Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. – James 1:2-4
Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, you’ve probably noticed that young people have been dropping out of the church in record numbers. Polls, studies, and reasonable observation show that, especially among the college educated, religious affiliation all together is on the decline. As many as 70% of high school students who attend church will drop out by their sophomore year of college1. Some of that percentage will return later on, but many will not.
In light of that alarming statistic, what can young Christians bound for college do to prepare themselves for that daunting test of faith?
Check out and share these fifteen specific steps to help students prepare for their first year away from home:
Step 1: Be a Christian before College
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! – 2 Corinthians 13:5
In order to stay a Christian, you have to be a Christian.
This is actually where a lot of those statistics are probably misleading. Just because someone is from a Christian family or goes to Youth Group doesn’t mean they’re actually a believer. God has no grandchildren. No one belongs to Christ by virtue of their parents, their siblings, their habits, or anything else. You can’t lose something if you’ve never had it.
Being a Christian means that you personally believe that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who died on a cross to pay the penalty for your sins and was resurrected on the third day as the victorious, risen Savior and Lord over all—including Lord and King over your entire life. To be a Christian is to be forgiven by Jesus and joyfully surrendered to Him, living by His Holy Spirit and being transformed by Him.
Real faith in Jesus as your only hope to stand before a righteous and holy God is not something that gets squashed by a post-modern, anti-God educational institution.
Step 2: Expect to be Tested
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. – 1 Peter 4:12-13
Have you noticed that the whole conversation about ‘staying a Christian in college’ seems to assume that trials themselves are unnatural and somehow new? Here is a perspective shift: God actually wants your faith to be tested so that you will grow in maturity. The particular nature of the trial and its apparent effectiveness may be new, but the testing of your faith is something God actually really cares about. Don’t be fooled into thinking it will be tested just in college either! College may be a particularly challenging crucible, but the testing of your faith will continue for the rest of your life. That is actually a part of God’s plan and He will use it to grow and refine you.
Step 3: Expect to be Different
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. – Philippians 2:14-15
This is where the rubber meets the road for many people. To follow Christ makes you different. It may not have been very noticeable in your life before now, but it will stand out more and more at different stages of your life, and particularly in college.
Make a commitment to yourself not to be surprised when you are different. When you are the only person who affirms the truth in a classroom. When you are the only person not willing to cheat in an exam. When you are the only person not interested in the same activities on a Saturday night. You will be different. Prepare to not fit in and find your security in Christ and not in your new environment.
Step 4: Find a Community of Believers
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:24-25
This point goes hand in hand with the last one. In preparing to not fit in, find a place where you do fit. Everyone needs to feel loved and accepted and like a part of a community where they can let down their guard. If you don’t intentionally find one that glorifies God, you will eventually find one that doesn’t. God made the body of Christ to work together for a reason—don’t forego it!
Your fellowship doesn’t have to be huge. When you do find a group, invite your believing friends! They need the fellowship as well as you do and you can help to encourage each other. Be invested in encouraging the faith of others. If the League has been an encouragement to you, invite your friends! We all need good fellowship and good resources, so take advantages of the ones you have.
Step 5: Do Not Dabble in Sin
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. – 1 John 2:15-16
This is a big one. Ask any Christian apologist and they can give you wonderful arguments for the rationality and reasonableness of the Christian faith. That knowledge is precious to those who believe, but it very rarely convinces a skeptic to. Why?
Because belief in the Bible’s portrayal of God is loaded. It comes with it a call to obey, to surrender, to follow, and particularly to turn from sin. Many people aren’t interested in Christianity, not because they’ve been convinced that it’s not true, but because they don’t want it to be.
As a Christian leaving home for the first time, you cannot think that this is a good time to dabble in sin (there never is). Indulging the flesh, even in small ways, makes it stronger and harder to overcome the next time. The more you fall in love with sin, the more invested you will become in justifying it. The more you try to justify sin, the more resentful, instead of grateful, you will be of God.
