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3 Foundations for Entering Secular College

What in the world am I getting myself into? I’d wondered this other times before—like when I moved away from home, strapped on a backpack of science textbooks, and started secular college.

Growing up homeschooling in a Christian family, I’d heard the stories of the spiritual battles that can rage behind college classroom doors. I’d read the statistics of students who leave the church after barrages of unbiblical teachings shatter their faith. I’d watched the movies of churchgoing kids being swallowed alive by professors. Would the same fate await me? Over the following years, I pleasantly didn’t wind up on any pedagogues’ dinner tables. But I did face a barrage of faith-challenging messages:

“There is not a single piece of evidence against evolution.” “God did not create people—people created God.” “Jesus may not even have existed.”

How did my faith survive such a setting? The answer, for me, lay in strengthening and maintaining three types of foundations I’d been building since my early teens. While these foundations helped me keep my faith, I couldn’t help wondering how other Christian students kept theirs. To find out, I strapped on another backpack. My mission? To travel 360° around the world in 180 days interviewing Christian students about their university experiences. Before the journey, I wondered again: What in the world am I getting myself into? Global problems, global solutions.

As I traveled across cultures, I asked students, pastors, campus ministers, and university chaplains four questions: What are the challenges of being a Christian student here? What are the opportunities What’s your advice for a first-year Christian student? How can churches better support students? While answers to the first two questions varied by culture, the last two questions sounded remarkably similar. In other words, the problems Christians face at university look different in different cultures, but the solutions look virtually identical. So, focusing on these solutions could make a difference for the church’s future worldwide! They all come down to building the same three foundations I’d found essential in university.

More exciting still, history and research confirm these foundations don’t only apply to helping university students. Examine studies of church-raised youth, and you’ll find that teens who excel in these foundations tend to exhibit the strongest faith as young adults. Read stories of persecuted Christians, and you’ll notice they survived by strengthening these foundations. Look at world-changing Christians like William Wilberforce, a spearhead of the abolitionist movement, and you’ll find they too excelled in the same foundations.

The evidence is in: Three foundations can help any Christian keep a solid biblical worldview in tough environments—and apply that worldview to impact their surroundings. So what are those foundations, and how can students maintain them throughout university? Let’s take a look.

Photo credit: ©Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

1. Spiritual Foundations: A Close Personal Walk with Jesus

1. Spiritual Foundations: A Close Personal Walk with Jesus

For students to keep their faith during college, they need to have a personal faith in the first place. They need their own relationship with Jesus, their own desire to know God, and their own biblical worldview. That means youth need the discipline to approach all of life from a biblical perspective, basing their everyday thinking and decisions on God’s Word. This kind of Christ-centered lifestyle isn’t a Sunday ritual but an active, vibrant walk with God that impacts every part of life.

How can churches and families help inspire youth to pursue this kind of deep, holistic relationship with God? Looking back, I can see a couple of elements that played significant roles in my own spiritual foundation-building.

First, while walking with God is a personal choice that parents cannot make for their kids, I appreciated how my parents modeled their own walks with God in a way that created a family culture of discipleship. When we’d start each weekday with worship and Scripture, end each day with devotionals, or serve others as a family, I knew my parents weren’t going through hollow motions but pursuing life as it’s meant to be lived: a life of love for God and others. Second, my family encouraged my faith by reading missionary biographies. As I began consuming these stories on my own as a teenager, I wanted to know God like those believers did. Tales of ordinary people who walked with an extraordinary God inspired me to take my own devotional and prayer life more seriously, driving my faith to the next level.

Once students are inspired to build spiritual foundations, how can they continue strengthening those foundations throughout university? As with strengthening any relationship, the answer lies in consistent communication. Reading Scripture lets us receive communication from God, while worship and prayer let us communicate to God. Here are a few tips for students seeking to bolster these disciplines:

Prayer: Because we belong to a God who cares about us completely—right down to the details of everyday student life, we can constantly turn our worries, thoughts, and feelings to him in prayer. Along with this ongoing attitude of prayer, remember to set aside some daily time specifically to pray. You’ll likely find that by doing so, you wind up with more time for other pursuits as God gives you wisdom to navigate the day. (See also: 10 Ways to Amp Up Your Prayer Life.)

Worship: As Christ-followers, we can approach every task as worship by completing it out of love for God (Colossians 3:23). With this mindset, school becomes a form of worship too. Other ways to embrace a worshipful lifestyle include kicking off the day with praise, keeping worship songs playing in your mind throughout the day, and taking study breaks to sing or play an instrument.

