News about Christian college students leaving their Christian faith has once again made the rounds this month. The underlying study actually focuses mostly on church involvement, not beliefs, but the whole topic resonates with the fears of College Prep Parents who follow Christ. Will college cause my child to lose their faith in God, their walk with God, or their interest in the church?
I spent many years in college ministry, and it’s clear that “college prep” plays an enormous role in spiritual success, just as it does in academic and emotional success. Here are four ways parents of high school kids can prepare their kids to thrive spiritually in college, and to graduate while still walking with the Lord.
1. Don’t Make Church Attendance (or Other Behaviors) the Goal
A College Prep Parent should make sure their child knows that attending church isn’t the same as being close to God. I start with this note for a couple of reasons.
For college-bound kids, it’s important that they don’t ever get the impression that “going to church” is the goal. A behavior (whether church attendance or something else) can’t substitute for a real-life relationship with our Creator. Besides, plenty of college kids still attend church faithfully but then make bad decisions all week long.
For parents, it’s important not to act like a kid is walking with God just because they show up at a Christian building – not in college, and not in high school either. A parent who assumes his high schooler is “on the right track” because they don’t fight the family’s church habit doesn’t truly know whether their child is following God, following their parents, following their friends, or simply “going along to get along.” The same is true for a kid who “doesn’t get in trouble” or completes God-related assignments from their youth group leaders, parents, or teachers (if they go to a Christian high school).
A College Prep Parent who wants their child to thrive spiritually in college will dig a little deeper.
2. Help Your Kid “Own Their Faith” ASAP
While church involvement and other actions are important parts of one’s spiritual life, the main hope for a Christian parent should be a child with a personal, ongoing relationship with God. And that means making their spirituality their “own” as early as possible.
Many kids from Christian homes enter college having never truly “taken God personally,” and it shows. All of their supposed spirituality was connected to things their family did, their Christian school did, their Christian friends did, their church or youth group did, and so on. Instead of Christian people and institutions supplementing these kids’ spiritual lives, they supplied them. And in college, those crutches are mostly absent.
You’ve probably heard the stereotype of kids who arrive at college without ever having cooked a meal on their own. (You might say these students have never “taken dinner personally.”) They never had to practice the skills, get used to the effort, or make the time to keep themselves fed (let alone nourished!). College is a rude awakening – complete with many empty wallets, gained pounds, and vegetable-less weeks.
The same is true for a person’s spiritual walk. Many Christian kids are trying to “cook up their faith” by themselves for the first time on a campus full of strangers, in the midst of all sorts of challenges and temptations.
So how can a College Prep Parent build spiritual ownership well before that day? That topic alone could take an entire article, but a few broad tips include:
- Talk to your child regularly about their spiritual walk – like a brother or sister in Christ (a peer), instead of just a parent. If you haven’t ever had these kinds of conversations, start simply… but simply start.
- Let your near-adult make spiritual choices, even bad ones. Yes, you might have to step in occasionally, but beware of short-circuiting the opportunity for your child to struggle against sin, make important decisions, explore different varieties of spiritual growth, etc. – while still under your roof. (In other words, the temptation to be a “helicopter parent” or “lawnmower parent” can play out in spiritual preparation too!)
- Challenge them to choose their own ways to grow. Yes, they should be growing – healthy Christians keep growing. But yes, they should be the ones deciding how to grow (with the Lord’s guidance, of course).
- Make sure you provide an example of pursuing a relationship with God, not just Christian activity. If you haven’t provided a great example of spiritual growth, confess that – yes, you can ask your kid for forgiveness! – and then move forward together. Your kid will remember your example, even if it’s an example of newfound effort.
3. Prepare Your Kid for Challenges to Their Faith
I get annoyed when Christian leaders focus too much on “the spiritual darkness of college.” But the truth is, your kid will likely face serious challenges to his or her faith during their college years. Two kinds of challenges await:
- Mental challenges that make college students wonder if what they have believed is true
- Moral challenges that make them want to believe it’s not true
Yes, plenty of Christian kids are bewildered by brilliant professors or smart classmates who attack their biblical beliefs head-on. But plenty of Christian kids also face new temptations to sin, making it oh-so-convenient to start doubting God and His goodness. (And before you think that kids at Christian schools are “safe” from these challenges, think again – strong Christian environments still have their own versions of these two challenges.)
To prepare a college-bound kid for these challenges, it’s helpful to think of two “tethers” that keep collegians connected to their Christian faith: the heart-tether and the head-tether. The section above is the key to building a strong heart-tether; a student with a deep, personal relationship with God is much less likely to throw it away when it’s challenged. (But see my additional note below.)
As for the “head-tether,” that involves deepening the understanding of the truths behind our faith. Students should be exposed to evidences for their faith before they face major intellectual challenges. But don’t miss this: The main point of learning “apologetics” (the defense of the Christian faith) isn’t to provide answers for every possible question. (In fact, most high school kids aren’t ready for college-level apologetics anyway). The main point of apologetics training is to help students understand that there are good answers out there, that brilliant women and men have concluded that Christianity is true for very good reasons. They learn about websites, books, and people who can help when a real-life challenge arises. When a student does face college-level arguments, they’ll have some idea of where to turn, whom to talk to, or what to Google to find excellent responses and intellectual encouragement.
On the other hand, here’s one more important note on the “heart-tether”: You can help prepare your child for moral challenges to their faith – by mustering the courage to discuss specific situations with your kid. From drinking alcohol (both while it’s illegal and once it’s legal), to choosing whom to date, to opportunities to have sex, to choosing friends, to drugs, to standing up for their beliefs, to the weird forms of peer pressure that make it easier to use bad language, party, slack off, cheat, or otherwise be stupid along with everyone else… the upcoming assault on your kid’s moral reasoning is worth chatting about before they have to make those choices.
Your college-bound kid may think your invitation to “role play” or simply talk through options is awkward. (And it will be!) But it’s likely they’ll be grateful the first time they have to make an on-the-spot decision in their brand-new environment.
4. Prepare Your Kid to Have & Use Community
Just as my dad has encouraged building a “college prep team” for the academic side of college preparation, your kid will need a spiritual community throughout college. This should include as many of the following as possible:
- Older Christ-followers who can provide wisdom from experience (parents are welcome to apply for this job, though you’ll want other adults on the team as well)
- Longtime Christian friends, even if they don’t happen to attend the same college
- A loving church family back home
- New Christian friends in college
- A loving church family in college
- A vibrant college ministry, either at that church or otherwise
- True confidants (“accountability partners”) who ask penetrating questions and whom your child is willing to share deep things with
Does your kid currently have people they share their lives with – including their anxieties, temptations, sin struggles, and prayer requests? If so, then they’re in a great position to survive the crucible of college. Does your kid enjoy your church, and understand why Christians are supposed to gather together? Then they’re much more likely to choose a church (and attend) in college. Has anyone in your kid’s life even mentioned finding a college ministry as soon as they arrive on campus? They won’t know to look for one unless they know such ministries exist! Does your kid have “smart believers” to contact when they face intellectual challenges to their faith? Then they’ll be much less likely to wilt in the face of those strong arguments. Does your kid have Christ-following friends and family they’ll see whenever they visit their hometown? Then they’ll be encouraged to take ground, instead of losing ground, during breaks from college too.
College Prep Parent, you have the chance to play an important role in all this, even as you prepare to entrust your child with God, in a new way, during the college years. Plenty of Christian kids thrive spiritually at school – it’s going to be exciting to see yours do the same!