So don’t go there. It’s not worth it.
Step 6: Spend time with God! Read the Scripture
The law of the Lord is perfect,[c]
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb. – Psalm 19:7;10
Your relationship with God is in some ways no different than your relationships with anyone else. All relationships are either growing or waning; there is no such thing as standing still.
In the same way, if you want to maintain a good relationship with God, you have to invest in it. Spend time in the Word just to know God better. Read to hear what He meant for the words to say. Read to know God.
At the same time, by knowing the scriptures, God will give you answers to the challenges being posed to you even before you encounter them. He will give you comfort; He will give you company; He will give you wisdom. If you’re not sure where to go first, try a Bible study like This Book is Alive.
Step 7: Spend time with God! Pray without Ceasing
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:28-30
In the same way as time spent in the Word, don’t forget the wonderful privilege we have to pray! The Lord tells you to cast “all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7) That is a gift! The King of the universe wants to hear your concerns and your joys, all the time.
In addition to being your constant companion in prayer, He also commands you to pray for your enemies. These may not be the obvious, armor-clad enemies of old, they may look like a disheveled professor or a popular student. Maybe that offensive, antagonistic teacher you have is actually fertile soil for the Word of God! Maybe God is drawing that most difficult of persons to Himself and what looks like aggressiveness is actually thirst for the one true God. And even if not, God has still called you to pray for that person so He can soften your heart and do His work in you.
So give God your cares, all the time, and pray for those who persecute you.
Step 8: Spend time with God! Away from distraction
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. – Psalm 19:1
There’s no doubt that we often hear best from God in solitude. Make a habit of spending time with God alone, even if it’s only for a few minutes. College can be a wonderful sensory overload of people all the time, but it is good for you to be alone sometimes. The busier you are, the more you probably need this.
If you have the opportunity, spend time alone with God in a natural place, like the forest or a park. The things that God made testify to who He is! God uses them to refresh us.
Step 9: Share the Gospel
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 5:14-16
You know what will make you the most convinced and excited about the Gospel? Telling it to someone else.
Have you ever heard the quote “the best defense is a good offense”? Well it applies to protecting your faith in college. Share the Gospel. Let God use you for what He wants to use you for. Be obedient to what He has called you to. Care about the salvation of your friends and those around you.
You weren’t given the good news of Jesus’ loving sacrifice so that you could keep it a secret.
If you’re not sure where to begin, start by ordering Pocket Gospels for your friends. Show them the intro at the beginning and then encourage them to do the 21-Day Challenge with you. Evangelism Boot Camp will help you feel more comfortable and prepared. Fit the gospel into papers you are assigned and projects. It will keep you from developing a compartmentalized worldview, and hey, you might get to build your Christian fellowship when more people come to Christ!
Step 10: Know the Truth
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. – Colossians 2:8
In order to be able to stand your ground, it is important that you know why you believe what you believe. You’ll be happy to know that the Christian faith has a solid foundation. Learn the facts. If you can manage it, take an online apologetics course before college or during your first semester. This will give you confidence that what you believe is not silly or unreasonable. If you can’t manage a class, try reading a book like “The Case for Christ” or watching Youtube videos from Christian teachers. Learn five reasons why the Bible is the most important book on earth. Study the Bible and pray that God will show you what He is saying so that you are “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Also remember though that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). This means that even if you have all the best facts and knowledge, not everyone will ‘get it’.
Step 11: Be Skeptical of the Skeptics
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools. – Romans 1:21-22
Do not assume your professors or anyone else knows what they’re talking about. At least on matters of God. That may seem like an unreasonable thing to say, but there is no reason why expertise on one subject means authority in another. College professors are five times more likely to profess atheism than the general public2 and over 50% of them acknowledge that they are more opposed to Biblical Christianity than any other worldview3. Don’t think that they’re objective.
