Stepping onto the college campus is truly unlike anything else. For your graduates, everything will be completely new and completely unknown. It will be incredibly exciting for them. But it can also be nerve-racking—especially when it comes to matters of faith. As your graduates look to their first fall semester on the college campus, they’ve probably already wrestled with questions like, What if a professor challenges my faith? What if I can’t find Christian community? What if I lose my way?
While these are daunting thoughts, they’re far from uncommon or unusual (you probably experienced them, too, when you were in college). Nonetheless, we know that the college experience is perhaps one of most pivotal moments in one’s spiritual formation. It can either break or make one’s faith.
I want to highlight three of the most relevant issues every high school graduate will likely face on campus, whether they end up going to a Christian university or a secular one. These three issues are doubt, community, and identity. And, there are specific steps that Christian educators and parents can take to set students up for success in these areas.
The Reality of Doubt
Your graduates need to realize that doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. Doubt, unfortunately, is too readily looked down upon in Christian cultures, but it can simply represent a fundamental gap in understanding—trying to reconcile what you do know with what you don’t know. How you deal with that doubt, however, can either be constructive or destructive.
Students typically gravitate to two polar extremes whenever they first encounter doubt: 1) they blow their doubt out of proportion by immediately conceding to the doubt and holistically labeling everything they have believed prior to be wrong; or 2) they ignore their doubt—even though they don’t know how to respond to it—by simply trying not to think about the topic at hand. In other words, they will either concede to their doubts (admitting doubts must be true), or cover over their doubts (deciding they must be hidden). Neither approach, of course, treats doubt for what it truly is, nor does it help your graduates grow.
Conversely, there are two healthy ways your graduates can approach doubt: 1) consider it, but not concede to it; and 2) engage it, and leverage it—meaning, they should strive to use an episode of doubt as a launch pad into a greater reasoning and better understanding. They should look at doubt as “intellectual opportunities” to constructively fill in the gaps in their understanding so that their faith can become stronger and better founded.
Unfortunately, the college environment has a tendency to give students’ doubts too much credit. As educators and parents, you can help by encouraging students to “play fair” in the game of doubt: namely, by doubting their doubts, as much as their doubts cause them to doubt their beliefs. That’s the only fair approach. So, when doubt rears its ugly head, they should be confidently alert, and not frighteningly alarmed.
The Necessity of Community
Perhaps the most important thing your graduates can do once they get to college is to look for a Christian community with which to connect. Loneliness in the first couple months at college is normal. Students need to realize that nearly everyone around them is feeling the same way that they are: they desire community, but they are likely struggling to find it.
So, exhort your graduates to reach out to others, plant seeds of intentionality, endure the loneliness even when it looks like there’s nothing “relational” sprouting to the surface, and toil with the social awkwardness…knowing that there will be a harvest of community eventually. It just takes time at a new place.
One way you can encourage your students to find good community is by advising them to Google search for local churches and campus ministries before they even move to campus. As someone who works in a college/young adult ministry, it’d be impossible for me to not get excited to hear from a new high school graduate who’s seeking more information about a church/ministry and trying to get plugged into community. If your students simply send an outreach email, any good church or campus ministry employee will take care of the rest, making sure they get plugged in—right from day one.
For Christian educators, I have two challenges for you to help your graduates find good, Christian community. First, if your students come to you with questions about churches, you need to be able to name a couple reputable churches in their college town off the top of your head (unless they’re going to college somewhere completely atypical from the rest of your students—in which case, you can likely do some quick research to find church prospects in the new area). And second, keep a working file that lists where your Christ-following alumni go to church while they are at college. Then, you’ll be able to easily connect your new graduates to the alumni who are continuing to follow Christ in college (talk about discipleship opportunities!)
The Importance of Identity
The notion of “identity” or self-worth is not new in college—it’s just exacerbated. When your students get to campus, they will immediately be tempted to find self-worth in a myriad of ways, including, but not limited to approval of others and academic achievement.
They must realize that the only life-giving source of self-worth is not found in their particular university, their GPA, their career path, their social media presence, their fraternity or sorority, their relationship status, their role at a church, or even their own degree of Christian morality. Self-worth based on personal performance or circumstance will always—without fail—lead to destruction. Why? Because a self-worth based on performance and circumstance is unstable and unreliable.
If you teach your graduates anything before they leave for college, they need to know that the only place where they can find a self-worth that is stable, reliable, and satisfying is through the gospel. Why? Because only in the gospel can you find a self-worth that is not based on performance or circumstance. It’s a self-worth based on Jesus’ grace and unconditional love for them. Only in Christ can your students have the ultimate approval, security, acceptance, and love of the One whose opinion truly matters most anyways.
How your graduates approach these three things—doubt, community, and identity—will dramatically shape their college experience. Before your graduates walk the commencement stage in a few weeks, exhort them yet again to trust and obey Jesus. They will have nothing to fear if they simply fear Him. And He will be with them every step, making their growth something beautiful for His glory, His kingdom, and their joy.
Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from Austin’s recent book, 10 Things Every Christian Should Know For College: A Student’s Guide on Doubt, Community & Identity, which is available on Amazon.
Note: This article was originally published in April of 2019, we are republishing in 2021 to bring new attention to this content.
About the Author
Austin Gentry is a High Point Christian Academy alumnus who has had a lifelong passion for engaging culture with the gospel. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he received his Master of Divinity. He currently serves as the Young Adults Pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. You can read more of Austin’s work at www.austingentry.com and connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram at @AustinGentry.