Cultivating Godliness in College

We have all heard the horror stories. Some of us have been the horror stories. A student grows up in a Bible-believing church where she has professed faith in Christ and participated in a myriad of programs designed to help nurture her in that faith. By the time she graduates from high school, she has been to church camp a half dozen times, participated in two mission trips, signed a True Love Waits card, and accumulated enough Christian t-shirts to “wear her witness” for a month.

She then goes off to college, where our freshman is faced with a number of temptations, some of which were not even on her radar in high school. There are the obvious vices like sex and drugs, both of which manage to find their way onto even the best of college campuses. There is also a new sense of freedom; gone are the days of asking for permission to go to a particular event, checking in with mom and dad about changes in plans, or (at many schools) being home in time for curfew. If a collegian is not careful, this newfound freedom can lead to newfound compromise.

Another more subtle temptation is busyness. There are countless activities in which to be involved including clubs, athletics, campus ministries, parties, pep rallies, concerts, informal gatherings with friends, etc. Many of these are worthy pursuits, but if a student is not disciplined with his time, the sheer number of possible activities can choke out his spiritual life by leaving little time to pursue a stronger walk with God.

All too often these and other temptations overcome the Christian student, and before long he has ceased attending a local church (if he ever did), is uninvolved or only half-heartedly involved in a campus ministry, is nurturing habits that are questionable at best and blatantly sinful at worst, and is hanging out with folks who he would have never considered befriending in high school. And he is not making these new friends so that he can share the gospel with them.

Every year thousands of Christian students enroll in college and downplay, redefine, or walk away from their faith. It really does not matter whether the college is a secular university or a Christian private school; threats to the faith abound at both, though the dangers manifest themselves differently on every campus. But college does not have to be the reef upon which one’s faith is shipwrecked. There are many ways students can actively cultivate personal godliness on even the most hostile of college campuses. Let me suggest some strategies for cultivating godliness during the college years.

First and foremost, every student needs to cultivate his or her personal walk with God through spiritual disciplines such as regular personal Bible study, Scripture memorization, private prayer, fasting, and personal evangelism. None of these other suggestions will get very far if a student is unconcerned with personal spiritual growth, even when nobody but God is watching.

Second, collegians need to become vitally involved in a local church. This may seem obvious to many readers, but it is surprising how counter-cultural a notion church membership is to some young adults. But there is almost nothing as important as committed involvement in a Bible-believing church. The vast majority of the time that the word ekklesia appears in the New Testament, it is referring to a local congregation of believers. It is among local churches that Christians covenant with each other and commit to hold each other accountable. It is among local churches that the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are observed. It is among local churches that seasoned believers are able to mentor and encourage younger Christ-followers. I greatly appreciate parachurch campus ministries and dorm Bible studies (as will be clear below), but there is simply no substitute for active membership in a local church.

Third, many students should consider becoming involved in a campus ministry devoted to reaching and discipling collegians. This is especially true of students attending a college where none of the nearby local churches are interested in having a meaningful ministry among college-aged adults (unfortunately, it happens). Some of the better campus ministries include Campus Crusade for Christ, Campus Outreach, The Navigators, Baptist Collegiate Ministries, and Reformed University Fellowship. The quality of each of these ministries varies from school to school, so students should do their homework before signing on with a particular group.

Fourth, collegians need to establish a network of accountability. This network can come from a local church or a campus ministry, and ideally it involves two different levels. The first level is a peer group, whether it is a Sunday School class, dorm Bible study, or a campus ministry-sponsored small group. What matters is that the student feels the freedom to confess his struggles and commit to receiving godly counsel from fellow believers. The second level is a mentoring relationship with an older Christian who has “been in the shoes” of a college student. All too often this type of relationship is missing in the lives of Christian students. Many churches offer the opportunity for interested collegians to be pared with a mature believer who can combine biblical counsel and a good free meal from time to time.

Fifth, students need to read good books. Fortunately, most college students are in the habit of reading anyway, so they are often open to reading edifying books, even if they only have time to read a couple of extra books a year. Furthermore, there are some authors like Jerry Bridges and John Piper whose books are both enormously popular with collegians and in many cases are written with college-aged adults in mind. Other solid authors who seem to be fashionable among collegians (at least the ones I know) include J. I. Packer, John Stott, Mark Dever, A. W. Tozer, C. J. Mahaney, Tim Keller, and Tullian Tchividjian. Also helpful, especially if you are struggling with your faith on a secular campus, are the apologetic works of authors like J. P. Moreland, James Sire, Peter Kreeft, and Lee Strobel.

Finally, collegians need to maintain as close contact as possible with their families and home churches (assuming they have moved away to attend school). It is easy to virtually walk away from your pre-college life when you move off to a new community and begin school. But students need to continue to nurture close relationships with their parents (especially those with Christian parents) and their childhood churches. These relationships are reminders of God’s past grace, and during difficult times in college, can be reminders of God’s faithfulness and future grace.

College does not have to be a roadblock to Christian growth or the end of faith itself; in fact, many non-Christian students first meet Jesus Christ during their college years. But there is no denying that for many young believers, college is anything but a means of grace in their Christian lives. Fortunately, this does not have to be the case. If collegians are willing to take the initiative in actively cultivating godliness during their college years, then this period of life can be filled with spiritual milestones, greatly influencing the type of Christian man or woman the student is becoming.

So if you are a Christian collegian, let me urge you to pursue a stronger walk with God, even as you pursue your degree. And if you are the parent of a Christian student (or future student), encourage him to make the most of his college years for the sake of the gospel and not squander this critically important season of his life. I would also recommend that all Christian college students or future collegians (and parents!) read J. Budziszewski’s How To Stay Christian in College (NavPress, 2004).

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  1. Josh Gussler   •  

    Great post. I am a college student that has a heart for other college students. I live with the struggles that you discuss in the article everyday. What is even scarier is that I go to a Christian college studying ministry and I am taught the word of God every day and it makes it hard for me to come home and take time for personal bible study. I believe that college students are a lost demographic in churches. The church does so well with Children and Youth and older adults but completely miss what I think is one of the most important chapters in someone’s life. It is where we being to define who we are on our own and if we leave it to a college campus to define us where does that leave us.

  2. Elizabeth   •  

    This is a wonderful post. As someone who came to know Christ as a college freshman ten years ago, I found that the churches local to my campus were uninterested in ministering to college students. In fact, when asked about this, one pastor said that this was because college students tended to be transient and the church did not want to invest their resources into ministering to those who would not be around in four years. Thank you for bringing to light the need for a mutually affirming relationship between the college student and the local church.

  3. Aaron Robb   •  

    Great post. My biggest concern is that our High School students aren’t being equipped for the college world at all. We need to be putting our High School youth through a spiritual “boot camp” that focuses on defining and knowing what a Christian worldview is, introducing them in High School to the great writers of the faith, being able to articulate and understand basic apologetics, and how to have a growing and vital quiet time. We are really failing our Christian students in these areas. Thanks again for a great post and terrific insights.

  4. alvin reid   •  

    Nice work, Nathan. I have met so many casualties. Sad. I would only add that we must do so incredibly much better on preparing them before they get there. If we take the posture that our role in the home and church is to raise adults (i.e., raise our children to become adults) rather than raise children who need to stay children as long as possible, they may indeed be more prepared for college.
    Of course, there is the other caveat that a great number of evangelical students are opting for evangelical schools to do their undergrad work. Just thought I would throw that in to plug our wonderful college :-).

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