People who don’t believe, whether they are in positions of authority or not, are quick to say things like, “the Bible has been disproved” (what does that even mean?) or “Jesus never even said…” (followed by things that He definitely very clearly said). If you know God and you know His word, those things will stand out instantly as completely unsupported and unacademic. If you don’t, you’ll just swallow them wholesale.
Step 12: Leave Room for Uncertainty
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. – 1 Corinthians 2:2
Don’t be afraid to not know everything. It is good to try and be prepared and have biblical answers for common critiques of Christianity, but if you can’t answer someone’s question about what a certain scripture means or why something is the way it is, that’s okay. Not knowing Hebrew or Greek or where Mount Ararat is doesn’t mean that He didn’t die on the cross for your sins. He did. And it’s okay to tell someone that you don’t know the answer to something else or that you’ll get back to them. Ask God and He may teach you the answer that day or He may not. Just don’t confuse not knowing specific things with whether or not the Gospel is true. It is.
Step 13: Stay in Contact with Family
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one's youth. – Psalm 127:3-4
You know who’s going to be around when you’re finished with school? Your family. You know who is going to love you and care about you no matter what? Your family. You know who is also going to be able to keep you grounded in who you are in Christ? If they are believers, probably no one better than your family.
Many people see college as an opportunity to become a whole new person, but that’s really a strange idea. You should change and grow in college and for the rest of your life, but if your plan for college is to become an unrecognizable person from who you were when you left, that’s a little weird. Staying close to your family will help you recognize how much you are changing and whether or not it is in good ways. They will help you notice how you are being influenced so that you can assess yourself. And if they’re anything like you, they’re probably good people anyway!
Step 14: Write a Confession of Faith
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. – 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
For centuries, believers have written out doctrinal statements in the face of controversy, to affirm what they know to be true and help divide it from what is false.
Before you leave for school, write out an explanation of what you believe and what God has done in your life. Include a list of standards for yourself that you will abide by. Review that confession! When you are tempted or disoriented, look it over. Check it periodically to see if your convictions have changed and then search yourself to find out why. A perhaps greater problem that the church is facing is not young people choosing to leave the faith, but people who still think they’re in it but believe none of the essential Christian teachings about anything.
Have your beliefs changed? Are they more in line with scripture and do they come from a greater appreciation of God? Good! Are you less impressed with God and His word or have your moral standards for yourself lowered? You might want to check yourself.
Step 15: Finally, Don’t be Afraid
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. – Philippians 1:6
Do you trust Jesus with your eternal salvation before God? Than ask Him for the grace to endure college and trust that He will give it to you! He will give you the grace day by day, the same way He will for every task that you will face for the rest of your life.
Remember that the goal isn’t just ‘how can I get through college and still believe that these things are true’. Being a Christian isn’t just about mental assent. It is about a whole life bent on Christ by the transforming power of His Spirit.
So the true secret to staying a Christian in college, or anywhere else for that matter, is to be one.
Being a Christian means being saved by the blood of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit. It means loving and walking with God, abiding in Him. It means obeying and serving Him, compelled by His love to look more like Him every day and to share Him with others.
If that is your honest pursuit—to serve and glorify God in every part of your life—your faith will not only survive college, it will flourish.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
Please help us encourage more Christian students with these 15 Tips to Keeping your Faith in College by sharing this article in your next social media post!
1 Stetzer, Ed, Daniel Im, Kevin G. Harney, and Carole Sparks. "Dropouts and Disciples: How many students are really leaving the church?" The Exchange | A Blog by Ed Stetzer. Accessed June 21, 2017. http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/may/dropouts-and- disciples-how-many-students-are-really-leaving.html.
2 Gross, Neil, and Solon Simmons. "The Religious Convictions of College and University Professors." The American University in a Postsecular Age, 2008, 19-30.
3 Tobin, Gary A., and Aryeh K. Weinberg. "Volume II: Religious Beliefs and Behavior of College Faculty." Profiles of the American University, 2007. http://www.jewishresearch.org/PDFs2/FacultyReligion07.pdf.