This is one of the most exciting times of your life. You are moving out of mom and dad’s house. You’re done with answering to curfew. And you are meeting more new people and getting to know them better than you ever have.
But I know you are also really anxious. You’re afraid that you won’t get along with your roommate. You’re afraid you won’t be able to pay the bills. You’re scared that you won’t fit in. You don’t know what to do when your car breaks down, your bank account is empty, or even when your clothes need washed. Most of all, you’re afraid that you will disappoint people when you don’t live up to expectations.
The good news is that you aren’t the first one to do this. Lots of students have started and graduated college. You will too, as long as you do your best work and turn it in on time. I know you are worried about classes, graduation, and your first job.
But I’m more concerned with what some sociologists refer to as your “identity lockbox”. Some students think that college is a time to set aside their commitments to family, faith, and ethics while they live a life without consequences. That is a myth. You can’t lock your faith in Jesus, your commitment to holiness, and your commitment to charity in a safe and just pull them out when you are 22 and pretend like those drunken nights (and weeks) never happened.
The ways that you live now are highly likely to be the ways you will live when you graduate. Are you so focused on work that you neglect friends? Are you so busy that you fail to take time for rest? Have you found yourself paying less attention to the dignity of your friend than you do her measurements? Do you set aside your commitment to worshipping God so that you can recover from a night of partying? These things aren’t likely to go away when you replace 16 hours of class with 45 hours of work. So start practicing now for the life you want later.
Don’t just survive your college years with your faith intact, but make this the greatest time of your faith growth you have ever known. There are two practices that are central to making that happen.
First, public worship is not optional for a Christian. People often talk about “worshipping God in nature” or some other pseudo-pious nonsense. That is just another way of saying, “I don’t need the wisdom of the church.” “I got this.” Neither of which is true. Worshipping God in nature is great if you have also worshipped Him in the sanctuary. In fact, unless you go to the sanctuary you won’t even know how to properly worship Him in nature. So do yourself a favor and commit to (at least) weekly public worship. College is a good time to explore worship in churches that you’ve never been to before. Just make sure you make a habit of being there.
Secondly, and this is closely tied to the first, immerse yourself in a community of faithful Christians. Even if you try churches for a while, you quickly need to get grounded with a few Christians. The reason some Christians grow enormously in college is because of the deep relationships that you form in college. (More on this in my post, “Dorm Room Discipleship.”) You will eat meals, take classes, brush your teeth, and watch movies with the same group of people. Find a community of people that are serious about God. Covenant with one another to challenge and encourage one another. Avoid putting an image up for them to see and just let your authentic self come through at least for this small group.
If you will keep just these two practices, you may be surprised how naturally the rest of your commitments come. And let me tell you that you are much more likely to disappoint yourself with your faith commitments than your academic ones. Unless you just make some ridiculous choices about coursework, you aren’t going to fail or lose that scholarship. But if you don’t make some decisions now about prioritizing your faith, there is a good chance that you’ll lose something even more valuable than your scholarships. And it may not be as easy to pull those out of the “lockbox” as you think.
There is one last thing. I’ve studied a lot. I’ve read a lot. And let me tell you that there will be some people, both professors and students, that act like your religious beliefs are outdated and irrational. And maybe your current beliefs are irrational. Not every church in America does an equally good job of helping you arrive at coherent beliefs about God and the world he has made. But I’ve studied enough to tell you that there is absolutely nothing illogical about belief and faith in the Christian God. If you start to doubt the integrity of Christian belief, then do yourself a favor and don’t give up on it until you find someone able to answer your questions with the best of Christian theology. The questions we face today are complex. But there is no reason to think that belief in the Christian God makes less sense than other accounts of the world in which we live.
I’m praying for you. I won’t stop. And I’ll always be here when you need to work through these questions. God’s about to do a good work in your life.
Grace and Peace,
I recently had a very popular “open letter” to the parents of a college freshman. This letter gives a little of what I tell my students every year. Check out the earlier letter here: “To the Parents of a College Chaplain: An Open Letter from Their Chaplain”
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