revered and cherished and treasured above all things in your life and through your life and the lives of others. Plead with him to enable you to do his will the way the angels do it in heaven. Plead with him to lead you out of temptation and into righteousness as you extend his kingdom. Plead for the protection against the evil one, the enemy and all his schemes.
Yes, ask for your daily bread. Why? Just so that you can get on with the battle. It’s a glorious life in front of you. You have a great commander. Those are my five exhortations as you head off to school. So much more can be said, but I really believe if you make these five things a priority, God will guide you to all the help you need in all the things that I haven’t addressed.
Audio transcript of interview with Pastor John Piper