Scripture: By filling ourselves with God’s word, we become equipped to recognize lies, resist temptations, and live as lights for Christ—all vital practices for surviving and thriving in college! In addition to taking daily time to study God’s word, you can soak up Scripture by listening to audio Bibles or Bible-reading podcasts while you cook, clean, commute, or exercise. You can also post verses where you’ll see them for encouragement throughout the day.

Photo credit: © Unsplash/Nathan Dumlao

2. Intellectual Foundations: Apologetics and Critical Thinking Skills

2. Intellectual Foundations: Apologetics and Critical Thinking Skills

Even when students know messages which oppose Scripture must be false, unbiblical messages can still sound incredibly persuasive in the college environment. After all, students often hear these messages repeated by intelligent professors in classrooms where everyone else seems to take those teachings for granted. While none of these factors can make a false message true, they can make messages incredibly persuasive.

To combat this barrage of convincing—but false—messages, students need strong intellectual foundations. These include two components: apologetics training and critical thinking skills.

Apologetics, the field of study which examines why biblical Christianity makes rational sense, answers questions like, “How can we tell the Bible is true? Does science contradict Scripture? Is Jesus really God? And how do other religions compare to Christianity?” Learning answers to such questions prepare students to defend their faith against common attacks at university and better share the Gospel.

But no matter how many answers students learn, they’ll never completely run out of questions because they will always be encountering new information. So, students must be able to think like apologists. They need critical thinking skills to process new information and discern biblical, logical answers themselves. These skills include recognizing faulty logic, identifying false information, and separating facts from assumptions.

Here are a few tips to help students build their critical thinking and apologetics bases:

Learning apologetics: Tons of free websites, videos, books, podcasts, and other resources from solid biblical ministries exist to help you answer tough questions about your faith. By taking advantage of these resources for even a few minutes a day, you’ll be armed with answers to scores of questions within months. Just make sure those resources begin from a firm foundation in Scripture without trying to wrangle ideas from outside the Bible into a Christian worldview.

(PS – as a student, I especially loved large apologetics websites where I could type questions into the search boxes and find free answers fast. I didn’t always have time to read entire articles, but I gained confidence just from seeing that thoughtful answers existed.)

Critical thinking: An especially helpful critical thinking hack is to ask, “Is this message true or false because…?” For instance, is a message true because it came from an intelligent professor, sounded eloquent, or many people believe it? Not necessarily. With this technique, students can outsmart countless logical errors called fallacies of irrelevant premises without memorizing the fallacies’ technical names. (You can see a list of other critical thinking tools that I found helpful as a student here.)

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes

3. Interpersonal Foundations: A Strong Christian Support Network

3. Interpersonal Foundations: A Strong Christian Support Network

This final foundation type surfaced especially often in my conversations with students. In every culture, the same message resounded: students need godly communities around them, including family, friends, local church, and older mentors. I regularly heard students express the value of connecting with campus ministries—assuming those ministries truly teach and live out the Bible. But students also need connections with the broader body of Christ outside their peer groups. That’s where local churches come in.

A retired professor I interviewed memorably noted, “Not attending church is the biggest mistake students make.” But research suggests that students who don’t plug into a church within a month of leaving home are less likely to attend church during university at all. So, it’s vital to connect with a biblical church early. Ideally, churches will also serve as places where students can meet mentors—older adults willing to personally disciple, support, and encourage students. Mentorship doesn’t have to be intimidating or time-consuming. It can look as formal as meeting regularly to discuss spiritual development or as casual as visiting after church on Sunday.

Here are some tips for building interpersonal foundations:

Seek community: Whether you’re searching for a campus ministry, church family, or mentors, remember the #1 criterion to look for is BIBLICAL TEACHING AND PRACTICE. People and communities which rock cool appearances or offer entertainment might be fun to be around, but fun alone won’t sustain you for the spiritual battlefield of university. So, the most important question is whether communities truly teach, believe, and live out the Bible.

Find mentors: An easy way to forge connections with older adults is to seek friends outside your age group. For instance, you could stick around after church to visit godly seniors, seek ways to serve (and serve alongside) older adults, or simply find an adult you’d like to emulate and ask if they’d be game to meet.

Pray: Ask God to connect you with the right Christian contacts. He knows who you need to cross paths with to thrive at university—and beyond.

Ready for Battle

There you have it: three foundations which biblical principles, empirical research, and Christian students worldwide attest are vital for surviving and thriving in university. Spiritual foundations keep students connected to their Power Source, intellectual foundations help students defend their worldview, and interpersonal connections remind students they’re not alone. With these foundations, students can strap on their backpacks knowing that whatever they’re getting themselves into, they have everything they need to navigate college with Christ—and to come out even stronger.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent to views of Answers in Genesis CA.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Darwin Brandis

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